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Black women need to be heard on health issues

By Atima Omara-Alwala   |   Sept. 7, 2012 at 12:27 PM   |   Comments

{WOMENSENEWS}-- "Ain't I a Woman?" This question is attributed to Sojourner Truth's speech at a women's convention in 1851. And it's a question that's still relevant to African American women in 2012, as demonstrated by first lady Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention this week where she touched upon health care and women's choices.

When it comes to women's health and rights, more black women need to be a part of the conversation. We have to be included in discussions on health because women of color regardless of class are disproportionately affected by major health crises affecting U.S. women.

African American women are nearly four times more likely to die of pregnancy-related complications than white women.

Nationally, black women account for 66 percent of new cases of HIV among women.

HIV/AIDS-related illness is now the leading cause of death among black women ages 25-34.

Black and Hispanic women's rates of unwanted pregnancy and abortion are significantly higher than those of white women, according to the New York-based Guttmacher Institute.

Black women are three times more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy than white women. These higher rates in unexpected pregnancy reflect a disparity in access to quality affordable contraceptive services along with other quality women's health care services.

Census report projections suggest women of color are rapidly on their way to becoming the majority of women in the United States by 2041.

While my focus is on African American women, the experiences of Native American, Latina and Asian women also have different nuances than those of white U.S. women and they need to be heard as well.

'War on Women' Year

This year will go down in political history as the "war on women" year. Activists and elected officials alike warded off efforts to defund Planned Parenthood; argued the importance of ensuring that all women have access to affordable birth control regardless of who employs them or where they went to school; protested against "personhood" legislation in the states; watched their efforts to fight for pay equity in Congress fall flat on its face yet again; and even lost the fight for re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

It's been an outstandingly painful head banging against the wall kind of year for women's health and rights.

The response from the women's rights community has been rightfully fierce. We have seen many women's rights activists, bloggers, writers and academics commenting through various media outlets. But what has been glaringly missing from the media discussion and debate are women of color. The lack of representation is certainly not due to a lack of women of color active in women's rights. There are many involved in many different ways and organizations.

Let's look at Donna Brazile, a Democratic political strategist and the first African American and second woman to manage a presidential campaign (Al Gore's in 2000).

Well, she's also a staunch supporter of women's rights. Brazile was a founding member of the African American Women for Reproductive Freedom with other renowned black women in politics; is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University in women's studies; and a contributing writer to Ms. Magazine. However, whenever there have been major media discussions on access to contraception, reproductive health, the renewal of VAWA, health care reform as it affects women, women in politics (a subject on which arguably she is uniquely qualified), she has been absent from those conversations. Brazile is only called on to speak on issues as they relate to black people overall.

Other Missing Voices

The same extends to her colleague Julianne Malveaux, from African American Women for Reproductive Freedom. A former president of Bennett College, a historically black women's college, and a decorated academic with a doctorate in economics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Malveaux is a politically progressive commentator. She has written for many well-known black media outlets--including Essence, BET and Black Issues in Higher Education--but they have for the most part been very specific to the black community as a whole. Again, her voice isn't heard when an expert is needed on the state of women's health and rights or even the economy.

Another example is Melissa Harris-Perry. Young, dynamic and the host of her show on MSNBC, she's a founder and director of the Project on Gender, Race and Politics at Tulane University in Louisiana. Her second book, which was greeted with critical acclaim, "Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America," clearly focused on gender. Yet a scan of her writings for the Nation are heavily focused on all things black, with an occasional article that is gender focused. Her white female colleagues carry the bulk of "women's issues" portfolio.

Are these women constrained to talking about just black people? While I doubt there is a specific clause in their contracts, I do think when people look at them to hire, they see an opportunity to address issues relevant to their race, not taking into account their valuable perspective on women's issues.

Women of color should be regular major contributors in the nation's health and rights discussion and policymaking. And in turn our gender policy debates and discussions will be more effective and encompassing of all women.

The statistics and the work done in these communities should be highlighted in mainstream dialogue by women of color activists, journalists, political strategists, bloggers and academics who are established in their fields of expertise. With an America that is rapidly becoming more racially diverse, anything less is a disservice and will keep the keep spirit of Truth's speech relevant.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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