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SAN DIEGO: Lynda Reed loved her work in the research office of San Diego’s Naval Medical Center, but when her mother’s health began to falter she quit and became a full-time caregiver, moving in with her mother. She cooked her diabetic meals, administered medications, drove to medical appointments, and helped with housekeeping and daily living – full time work with no pay at all.

Then, in 2019, her mother died. Her mother’s house was sold — and a combination of a family trust dispute and their inability to keep up with the mortgage payments left her with nowhere to live. At 55 years old, Reed found herself homeless, living in her truck.

“People don’t realize the sacrifices that you make as a caregiver,” says Reed. “You’re putting yourself at such risk because not only are you isolated from any kind of socialization, but your financial situation is really screwed up.”

Lynda Reed and her dog, Sasha, in the community spaces at their new home at Cypress permanent supportive housing site in downtown San Diego. She moved into her truck after her mother died and her family was forced to sell the family home. (Courtesy: Tyler Renner/PATH)

Homelessness is a phenomenon that historically has predominantly impacted men. But in California, where the number of homeless people surged to 181,000 this year, the number of homeless women has also grown. Newly released data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development show 60,000 unhoused women in the Golden State in 2023 — nearly as many as New York, Texas, and Florida combined, and an increase of over 50 percent over the previous eight years. 

This rise poses a test for state policymakers, who must cope with an increase in groups that face unique challenges, such as domestic violence survivors, pregnant women, and mothers. Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that proponents say makes California a national leader in addressing the needs of unhoused women. But despite the new law, the problem in California keeps getting worse.

Rose Impson says she ended up homeless after trying to work things out with a series of abusive partners and an abusive relative. The final straw came when the relative cracked a glass candlestick-holder on her head, she says.

“One of us was going to die. I just packed a bag and left,” says Impson. The former hotel manager, now 63, says she had to be on guard while sleeping on the sidewalk in downtown San Diego. She’s been robbed and sexually assaulted, she says. Impson says she started braiding her hair with razor blades so that if attackers “want to pull your hair, they’d cut their fingers,” and slept with a knife.

Rose Impson, 63, and her 3-month-old great-granddaughter, Adriana, at Valley Vista Apartments in San Diego, CA. With the help of a case manager, Impson managed to move off the streets and into a room in a hotel that had been converted into permanent supportive housing. (Courtesy: Tyler Renner/PATH)

Homeless women with children face a particularly difficult choice. Worried about exposing their children to living on the streets or having their children taken away by child protective services because they can’t provide material needs, many decide to leave them with family instead. But then the housing system perceives them as “single homeless adults” instead of a “homeless family,” reducing their chances of qualifying for family housing.

An estimated 40 percent of homeless women aged 18-24 are pregnant, according to a recent University of California study on homelessness in the state. Women who are pregnant or with children while homeless, can be forced to choose between living with or separately from their children to protect them from homelessness.

“What we heard from those women was the ways in which that restrained their housing because in the homelessness world you’re sort of judged as either a single homeless adult if you’re not living with your kids or a homeless family,” the lead researcher on the study, Dr. Margot Kushel says. “They didn’t have a shelter to bring their kids to when they became homeless and so they parked their kids with someone.” 

Meanwhile, domestic violence, which spiked during pandemic lockdowns, is a major driver of homelessness among women. In Los Angeles, nearly 30 percent of homeless women attributed domestic violence or intimate partner violence as the most common reason for leaving permanent housing, according to a study by the Urban Institute released this summer.

Hanan Scrapper, San Diego regional director for the non-profit People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), said nearly half of the women served by her agency had experienced domestic violence at some point in their lives. “They’re not necessarily coming to us when they’re actively fleeing domestic violence, but they might have become homeless leaving a domestic violence situation and had been on the street for a while,” she says.

Impson managed to move off the streets and into a room in a hotel that had been converted into permanent supportive housing with the help of her case manager at PATH.

“There’s thousands of stories like Impson’s and a lot of them are born out of domestic violence,” says Monica Roy, Impson’s case manager at PATH. “I’m surprised she has survived. Unfortunately, a lot of other women get lost and they never find their way back.”

While homeless, Impson says she actively sought assistance from programs, shelters, even police officers, and trashmen. Sometimes, she secured a bed or a free meal, even counseling. But she felt the system was confusing and not resourceful enough to get her off the streets.

