On Monday, March 9, 2015, the forecast for the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas called for heavy rain and thundershowers—with dangerous flash flooding predicted in the string of border communities that stretch along the Rio Grande in the state’s southernmost tip.
Yet the threat of downpours and rising waters did nothing to deter hundreds of supporters and activists from the community and around the world who gathered to call out human rights violations taking place in the region.
This first-ever domestic women’s human rights hearing 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, Texas, for the first International Women’s Day march in the Rio Grande Valley.
The severe weather was perhaps the most accurate mirror of the urgency of the occasion. Women in the Rio Grande Valley—a poor, rural, and predominantly immigrant and Latino area where over half the women of reproductive age lack basic health insurance—have organized in response to the crisis caused by systemic attacks by the state on reproductive health services over the past few years.
Numerous restrictions targeting abortion providers and the dismantling of the state’s reproductive health care safety net in 2011 have stranded millions of low-income women without access to basic care. High poverty rates and a lack of services such as public transportation have only compounded the crisis.
Now the women themselves are a rising tide.
They and their families—mothers, daughters, sisters—have been rocked to the core by the financial and emotional toll of unplanned pregnancies, devastating yet preventable cancers, inadequate pre- and postnatal care, and lack of access to safe abortion.
At the hearing, 20 women affected by the barriers to obtaining basic reproductive health services offered oral and written testimony before a panel of seven global human rights experts who specialize in issues of women’s rights, immigrant rights, and health rights.
One woman, Letitia, told of enduring months of severe pain and vaginal bleeding because she could not afford the $250 fee to be seen by a doctor. She subsequently discovered she had a uterine tumor, for which she was unable to afford any treatment. Letitia lives with crushing anxiety about what will happen to her children if she dies. “I just want to know how to get out of this situation,” she said.
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 because we want healthy women in our homes, in our communities, and in our Texas.”
Another woman, Julia, was so overcome with emotion when she came to the podium that she could hardly speak. But the room immediately embraced her—filling with applause and encouragement. “I’m sorry,” she said. “This is hard because I have to remember.” She told of receiving a devastating colon cancer diagnosis and having no insurance or money to cover treatment. She was told she had three months to live, and she recalled her school-aged son offering to drop out and get a job to help pay for her treatment.
Due to medical negligence and a lack of quality care, Alejandra gave birth to a daughter with cerebral palsy. At the hearing she spoke of telling her doctor she did not want to have any more children and asking to be sterilized. He refused—denying her a basic right.
Later the doctor told Alejandra he would do the procedure, but that she could never afford it. “I did not know about the existence of programs and clinics offering low-cost women’s reproductive health services that could have helped me. I also believed that because I am an immigrant, I did not have any rights.”
Alarmed and dismayed by their stories, the panel of human rights experts followed the testimony with promises to share the women’s experiences and highlight the crisis in the Valley in their respective spheres of influence.
Paula, a promotora—or community health advocate—in the Valley who testified at the hearing, was fortified by the response. “It gives us a sense of security that we’re not alone, and we’re not the forgotten border community,” she said afterwards. “We’re going to get mobilized and we’re going to get moving. If this is what it takes to make our voices heard, we’re going to do it.”
The Center and NLIRH have been documenting the impact of Texas family planning cuts and other threats to the health and human rights of Latinas and immigrant women in South Texas since late 2012. Last month, the Center and NLIRH released a policy blueprint called Nuestro Texas: A Reproductive Justice Agenda for Latinas which outlines proactive policies that state lawmakers should enact to end the current crisis and restore access to critical reproductive health services.
Katrina Anderson, the Center’s senior human rights counsel, notes that moving forward, all eyes will be on the Texas legislature: “We are watching closely to make sure that proposals to revamp women’s preventive health services do not cause further damage in areas like the Valley that cannot afford to lose more providers. With NLIRH, we’re also building support in the legislature for policies that affirm all women’s rights to affordable, high quality reproductive health care, regardless of where they live, how much money they make, or what their immigration status is.”
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. With chants demanding salud, dignidad, and justicia (health, dignity, justice), the clarity and resolve of the poderosas was in full force at this historic event.