by Cathy Albisa
When gender and poverty intersect, the failure to protect economic and social rights gives rise to the possibility of real terror.
The first thing that comes to mind for many people when asked how economic issues might create terror for women is the risk that women face of violence when economically vulnerable, dependent or homeless. Without doubt, this is true. Poor women do face greater risk of violence simply because they are poor. The horror of being forced by economic circumstances to live with a savagely violent domestic partner or the terror of sleeping on the streets exposed to physical and sexual abuse is painfully real.
But for many women, it is not the risk of being a victim of violence that generates the greatest fear. Although, the right to security and freedom from violence is of paramount importance for women, it is economic and social rights that seem to be of even greater concern.
Economic and social rights include the human rights to food, healthcare, housing, education and decent work – in short, they represent the range of basic human needs. While they are recognized as fundamental human rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other major international documents, the United States is famously reticent to recognize this set of rights.
Human Rights that Shape Women’s Lives
Data and common experience reveal that it is women who primarily take care of the sick without pay, raise and nurture children, or make sure the elderly in their orbit eat well, get medical care and are protected from the threat posed by loneliness and isolation. As a result, the benefits and deficits of the system of social support – and the level of protection of economic and social rights — have a disproportionate effect on women.
Indeed, the level of a society’s provision of comprehensive and quality healthcare, childcare and eldercare shapes the lives of countless women. This is particularly true for poor women.
Over the last two decades – as a litigator and human rights advocate allied with community activists – I have worked closely with and have interviewed women across the United States living in impoverished communities and facing serious deprivations of human rights. Some lived in fear of violence almost every day of their lives. Others found little support in their efforts to heal from past violence and sexual abuse and constantly struggled against depression or the pull of narcotics or other self-destructive (but also self-distracting) behaviors. None could really ensure that they would always have a place to call home, and many had slept in shelters, on the street, or on couches of willing friends and families when they went through brutal periods of homelessness.
The Worst Thing that Ever Happened
But, perhaps surprisingly, this is not what these women have described to me as the worst experiences or the most soul-shaking kind of terror they had faced.
One formerly homeless mother, now a community activist, said: “I had been abused in foster care; I had been beaten by my husband; but nothing prepared me for what was the worst experience of my life. Sleeping in a car on a painfully cold night with my ten-year old, he turned to me and asked me for food because he was hungry. I didn’t have any to give him. He was hungry all night. That night I felt like dying. I had never felt like dying before.”
Tied to the countless stories of women unable to meet the basic needs of their children is the underlying fear of the unimaginable, but all-too-common, reality of women losing their children to the state because they are poor.
If you ask many of the poor women I’ve known to name the scariest government agency, they would, without hesitation, say child protective services. Women express real terror at the very genuine risk of losing their children because they cannot clothe, feed and house them. I know of no other country where the state takes children away from their parents simply because they are poor. But in many states in the United States, becoming homeless or running out of money for utilities puts a parent at real risk of losing her children.
Courts faced with these cases recognized the cruelty and irrationality. The judge in Tilden v. Hayward, a 1990 case in Delaware, expressed frustration, saying: “It has been shown time and again that it is more economical to house an intact family than to provide child protective services for a single child.” But, because there is not a right to housing in Delaware or nationally, the court felt it had no choice but to enforce the state agency’s decision to take the child.
Women have told me: “Once the welfare payments were cut off, child protective services started visiting, waiting to see if I could pay my utilities.”
One mother I met couldn’t get her children to school on time. She was a few minutes tardy every day because she worked late the nights before and mornings were hard. Even so, after just a few hours sleep, she brought her children to school every single day. The school was so chaotic, it never documented that the children were actually there; instead, in a bizarre and sadistic display of bureaucratic indifference, it reported the family to child protective services. With great efficiency, the agency took the children away for educational neglect. No amount of explanation would do. The woman was poor and tired; therefore, her word meant nothing and her love for her children remained unseen. Her extraordinary effort and suffering in trying to get them back never registered as anything more than a file that was opened and eventually closed.
While racism plays a role in which mothers get targeted, all poor women and their children are at risk.
Soon after the 1996 dismantling of welfare support, one advocate in Utah reported that social workers would rush to terminate parental rights for white babies because there was such a “demand” for them in the adoption market. Poor women activists have even reported that city agencies threaten to take their children if they engage in civil disobedience and get arrested.
Your Tax Dollars at Work
Despite their irrational and punitive nature, policies persist that support investing a great deal of resources to remove children and keep them from their parents, while refusing to invest far more modest resources in housing or providing cash support to families.
There is nothing more terrorizing for many women than losing who, in most cases, they most love – their children — to strangers and places where neglect, mistreatment and abuse are far too common. Our policymakers, to date, seem to have a bewildering commitment to creating this form of terror. It is also one inevitable outcome of our country’s refusal to adequately protect economic and social rights for all people and to abolish poverty with its accompanying indignities and indefensible social exclusion.
Cathy Albisa is Executive Director of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI)
Also See: Whatever Happened to Nora? by Alexis Greene in this edition of On The Issues Magazine