Earlier this month, hundreds of New Yorkers from all corners of the state boarded buses, trains and cars to Albany, fortified with banners and "Stand Up for Women's Equality" T-shirts. Packed under a bright sun in a park square facing the Capitol, impassioned speakers and their audience cheered for the passage of Governor Cuomo's 10-point Women's Equality Act (WEA), legislation that would move us closer to ensuring equality for women.
Within a human rights framework, it is well established that discrimination can lead to violence and that governments have an obligation to ensure that all of its citizens, including those perchance born female, enjoy inalienable and indivisible rights. The WEA is a brave and critical step towards that realization. Consisting of over 800 New York-based organizations, members of the WEA Coalition, from A Better Balance to the YWCA, knocked on legislators' doors that June 4th afternoon and pulled them off the Senate and Assembly floors demanding support for the groundbreaking legislation.
By all accounts, so many legislators seemed amenable to the talking points thrown at them that one wonders why the law hasn't yet passed. After all, who could be for discriminating against pregnant women or victims of domestic violence in search of housing? How could any New Yorker justify exempting employers from sexual harassment or supporting that women earn an average of .77 cents for each dollar her brother makes? One would think that the Empire State would so naturally deem these points no-brainers that we could have foregone a trip to its capital.
The WEA addresses these violations as a whole and must pass in its entirety - all ten points. The legislation is testament that we cannot parse out women's rights, drop by drop. It is recognition that if New York doesn't legislate against discrimination, it in effect condones inequality.
Unfortunately, Albany's politics-as-usual shenanigans are halting real change for women in New York.
Among the thornier issues for a few legislators is whether a woman has the right to control her body and make decisions about her reproductive health in the privacy of her home, her doctor's office and her heart. Planned Parenthood, NARAL and Family Planning Advocates are among those engaging in superb efforts with the Governor and other policymakers to align the antiquated New York State law on abortion with federal law. Nothing more, nothing less. If, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, the vast majority of New Yorkers believe that women have a right to choose, we can conclude that the ones out of touch are the holdback legislators in Albany, not their voters.
One of the other critical ten points that is generating unwarranted controversy is the urgently needed improvements to New York's anti-trafficking laws, known as the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA) or Part H of the WEA. When New York passed the Human Trafficking Act in 2007, the State had the most progressive legal framework in the country. Since that time, experts have developed an understanding that sex trafficking in particular is a chronically violent crime. The WEA recognizes the importance of providing law enforcement with the tools they need to pursue traffickers and seek justice for human trafficking victims, especially for sex trafficked children.
Kevin M. Ryan, the president and CEO of Covenant House that serves homeless and trafficked youth, concisely lays out the legislative framework of the TVPJA on this online publication. What Ryan's article doesn't highlight is that Assemblymen Joseph Lentol, Andrew Hevesi, and Daniel O'Donnell proposed a counter bill drafted by their Codes Committee, which Lentol chairs, that contains measures intensifying obstacles that trafficking victims could face in moving from exploitation to independence. However, the buck stops with Speaker Sheldon Silver as they await the wave of his hand.
The testimony of a young sex trafficking survivor, supported by Sanctuary for Families, generated a few tears at the June 4th rally as she described in heartbreaking detail the horrors of being held captive for years - in plain sight and with no protection - by her pimp who sold her for profit on the streets throughout New York City to an endless stream of men who purchased and serially raped her with impunity.
The TVPJA, like the federal law, eliminates the need for children to prove through re-traumatizing testimonies that their traffickers coerced them. It recognizes that prostituted children under the age of 18 are per se trafficking victims and holds those who pay for sex with children accountable to the level of statutory rape. Opposing such measures in the WEA flies in the face of reason.
"Sex trafficking is an incredibly violent crime; its victims experience daily rape and live in a psychological prison," says Emily Amick, Sanctuary for Families' Equal Justice Works Fellow. "Our law must reflect the reality of this brutal crime."
The efforts to pass the WEA are mighty, but the battle ahead remains intense. The quandary lingers as to why ending gender-based violence and promoting equality in law and in practice remains such a struggle? Even those few grumblers in Albany who don't comprehend that the Women's Equality Act would bring New York closer to realizing Eleanor Roosevelt's vision that women will one day be deemed full human beings, they should see that at the very least equality bolsters economies and strengthens communities. As to why equality is not perceived as key to the survival of our planet, a present-day visionary, whose ability to mainstream the elusive concept of equality is yet unsurpassed, offered the following:
"If a woman does not own her body - whether it is in the right to decide when and whether to give birth or the right to keep her body safe - there is no equality, says activist and writer Gloria Steinem. "That is the biggest determinant of whether she is healthy or not, educated or not, able to earn her own money or not, or how long she lives."