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Women’s panel hears testimony in Northampton

  • Lois Ahrens, of Northampton, speaks to members of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, Tuesday, in the Northampton City Council Chambers. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, who is a member of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, asks a question after listening to Lois Ahrens, of Northampton, speak during a regional public hearing on women's issues Tuesday in the Northampton City Council Chambers. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jackie Wolf, of Amherst, speaks to members of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women during a regional hearing on women's issues Tuesday in the Northampton City Council Chambers. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Victoria Budson, left, who is a member of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, asks a question after listening to Jackie Wolf, of Amherst, speak during a regional public hearing on women's issues Tuesday in the Northampton City Council Chambers. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ellen Moorhouse, left, of Springfield, speaks to members of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women during a regional hearing on women's issues Tuesday in the Northampton City Council Chambers. The members are, from left: Lauren Scribi, Maria Puppolo, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, Victoria Budson, Margot Parrot and Becca Glenn. JERREY ROBERTS



@amandadrane
Wednesday, March 16, 2016

NORTHAMPTON — Tackling topics ranging from video-recorded strip searches to Islamophobia, 12 local women activists and leaders testified before the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women during a well-attended hearing in the City Council chambers on Tuesday.

Scattered throughout the speakers’ testimony was support for legislation that would form two regional versions of the statewide commission – the Hampden County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls and the Hampshire/Franklin Counties Commission on the Status of Women.

The Pioneer Valley corridor joins disparate patches in eastern Massachusetts as areas that remain so far unrepresented by such regional commissions.

The videotaped strip searches, commission Chairwoman Victoria Budson told the Gazette, was an important and surprising topic to come from the hearing.

“There’s always something I hear that I’ve never heard before,” Budson said.

The commission holds four hearings per year with only one in the Northampton area. Commissioners, who live throughout the state, educate themselves on the issues presented during hearings and compile the information into an annual report, which they then present to the governor, Senate president, speaker of the House, and the Caucus of Women Legislators in June.

Lois Ahrens, founding director of The Real Cost of Prisons Project, said video-recording practices in place at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center in Chicopee are “demeaning and unconstitutional.” In some cases, Ahrens said, prisoners’ clothes are forcibly cut off and all strip searches are video-recorded as a matter of unprecedented policy.

“This is an aberrant thing that’s going on there,” said Ahrens, adding that proposed legislation allowing for male guards to videotape the searches only under emergency scenarios would leave too wide a window open for interpretation and would set back her advocacy work by 20 years. “Rather than make bad law, we ask that the bill be allowed to die,” Ahrens said.

Based on evidence provided at the hearing, Budson told the Gazette, commissioners will turn their focus to the economic issues facing women in western Massachusetts, as well as issues surrounding teen pregnancy, women’s transitions in and out of work, domestic violence, incarceration, and access to affordable comprehensive reproductive care.

Jackie Wolf, chairwoman of the League of Women Voters of Amherst Health Care Committee, asked commissioners to act favorably on an act establishing affordable health care for all.

“The health care cost control bill would establish a commission to study a single-payer model,” said Wolf. “It would give us the facts we would probably need to go forward.”

The rise of Donald Trump, testified Amina Ali of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts amid a call for more resources for elderly women, has brought about an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment in the community.

“I’m getting it myself,” said Ali. “I’ve never seen this type of thing before.”

Sheila Murphy of the Literacy Project in Amherst provided three  anecdotes about real-life mothers struggling to work within the system. One woman, she said, was only able to regain custody of her children after surrendering herself to homelessness, because the single-room occupancy apartment she was renting disqualified her from custody.

“I don’t think the system is set up purposefully to make life difficult for them, but it does,” Murphy said.

Linda Lloyd, who provides 100 bags of food per week to children through her Ware nonprofit, Angels and Backpacks, put out a call for grants that could help fund her organization.

Dana Carnegie, community relations manager for the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts, asked the commission to support any legislation that provides leadership opportunities to women and girls, promotes financial literacy among women, and helps prevent bullying.

“I hope that one day your name will be Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women and Girls,” Carnegie said.

Wendy Foxmyn threw in her support for the two proposed regional commissions, adding that part of her reason for attending was for moral support.

“These are dark times for America and I just needed to be with you all,” she said.

Budson suggested during the hearing that all who feel strongly about these issues should attend Women’s Advocacy Day at the Statehouse in Boston from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 24.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@gazettenet.com.