“There’s a huge shortage of domestic violence shelters across the state,” says Kushel. “And a shortage of permanent solutions meaning if you run into a domestic violence shelter and they can’t find any place for you to move to, then you just stay there, and then there’s no room for the next person.”

The Homeless Equity for Left Behind Populations (HELP) Act, which Newsom signed last fall, requires California institutions that receive state funding for supporting homeless populations to incorporate the needs of domestic violence survivors and unaccompanied women into their systems. The new law also requires the California Interagency Council on Homelessness to measure progress towards goals to prevent and end homelessness for these vulnerable populations.

In a statement, Democratic state Senator Susan Rubio, who authored the bill, said it “makes California a national leader by including gender equity in homelessness responses.”

But advocates like Dietz and Kushel still call for a more robust, well-funded domestic violence system and more permanent housing solutions, such as Project Homekey, an initiative launched during the pandemic that provides government agencies with funds to purchase and rehabilitate hotels, motels, and vacant apartment buildings and convert them into permanent, long-term housing.

Advocates say this form of affordable, permanent, long-term housing is especially crucial for pregnant women and women with children. 

Kushel and the advocates at PATH call for an increase in resources such as non-congregate housing for women, and family-centered case management services that support mothers as they seek employment and long-term housing.

Today, San Diego native Reed is living in permanent supportive housing that she found through the help of her case manager at PATH.

She is applying to jobs, picking up side gigs painting and landscaping. She wishes there was more employment assistance for women like her, stressing that it can be difficult to transition from being unemployed to working full-time under her circumstances.

“It seems like they should be able to evaluate people as they come into the [PATH] program and get them into work as soon as possible so they can be functioning,” says Reed. “I just needed a hand up, not a hand out.”

New Yorker Marlena Fontes was working as a labor organizer and newly pregnant with her first child when a conversation with a co-worker about climate change stirred something in her that would alter the direction of her life.

It was 2018 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had recently released a report warning that world leaders had only until 2030 to make the sort of dramatic emission cuts that would prevent mass harm around the globe. 

“I always thought we had more time,” she said. “Hearing an actual number about how much time we had was horrifying.”

Fontes, 35, said she had found the report scary and overwhelming. But hearing her co-worker talk about the scale of the crisis at a time when Fontes was herself about to bring a child into the world cracked open her heart to the severity of what was unfolding: Ignoring climate change was not an option.

The realization spurred Fontes into action. She used her maternity leave to co-found Climate Families NYC with about six other moms who wanted to make a difference. Their goal was to help families find a space where they could act instead of just watch climate disasters unfold, from holding rallies to meeting in 2019 with Larry Fink, the CEO of investment management firm BlackRock, with the hope of pushing him to stop the company’s funding of dirty fuels. 

Since launching Climate Families NYC, Fontes has helped the group grow to 1,200 members. Once a month, they gather in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with paint and banners to catch up and find new members. Fontes’s four-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter often join.

“That is one goal that I have through Climate Families—to not just have an impact on climate change but to also have my kids grow up with a sense of agency and power,” she said.

They brought together 400 people—from babies and toddlers to parents and grandparents—at the March to End Fossil Fuels in Manhattan on Sept. 17, which drew an estimated 75,000 protesters. Marlena took her brother and her son, who’s been attending actions since he was three months old. The contingent marched with wagons and scooters in tow. Their theme was dinosaurs, a nod to the ancient make-up of fossil fuels and to the notion that humans could be next to die out. Children chanted on megaphones. Her son knew all the words. She smiled. “That was cool, to create a space that was family-friendly.” 

Climate activist Marlena Fontes protests alongside fellow Climate Families NYC activists at the March to End Fossil Fuels in NYC on September 17, 2023 (Ismail Ferdous for The Fuller Project)

Now, Fontes is moving her climate advocacy to the next level as the organizing director for the Climate Organizing Hub, which formed in 2022 and aims to shut down the fossil fuel industry altogether through partnerships with community groups. Victory looks like this, she said: “Ending fossil fuels domestically and [being] part of a movement eliminating them worldwide.” 

That is a monumental task. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. energy consumption came from fossil fuels in 2022. Despite scientists urging leaders to cut emissions to avoid catastrophic climate scenarios, the U.S. government has this year approved expanded fossil fuel development, including the Willow Project in Alaska and the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Appalachia. 

Even the annual COP climate conference in Dubai, where world leaders gather this month to discuss the future of climate policy, is being hosted this year by the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company Sultan Al Jaber—an appointment that has been widely criticized. 

