12/12/2011 06:49 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2012

Women: A Year in Review (2011)

At the end of each year, I like to take stock of both the highlights and setbacks women have encountered over the past year. Great strides were made for women and minorities in 2011 and, looking ahead, I hope to see a positive impact in our community as several new public policies and programs take effect. But even with the many successes of 2011, we must also acknowledge the disparities and downfalls. As we reflect on this year's events, let's celebrate women's progress, recognize what needs to be improved and take the next steps -- together -- into the New Year.

4 Steps Forward

1. Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a new program in October to encourage the growth and development of minority- and women-owned businesses in Chicago. The Diversity Credit Program provides an incentive for some of Chicago's largest construction contractors to work with minority- and women-owned businesses in the public and private sector. I congratulate the mayor and the city of Chicago for recognizing and supporting the unique talents and resources women and people of color bring to our entrepreneurial community.

2. In August, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, which helps victims of trafficking clear their records of prostitution convictions. Most states prosecute and incarcerate human trafficking survivors for "engaging in prostitution." A conviction for involvement in the commercial sex trade can prevent survivors of trafficking from getting jobs, loans, housing and custody of their children. In Chicago alone, more than 16,000 women and girls are being prostituted. This law will not only help define women in prostitution as victims instead of criminals, but it will also help them move forward with their lives.

3. The Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services announced a statewide mammography quality-improvement program to begin in 2012. In the past three years, news reports have revealed a disturbing racial disparity in breast cancer death rates. African American women in Chicago with breast cancer face higher death rates than white women, and the difference has been attributed to poor quality screening and treatment. Starting next year, the incentive plan is hoped to close this gap and improve the quality of service.

4. Three women -- all activists for women's rights -- shared the honor of receiving this year's Nobel Peace Prize. The efforts of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman have been recognized as promoting peace, democracy and gender equality for women around the world. According to the Nobel Peace Prize committee, "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men."

3 Steps Back

1. The Chicago Justice Project published a report in February showing that from 2000 to 2009, the Chicago Police Department categorized 17 percent of sexual assault allegations as "unfounded," meaning they did not feel they had enough evidence to prove an assault actually occurred. This rate is three times the national average, and most of these cases were instances of acquaintance rape. Acquaintance rape continues to be an under-reported and under-prosecuted crime, and accounts for 77 percent of all rapes.

2. In April, efforts to de-fund Planned Parenthood nearly led to a government shutdown. The House-approved bill to cut Planned Parenthood's federal funding was voted down in the Senate, but in the months the followed, several states moved to de-fund Planned Parenthood during legislative sessions. Contrary to public opinion, the majority of Planned Parenthood's services consist of providing much needed health care, including basic health and cancer screenings, for women--many from low-income communities. As we come into an election year, federal funding for Planned Parenthood may come under attack again.

3. During this slow economic recovery, unemployment rates have slightly increased for women, people of color and single mothers. What's been called the "mancession" has moved into the next stage of "he-covery," where men gain jobs and women lose them. Men took a hard hit in the recession, making up 70 percent of the 7.5 million jobs lost, but from June 2009 to October 2011, men gained 1.1 million jobs while women lost 117,000.

Although we have achieved several milestones this year, clearly, we need continued support of employment and economic growth for women and people of color, as well as increased awareness about women's rights, safety and health care issues. I am personally committed to supporting and discussing these and other issues, and I hope you will join me in the coming year as we continue to strive for progress to improve the lives of women and girls throughout metropolitan Chicago.