Overcoming the Real Challenges Facing Chicago's Mothers

05/05/2011 12:03 pm ET | Updated Jul 05, 2011
  • K. Sujata President/CEO, Chicago Foundation for Women

It's once again that time of year when we honor mothers -- a day set aside to give back to women who work hard year-round. To truly honor motherhood and the pivotal role that women play in our communities, we must do more than buy a box of chocolates. In that spirit I want to recognize the local leaders who aim to change policies and systems that affect mothers and their families.

In Chicago, African-American mothers face disproportionately high infant mortality rates, especially in lower-income communities. Compounded with a lack of access to quality, affordable care and medically accurate health information, black women in neighborhoods like Englewood and Austin have worse health outcomes than the city average of 8.7 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Thanks to community-based advocacy by the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, from 2004 to 2007 the black infant mortality rates in Englewood and Austin fell from 23.1 and 17.4 to 14.35 and 10.7, respectively. Most of IMCHC's outreach was simple health education, such as how to identify pre-term labor and understand reproductive anatomy -- lessons too often skipped by public schools. This work was recently highlighted in the Chicago Tribune.

Did you know that most women in prison are mothers? About 80 percent of women in Cook County Jail are mothers, and according to a press release from the Cook County Sheriff's Office, 327 pregnant women were in their custody from July 2009 through December 2010. Despite a landmark state law passed in 1999, pregnant women in Cook County Jail and in Illinois Department of Corrections facilities statewide report being shackled well after the law went into effect. These women say that corrections officers used handcuffs, leg irons, belly chains and more throughout labor and even delivery, which the 1999 law forbids.

Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers, which helped pass the shackling ban in Illinois, is working to change this violation of women's dignity, safety and basic human rights. Illinois House Bill 1958 would clarify and strengthen the 1999 law within Cook County, with the future goal of expanding the legislation statewide.

All mothers are working mothers, as we know, but in order for mothers to find and keep good jobs outside the home, they need paid sick days -- an unfortunate rarity in low-wage Illinois workplaces, where 77 percent of workers don't have this right. If parents cannot take paid time off when they or their children are sick, they are forced to choose between good health and a paycheck. Employers and the public suffer, too, when productivity goes down and illness spreads.

Women Employed leads the Illinois Paid Leave Coalition, advocating for paid sick days for all workers. A recent statewide poll shows that 78 percent of Illinois voters support paid sick days, and research suggests that employers will actually save money if such a law goes into effect.

These issues, of course, are only the tip of the iceberg. Too often mothers face violence (domestic, sexual or trafficking), workplace discrimination, custody challenges and more. But if we can change Mother's Day -- expand the recognition that women's issues are everyone's issues -- then perhaps by next year I can have a shorter list of barriers and a longer list of policymakers and leaders who deserve their own thank-you cards.

Editor's Note: A Cook County Sheriff's Office spokesman said the jail has not shackled pregnant inmates in "more than a year" and that Sheriff Tom Dart and his Women's Justice Department are working to strengthen the law. This post has been modified from its original version.