Yet Fontes is undaunted. “My intention is to win,” she said. “I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have hope.” 

Climate activist Marlena Fontes shouts through a megaphone at the March to End Fossil Fuels in NYC on September 17, 2023 (Ismail Ferdous for The Fuller Project)

Fontes is only the latest in her family to tackle issues of injustice and oppression and to confront authority. One of her grandmothers helped found the National Organization for Women. The other grew up under the Portuguese dictatorship, where she rebelled against abusive bosses and working conditions and helped organize in a janitors’ labor union. Fontes’s mother is a psychologist, author and expert witness on child and domestic partner abuse. 

“We really come from a lineage of people who fight against oppression,” said Marlena’s 27-year-old brother, Gabriel Fontes.

Marlena said the family lived along a dirt road in western Massachusetts about 30 minutes from Amherst. It was a rural community where their water came from a well. Sometimes, Marlena and her brother would stack wood in the winter. They’d walk their dog through the woods. 

“It was a beautiful environment,” she said. “It gave me a lot of love for the natural world.” But she went to a small school where she wasn’t exactly popular; she was nerdy and quiet. She remembers eating lunch with her teacher in the fourth grade. She longed for connection. “It was also a bit isolating and hard to find your place and hard to find your community and friends.”

Her father, a communications and global studies professor, recalls how his daughter would get lost in her books. “She would spend time in the closet of her room in a world of her own,” he said. Reading would feed her imagination—but she always craved more. She knew from a young age that she wanted to be an organizer. In middle school, she gathered signatures for a petition she wrote against Nike’s sweatshops. “I’ve always loved this type of work,” she said. That’s where she said she found her calling. 

After graduating and doing an internship with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, working with one of the labor movement’s most beloved figures Ai-jen Poo, Fontes joined the airport workers’ union 32BJ SEIU. There she met Monica Cruz, a fellow organizer who became a lifelong friend. Cruz said Fontes was younger than many of the other staff, but they all respected her because of how she treated them. She was strong, dedicated, and passionate, often working 14-hour days, said Cruz. “She was there all the time, no matter if it was 2 a.m. or 4 a.m., and with great energy. That was important for our team.”

Fontes spent four years in this role, helping to raise the minimum wage for airport workers and bring thousands into the union. She eventually left for a job with the New York State Nurses Association, staying there for seven years and fighting for crucial protections during one of the darkest times for healthcare workers: the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic left hospitals understaffed with nurses having to work without personal protective equipment despite contracts that required otherwise.

Fontes predicts that climate change will “reshape all this other organizing work that happens.” 

“I wanted to make sure that I was on the frontlines of addressing this ongoing crisis that is climate change, which is going to transform every aspect of our society, including healthcare and education,” she said.

She’s in the early phases of her new role with the Climate Organizing Hub. It’s her first job organizing at a national level—and her first time focusing on climate change full-time—but Marlena said she is excited. After all, she has an entire global movement to lean on. 

Gabriel still remembers those early days of his sister’s climate anxiety. They came at the tail end of her pregnancy. Marlena would struggle to fall asleep as the thoughts of her son’s future crept in. Those negative feelings still surface, but Marlena has learned how to channel them. 

Once a week, she heads to a field in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood in Brooklyn to play soccer after her children have gone to sleep. And when they wake up, she spends as much of her free time as she can with them. They’re why she does this work, she said.

“This window is closing so fast to be able to do something,” she said. “I owe it to my children to tell them that I am doing absolutely everything I can to make sure that they have a livable planet and a livable future.”

Anna Bautista has heard the stories working in construction: penises and breasts drawn on port-a-potty walls, sexist graffiti scrawled on job sites; photo calendars on break room walls featuring scantily-clad women. She’s seen women assigned menial tasks such as cleaning, getting lunch, or organizing materials rather than learning new skills of the trade. 

This treatment is not limited to old line construction sites. Bautista, the Vice President of Construction for GRID Alternatives, the nation’s largest non-profit solar installer, says these problems are also common in the rapidly growing green economy — to the point that she goes to great lengths to present herself as very masculine when on a job site. She’s even worn a wedding ring to a solar job site  — despite not being married — so there would be no questions about what she was doing there.  “I was not there to date,” she said.

One of a small group of women working in clean tech, Bautista continues to notice microaggressions like when partners assume a male colleague is the boss of the job, and shake his hand before hers. Or when someone refers to her as “Mister” in emails. 

“It can feel like death by a thousand cuts,” she says.

