Yesterday marked the end of Women’s History Month, and today marks the start of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Both provide an opportunity to reflect on how women’s inequality disproportionately harms women of color.
Women in the United States are not equal to men. They lack equal pay and the ability to make decisions about their bodies without politicians interfering. Women in the United States also face judgment when they report sexual assaults because of a culture that favors the idea that men are often “tempted” by women into making unwanted sexual advances. And, women must fight harder when they want to start their own businesses and are perceived as the weaker sex when they have to balance work and family. Women have the short end of the stick.
These inequalities are often exacerbated by other factors, like poverty and race. While we examine the issue of equality and how to achieve it for all women, it is important to consider the impact of inequality on women of color, who are also disproportionately poor. As numerous studies and reports have made clear:
- Women of color earn less on the dollar than white women. While, on average, women receive 77 cents for every dollar a man earns, women of color receive even less. African-American women working full time, year round are paid only 64 cents, and Hispanic women only 54 cents, to every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men who worked full time, year round.
- Women of color are more likely to be sexually assaulted. The problem of sexual assault has generated much attention in Virginia since the recent reports of sexual assault at the University of Virginia. Statistics show that of all rapes reported to police in the 18-24 age group, 20% are students (80% of campus sexual assaults are not reported to police). Sexual assault is also a big problem off campus, and women of color make up a majority of those sexually assaulted. A report released by the Center for Disease Control reflected that in the United States an estimated 32.3% of multiracial women, 27.5% of American Indian/Alaska Native women, 21.2% of non-Hispanic black women, and 13.6% of Hispanic women were raped during their lifetimes, compared to 20.5% of non-Hispanic white women.
- Women of color are more likely to be incarcerated. According to statistics, 1 in 19 African American women and 1 in 45 Hispanic women will be incarcerated in their lifetime, compared to 1 in 119 Caucasian women. This disparity compounds the impact of collateral consequences on communities of color. Women who have been incarcerated will have difficulty accessing housing and employment, thus harming their ability to reenter society and provide support for their families. For example, under the 1996 Housing Opportunity Program Extension Act, Public Housing Authorities may request criminal conviction information from law enforcement to screen applicants for housing. Also, under the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation ACT, there is a lifetime ban on receiving cash assistance and food stamps for people convicted of a felony drug conviction after August 22, 1996, unless a state has opted out of the Act’s provisions. To date, legislation to opt Virginia out of the ban has failed. Lastly, a criminal record has the potential to result in difficulties finding employment. According to data, only 4 in 10 women are able to find employment in the regular labor market within one year of release.
- Women of color are less likely to have access to reproductive healthcare. In 2013, 56 percent of women of reproductive age lived in one of the 27 states considered to be hostile for women seeking abortion. A majority of women of color in the US live in those hostile states. Behind almost every abortion is an unintended pregnancy, and unintended pregnancy rates vary by race and ethnicity even when controlling for income. Because of the myriad disadvantages women of color face, like racism and unequal educational opportunities, at almost every income level, African-Americans have higher unintended pregnancy and abortion rates than whites or Hispanics, and a Latina is more than twice as likely to have an abortion than a white woman. Bans on abortion and medically unnecessary restrictions designed to close women’s health centers are just some examples of the restrictions on reproductive healthcare access particularly damaging for low-income women and women of color. What’s worse, women’s health centers that provide an array of health care services like cancer screening, safe abortion services, and birth control, are few and far between and are being closed down due to medically unnecessary restrictions imposed by politicians. This leaves women of color, an already vulnerable population, with less access to the services that can improve reproductive health, such as prevent unintended pregnancies, improve maternal mortality rates, and prevent death from breast or cervical cancer.