In May 2005, the Women’s Foundation of California embarked on the Road to Equity Tour, an ambitious project to identify the issues, needs and solutions for women and girls in California. Over a period of 23 days, our staff traveled more than 2,500 miles to 10 cities — San Francisco, San Jose, Fort Bragg, Redding, San Diego, Riverside, Santa Ana, Bakersfield, Fresno and Los Angeles. We met more than 1,000 women and girls who shared their insights, heartfelt testimony, hunger for action and incredible enthusiasm about the power of women and girls to change the world for the better.
Reflecting the information gathered from Tour participants, the Women’s Foundation of California has identified five recommendations for developing a statewide agenda for women and girls. These recommendations are built around four core strategies of:
- community-organizing for movement building,
- leadership development for women and girls,
- policy advocacy
- increasing investments in programs that benefit women and girls.
Key Issues for Women and Girls in California
How did we create the statewide agenda? Tour participants were led through a process to discuss the key issues facing women and girls and to identify the strategies they believed were most likely to help women and girls become full participants in their communities and achieve gender equity. Consistently — at each listening session, in every city — Tour participants suggested that the social, political, economic, community and family issues that affect women and girls are linked and that any recommendations or solutions developed to redress these concerns must acknowledge and build upon these interconnections. These inextricable links between basic human rights are supported and framed in the following five categories identified as key issues:
1. Improving Access to Affordable, Quality Healthcare
Today, the average annual cost of health insurance for a family of four in California is more than $10,800 — exceeding the annual income of a minimum wage earner. A report released in February 2005 found that half of the people who filed for bankruptcy did so because they lacked the means to pay their medical bills. Most of these people were middle-class workers with health insurance. Tour participants throughout the state identified a need to expand access to health clinics that provide free and low-cost prevention, diagnostic and treatment services. They also stressed the need for hospitals and clinics to provide both multicultural and multilingual care — a particular concern in California, where people of color make up more than half of the state’s population and one in every six residents is not a US citizen.
2. Reducing Violence Against Women and Girls
At each Tour stop participants discussed the violence women and girls face at school and at home. Mothers and adolescent girls described school climates where young people fear for their own safety and where administrators do not do enough to enforce sexual harassment policies. Throughout the state, domestic and sexual violence is an escalating problem. Nearly 10,000 forcible rapes were reported to law enforcement in California in 2003. In addition to finding ways to prevent violence from occurring, Tour participants emphasized the need for law enforcement agencies to improve how they respond to the victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. For example, it is well recognized that a batterer can be prosecuted for violating a Family Court restraining order.12 Yet, according to a statewide database, in some counties up to 50 percent of these orders have never been served by law enforcement.13 Women also emphasized the need for outreach to undocumented residents about available domestic violence services and for family violence prevention programs that teach adolescent boys and girls.
3. Ensuring Women’s Economic Security
The problems California women face in making ends meet were a recurring theme in every city. Tour participants focused on the need for a living wage, economic equity and access to jobs that pay higher wages. They had a solid understanding of the causes of the slow, steady decline in earning power experienced by a large population of women who are identified as “working poor.” The need for a living wage is driven, in part, by the high cost of living in California. A nationally developed Self-Sufficiency Standard estimates that in California a single parent with a preschooler must earn $12.50 an hour to be economically self-sufficient — almost double the state minimum wage of $6.75. In one-third of California counties, these families require an hourly wage above $15 per hour to make ends meet. The fact that many women are in low-paying, dead-end jobs compounds the problems they face meeting a higher cost of living. Among poor women between the ages of 25 and 59, 36 percent work, 25 percent have a working husband and 25 percent rely on public assistance as their main income source.
Tour participants identified the need to enforce the 1963 Equal Pay Act, which requires women and men to be paid equal wages for equal or comparable work. Enforcement of this Act is one step towards ensuring economic equity. Also stressed was the need for girls to be encouraged to take science and math classes and pursue career tracks that will set them on the road to higher-paying jobs. Young women also need access to the higher education and specialized training that can help women achieve economic equity and security. Currently, a woman with a bachelor’s degree earns 75 percent more than one with only a high school education.
4. Improving Access to Safe, Affordable Housing
The high cost of living in California is reflected in the difficulties families face in trying to buy a home. Throughout the state, housing costs have skyrocketed. In Los Angeles, housing prices are so high that more than 80 percent of families are unable to buy a median-priced home. While middle-class families struggle to buy homes, low-income families struggle to find any safe, affordable housing. Many participants noted that the only areas where low- or no-income women can afford to live have poor schools, high crime rates, no neighborhood grocery stores that stock fresh fruits and vegetables and few job opportunities. Additionally, low-income housing is often located near polluting facilities or in areas that are mixed zones, allowing industrial businesses to operate in the same area as residential housing.
5. Nurturing the Personal Development of Young Women and Girls
Repeatedly, conversations returned to the societal pressures on young women and girls, particularly from an increasingly highly sexualized culture. In every Tour city, we heard stories of how gender stereotypes, especially in the media, affect young women’s self esteem, body image and personal development. In the face of these societal pressures, Tour participants believe that it was more necessary than ever to increase opportunities for young women to develop leadership skills and the capacity for critical thinking. Participants also cited the need for new forums for educating girls on a range of issues from sexual health to financial literacy and leadership development.
A Closer Look at Violence Against Women continues this seven-part series.