Her experiences illustrate a difficult truth for President Joe Biden, who has framed clean energy as a win-win for the U.S. economy and environment. “When I think of climate, I think of jobs,” Biden told reporters in Palo Alto, California in June, referring to $370 billion in clean energy funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden called the “most significant climate investment law anymore in the world.”

US President Joe Biden speaks about his Made in America commitments, from the South Court Auditorium of the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

A new analysis of data by The Fuller Project in collaboration with Revelio Labs, a company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze employment data, finds the people who hold clean energy jobs in sectors such as solar and wind tend to be overwhelmingly male. 

Women make up just 31 percent of workers in green energy, the analysis found, a level largely unchanged since Barack Obama promised to create 5 million green jobs in 2008. The analysis found women are under-represented at both junior and senior levels of alternative energy companies, mirroring the lack of representation of women in fossil fuel companies.

Revelio reached these conclusions by collecting data from millions of online public profiles, resumes, job postings, sentiment reviews, and layoff notices, analyzing them using proprietary algorithms.

The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), both signed during Biden’s first two years in office, do require applicants for federal grants and loan guarantees to present Community Benefits Plans, which spell out the efforts grantees will make to promote diversity and accessibility. But there are no required targets. The only goal for women’s inclusion in energy projects is a 45-year-old executive order that recommends, but does not require, that 6.9 percent of work hours be completed by women on federally funded construction projects.

“We have quite a gap to close,” said Amanda Finney, the deputy director of public affairs for the Department of Energy. 

Finney told The Fuller Project the Biden administration is aware of the gender gap, and is looking to lead by example in closing it. The department is the largest funder of clean energy technology in the country, she said, and is screening applicants based on “specific commitments to recruiting and reducing barriers for underrepresented workers, including women.” The Community Benefits Plan required by the IRA and BIL accounts for 20 percent of the score the agency uses to determine which projects get funded, she said.

Advocates have been warning about this trend for years. In 2010, after Obama promised a green jobs revolution, researchers at the Urban Institute noted that “the projected growth of green jobs is concentrated in overwhelmingly male dominated industries and occupations,” such as natural resources, construction, and maintenance. Two years earlier, feminist author Linda Hirshman noted in a New York Times op-ed that “it turns out that green jobs are almost entirely male.”

The solar industry is likewise conscious of the disparities. A report from Solar Industry International, a trade group, notes that “women of color in the solar industry report that they often have to prove their competence, and they face challenges connecting with those in charge of hiring decisions.” The group says it offers specialized training and scholarships to women designed to close the gap.

At the nation’s largest solar tech company, NextEra Energy, only 24% of the 15,000-strong workforce is female. The company did not return requests for comment.

“These are traditionally male-dominated jobs, and so they’re subject to the same forces as the rest of the economy that make it hard for women to enter,” said Carol Zabin, a labor economist at the UC Berkeley Labor Center who has studied the solar industry.

Zabin says the best way to solve the problem is through apprenticeships — because they are structured to train people on the job and support them. Bautista agrees: having structured training both for apprenticeships as well as retention strategy, makes it more likely that  everyone has equitable access to opportunities, not just those who have the best relationships on the job. 

When Bautista went to MIT, her engineering track was already half women, and her first solar training was taught by two women electricians. 

“I have been able to experience the things that kind of work in terms of women-only support spaces, mentors, sponsors, seeing pushes for equity,” she said. 

Historically, Bautista’s experience is the exception rather than the rule. A 2017 report by the Berkeley Labor Center found that women made up only 2-6% of ironworker, electrician, and operator apprenticeships for renewable energy plants.

When AV Bourke shows up at her job site, she’s one of only two women on the ground — out of fifteen or so construction workers installing solar panels. Bourke is a SolarCorps Construction Fellow at GRID Alternatives, part of an 11-month training program that aims to diversify the solar industry by helping its participants secure full-time employment once the fellowship ends. Last year, she represented them in a competition called the Solar Games where she was part of the first all-women and nonbinary crew in the competition. 

The job has been hard, but worth it. “It’s a lot to learn, but it helps that I’m good with my hands,” Bourke said. 

When The Fuller Project’s requested comment on the lack of women in the renewable energy workforce, the Department of Energy pointed to a page providing information on registered apprenticeships for women in the field, noting that they are “vastly under-represented”.

