Suffolk Law’s Women’s Leadership Academy was designed to bring issues facing women to the forefront and to kindle personal relationships that help spur debate and solutions. Nearly one hundred law school alumnae attended the Academy during Alumni Weekend.

Four disparate points, below, shared by Women’s Leadership Academy speakers, set the scene for a robust discussion:

  • The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not provide paid family leave for illness, family illness, or the arrival of a new child.In 2011 (the latest available numbers), 89% of counties in the United States did not have an abortion clinic.
  • A Columbia University student has been carrying a mattress around campus for months, spurring other female students around the country to join in her protest of sexual assault on campus.
  • Of the seven billion people in the world, 4.6 billion, more than half, lack access to adequate sanitation facilities.
  • In 2011 (the latest available numbers), 89% of counties in the United States did not have an abortion clinic.

Campus Sexual Assault: Kathryn Bender '84, Sr. Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel at the College of Charleston describes a charged environment in which 80 colleges across the country are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. 

“Carry that Weight,” Bender said, is a protest undertaken by a Columbia University student who has been carrying a mattress with her around campus to draw attention to the weight she and other women carry as a result of sexual assault. The student is determined to get justice for what she perceives to be inadequate sanctions against the male student she says sexually assaulted her. The woman has vowed to accept her diploma while carrying the mattress, if justice is not served.

Bender explained that colleges’ response to sexual assault occurs in a charged environment, with a federal task force issuing guidelines and multiple colleges across the country under investigation. Tufts University has been threatened with loss of federal funding due to their “incomplete investigation” in one 2010 case, she noted. “Colleges must balance responses to victims as well as alleged assailants, and it’s complicated,” she said.

Under-age drinking and reporting rape
The administration at her school, Bender said, is increasing its already existing educational efforts and service for victims, including new sexual assault training programs for staff, students, and faculty. The college has also clarified that students reporting an assault do not have to fear they will be kicked out of school for under-age drinking, and staff are now receiving training in recognizing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

While federal oversight is onerous and costly, she argued, improved procedures and awareness campaigns have resulted on campuses across the country.  Problems with alcohol and drug use continue at all colleges, she said; “I hope that those issues, in conjunction with sexual violence, will receive attention and remediation.”

Abortion Rights: Associate Clinical Professor Sarah Boonin describes what she calls "a patchwork of state abortion laws in which a woman's right to choose is governed by her zip code." 

In 1973, the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade determined that women have a virtually unrestricted right to an abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy, said Boonin, as she chronicled what she called “an explosion of state and federal abortion laws” since then, and court decisions interpreting those laws, that she says have undermined Roe and vastly restricted the right in the past 40 years. Between 2011 and 2013, states enacted 205 laws restricting abortion, she said–more than in the entire previous decade combined.  The result, according to Boonin, is "a patchwork of state abortion laws in which a woman’s right to choose abortion is largely governed by her zip code."

Professor Boonin discussed some common state-imposed restrictions on abortion, including mandated waiting periods that require a minimum (generally 24-hour) delay between patient counseling and an abortion. “In some states,” she said, “related ‘informed consent’ laws compel in-person and one-sided ‘counseling’ before a woman can undergo an abortion, and some states even compel fetal imaging and other intrusive measures before a woman’s decision is considered informed.”

Boonin noted that many of these restrictions require women to travel two or three times to the health care provider to get an abortion, resulting in what she described as unnecessary and risky delays, as well as vastly increased costs. These laws, like many others that restrict access to abortion, present particular hardships for rural and low-income women, she said, as well as young women seeking access to abortion services.

Paid Family Leave: Let’s say you or your child or spouse is facing a serious illness. Will the company you work for provide paid leave, asks Catherine Bailey '05.

According to Bailey, Legal and Public Policy Director at the Connecticut Women's Education and Legal Fund, fewer than 2 out of 10 employees nationally have access to paid leave through their employers.

Without access to paid family leave, she explained, employees are more likely to go on public assistance and either lose or quit their job; they have higher bankruptcy rates, bringing a disproportionate number under the poverty line. Conversely, those who do receive paid leave are more likely to have a greater salary within one year of returning to work.

While the Family and Medical Leave Act was enacted to create a national system, individual states which must lead the way in implementation, Bailey said. Currently only three states provide paid family leave; several, including Massachusetts, are studying the issue and working towards a solution. California has provided paid family leave for ten years; it has found that businesses have experienced either a neutral or positive impact, specifically an increase in morale and employee loyalty, resulting in greater employee retention.

Access to clean water: We may think of access to clean water as an issue far from the daily life of Americans. Yet, Suffolk Law Assistant Professor Sharmila Murthy pointed out that since January 2014, approximately 27,000 residents in Detroit have had their water service terminated. Without running water and indoor sanitation, many of those families were at risk of having their children removed from their homes.

Internationally, according to UNICEF, an estimated 801,000 children younger than 5 years of age die from diarrhea each year, mostly in developing countries. This amounts to 11% of the 7.6 million deaths of children under five and means that about 2,200 children are dying every day as a result of diarrheal diseases. A significant proportion of these diseases can be prevented through clean water and adequate sanitation facilities.

While this is a human rights issue, Murthy explained, women and girls in under-developed areas are the primary water gatherers, and lack of access to adequate sanitation affects women disproportionately. Girls can't go to school unless there is safe access to facilities; last summer two females, outside due to lack of indoor plumbing, were found murdered, hanging from mango trees by their scarves. While the case highlights caste-based discrimination, it also points to the vulnerability of women when they must relieve themselves outside. (See Murthy’s article on this topic on NPR’s Cognoscenti website.)

According to Murthy, who previously co-founded the Harvard Kennedy School's Human Rights to Water & Sanitation Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, this is a complicated issue. While the human right to water is often perceived to be at odds with private-sector involvement, international human rights law is neutral on the question of privatization. Clearly human rights are relevant to how private services are provided, she said.