A human rights hearing in the Rio Grande Valley gave voice to the thousands of Latinas whose health and rights are in jeopardy.
On Monday, March 9, 2015, the Lower Rio Grande Valley forecast called for heavy rain—with dangerous flash flooding predicted in the string of border communities that stretch along the Rio Grande. Yet the threat of downpours and rising waters did nothing to deter hundreds of supporters and activists who gathered to call out human rights violations taking place in the region.
This first-ever domestic women’s human rights hearing — detailed in a new report, ¡Somos Poderosas!, and the accompanying testimony insert — was sponsored by the Center for Reproductive Rights, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), U.S. Human Rights Network, and ten Texas-based organizations. The day before, these same organizations and community members gathered in Brownsville for the first International Women’s Day march in the Rio Grande Valley.
Since 2011, the dismantling of the state’s reproductive health care safety net and the enactment of numerous abortion restrictions have stranded millions of low-income Latinas without access to basic care.
High poverty rates and a lack of services such as public transportation have compounded the crisis.
The severe weather was an accurate mirror of the urgency of the situation. Women in the Valley have been rocked to the core by the financial and emotional toll of unplanned pregnancies, preventable cancers, inadequate pre- and postnatal care, and lack of access to safe abortion.
The events kicked off on Sunday, March 8—International Women’s Day—with a visit to a colonia where the Texas Latina Advocacy Network hosted a community meeting about reproductive health care. The group then caravanned to Whole Women’s Health in McAllen for a tour of the Valley’s last abortion clinic. In the afternoon, hundreds convened on the streets of Brownsville for a march and rally to celebrate Latinas and immigrant women living in the Valley.
The following day, a Women’s Human Rights Hearing took place in McAllen. Seventeen women affected by the barriers to obtaining basic reproductive health services offered testimony before a panel of seven human rights experts from the U.S. and Mexico.
One woman, Leticia, told of enduring months of severe pain and bleeding because she could not afford the $250 to be seen by a doctor. She subsequently discovered she had a uterine tumor, for which she was unable to afford treatment. She lives with crushing anxiety about what will happen to her children if she dies.
Another woman, Josefina, explained that, with all the clinic closures in Texas, she now has to travel 50 miles to get her annual exam. But she does not have a car or any money. Each year, getting a mammogram, a Pap smear, and a basic exam presents an overwhelming hurdle.
She said, “Being able to prevent illness should be within every woman’s reach.”
Alarmed by their stories, the panel of experts followed the testimony with promises to share the women’s experiences and highlight the crisis in their respective spheres of influence. “The idea that Texas would target family planning clinics, the health care that women need, that they would shut down these clinics that have been providing health care services for generations of women, I found that appalling,” said Cindy Soohoo, director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at CUNY Law School. “Human rights standards make clear that all states have an obligation to ensure that health care is provided in non-discriminatory way. We are going to continue to raise this issue of attacks on women’s health care—and raise your voices—in international forums like the United Nations.”
Paula, a promotora in the Valley, was fortified by their response.
“It gives us a sense of security that we’re not alone, and we’re not the forgotten border community,” she said afterwards.
Despite the somberness of their stories and situations, the women of the Rio Grande Valley have embraced a symbol of hope and empowerment: the poderosa, the powerful woman. Every testimony ended with women claiming their reproductive rights as human rights. They called on Texas lawmakers—who meet from January to June 2015—to restore full access to reproductive health services in rural areas. With chants demanding salud, dignidad, and justicia, the resolve of the poderosas was in full force at this historic event.
For more information about the impact of these policies on women’s lives, read our report about the hearing and the transcripts of the testimonies from the hearing.
This post is adapted from here.