Back at her job site, Bourke says every day is a learning experience, and she’s loving the solar industry so far — despite the gender disparity. For others coming up in the field, she has a piece of advice: “If you are a newcomer, especially being a woman, it’s important to just go for it. You won’t know how good you are at something until you try.”

Women are twice as likely as men to die from heart attacks. 

When a nonsmoker dies of lung cancer, it’s twice as likely to be a woman as a man. 

And women suffer more than men from Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disease.

Yet research into these conditions, and many more, generally fails to examine women separately. It’s even less likely to look at disparities affecting women of color — why, for instance, Black women are nearly three times more likely to die in pregnancy than white women are.

It’s been 30 years since Congress ordered the National Institutes of Health to make sure women were included equally in clinical trials. But despite some progress, research on women still lags, and there’s growing evidence that women and girls are paying the price.

“Research on women’s health has been underfunded for decades, and many conditions that mostly or only affect women, or affect women differently, have received little to no attention,” first lady Jill Biden said in announcing a new White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research on Nov. 13.

“Because of these gaps, we know far too little about how to manage and treat conditions like endometriosis, and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. These gaps are even greater for communities that have historically been excluded from research — including women of color and women with disabilities.”

Not only do researchers fail to include enough women in clinical trials, they often don’t look for differences between how men and women respond to treatments. 

The new initiative acknowledges that Congress’s earlier directive fell short.

“What most people don’t recognize is that it was advisory. It was a recommendation,” said Dr. Nanette Wenger, a top cardiologist in Atlanta whose work helped propel the NIH legislation. Wenger says the 1993 law that she spent so much time pushing failed to reach its goals: “It had no teeth.”

The new White House initiative doesn’t have many teeth yet, either. It directs the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Defense and Veterans Affairs, as well as several major White House offices to recommend “concrete actions” the Biden Administration can take within 45 days. 

Over the years, officials at the NIH have urged researchers to include more women in the clinical trials that study disease and potential treatments. But the drug development process is long and complex. Efforts to increase diversity of all kinds in medical research run up against overburdened investigators, overwhelmed physicians and a U.S. Food and Drug Administration pulled between a demanding public clamoring for new drugs and a pharmaceutical industry driven by profits. So questions about gender differences fall through the cracks — and the lack of research means no one can even hazard a guess as to all the consequences.

“We know less about female biology and we are struggling to catch up,” said Dr. Janine Clayton, director of the NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health.

On the surface, things look good. More than half of the people in NIH-funded clinical trials are female — 58.5%. And more medical trials focus only on women than only on men.

But it takes only a light scratch to see the numbers are misleading.

Pregnant and nursing women are still greatly underrepresented in clinical trials. So are Black, Hispanic, Asian and Indigenous women. Women make up more than half the U.S. population, but account for just 43% of volunteers in cancer trials, 46% of those in immunology trials and 42% in kidney disease trials. 

Even trials involving the latest weight-loss drugs — which enrolled more women than men — have failed to determine whether women respond differently to the hormone-based treatments.

It’s a legacy stemming from decades in which women were blocked from clinical trials, in part because of concerns related to pregnancy and menstrual cycles and in part because researchers bought into the now-debunked idea that women were working and taking care of families, and therefore too busy to participate.

As a result, women are still less likely to be included in trials for treatments for the biggest killer of both men and women: heart disease. Even lab mice are predominantly male, and cell lines used in the early stages of medical studies come primarily from men.

A researcher examines a lab mouse. (Adam Gault/Getty Images)

The effects show up in almost every aspect of human health.

While women are about as likely as men to have heart attacks, they are more likely to die from them, according to the NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health.

Women are more likely than men to suffer from autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, but the reasons are poorly understood. And even though women suffer more from chronic pain than men do, they are less frequently treated for it.

The U.S. has by far the worst maternal mortality rate of any comparable country and is the only developed nation where those numbers are climbing.

These deaths cannot all be prevented by better research. But the lack of attention to how women respond differently to drugs, how medical providers treat women and how the system still provides women less-than-adequate care is costing lives, experts and advocates say.

“Because of research, we know that sex matters,” Clayton said. “We’ve made a lot of headway since considering women too fragile or might become pregnant as a reason for exclusion,” she added. “Because of research we know that even down to the cellular level, the genetic level, there are sex differences in those cells.”

Nonetheless, many researchers overlook those differences. 

“We still have the same problem that we had 30 years ago,” said Dr. Stephanie Faubion, medical director of The Menopause Society and director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Women’s Health in Jacksonville, Florida. “We still don’t know if these drugs work the same, better or worse in women than in men.”

A series of studies called the STEP trials, published in 2021 and 2022, are the latest example.

They have shown that the diabetes drug, semaglutide, sold under the brand names Wegovy, Ozempic and Rybelsus, can help obese people lose up to 15% or more of body weight in just over a year and can treat heart disease. The resulting clamor for the drug has caused shortages.

Faubion was researching whether the drugs have different effects among women taking certain medications for breast cancer. “We think estrogen has something to do with the weight loss,” she said. But none of the trials — published in prestigious medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association — break out separate data on men and women. “We can’t do it if we can’t get the data. It’s stunning,” Faubion said.

Some efforts have been made to address the problem. The NIH and FDA have offices dedicated to ensuring equity not only for women, but for ethnic and racial minorities as well. However, neither agency fully enforces its regulations and policies on sex differences in research, advocates said. “All you have to say is, ‘Oh, yes. We considered it,’” said Katie Schubert, president and CEO of the nonprofit Society for Women’s Health Research. “You don’t have to actually do anything about it.”

Researchers are rarely forced to use a gender lens to interpret their findings. 

“There’s no mandate to analyze the sexes in different ways,” said Dr. Nicole LeBoeuf, an associate professor of dermatology and cancer specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Without analysis, investigators cannot tell if there are sex differences to consider in diagnosis or treatment.

Fewer than a third of the results from the most advanced clinical trials, known as Phase III trials, are reported by sex in medical journals, Clayton said. Doctors rely on the journals to inform their practices. If there’s no data to justify changing how they treat women, they don’t. 

Perhaps as a result, emergency room staff take longer to treat women who complain of heart attack symptoms. And doctors and patients alike often miss stroke symptoms among women, even though they have a higher risk than men.

Lung cancer, the biggest cancer killer by far, mostly affects smokers. But every year, it kills 20,000 to 40,000 nonsmokers in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two-thirds of them are women, said Dr. Claudia Henschke, a lung cancer expert at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital. Still, just a tiny fraction of research on lung cancer focuses on women.

The FDA, which must approve drugs before they reach the market, is clear: Including more women and people of color in clinical trials is desirable, but only for the sake of having a representative sampling of the population, not to focus attention on those groups. Senior FDA officials say a one-size-fits-all approach is the most realistic way to test drugs for everyone.

Evidence shows that doesn’t always work.

‘Where are the data about treating women?’

By the late 1980s, Wenger realized she was missing critical information. As a senior cardiologist at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, she noticed a disturbing and counterintuitive pattern. It wasn’t only men who were dropping dead of heart attacks.

“When I began to look and ask, ‘where are the data about treating women with heart disease,’ there were none,” said Wenger, who continues to practice at Grady and teach at the affiliated Emory University medical school. 

She asked the American Heart Association and the NIH for studies to guide her. “People sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘Well, there’s no difference. And it doesn’t matter,’” she said.

Given the toll of heart disease on both women and men, Wenger was flummoxed by the lack of interest.

Wenger persuaded the NIH to sponsor research that resulted in a startling article in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993. It showed disparities by gender across the spectrum of heart disease, from heart attacks to strokes, high blood pressure and heart failure. Not only was more research needed, the article concluded, but a change in attitude among doctors was vital.

The findings helped accelerate a movement that led to passage of the bipartisan 1993 NIH Revitalization Act directing the agency, which funds most medical research in the U.S., to ensure that women and minorities were included and to establish guidelines for doing so. The FDA set similar guidelines the same year.

In 2016, Congress got more specific, requiring scientists conducting Phase III trials to not only include data on sex, gender, race and ethnicity, but to analyze it.

But gender disparities in medical research persist. “NIH applies a disproportionate share of its resources to diseases that affect primarily men, at the expense of those that affect primarily women,” a 2021 report in the Journal of Women’s Health concluded.

“It’s sad that what we have done feels like a drop in the bucket,” said LeBoeuf.
Only 4.5% of the money spent researching coronary artery disease goes to projects that focus on women, according to a 2022 report by the advocacy group Women’s Health Access Matters (WHAM), written with the Rand Corporation. While women are disproportionately affected by rheumatoid arthritis, a mere 7% of research into the autoimmune causes of the disease looks specifically at women. Likewise, only 12% of Alzheimer’s research and 15% of lung cancer research centers on women.

Widespread caution

Some of the biggest drug disasters in history have affected pregnant women and their babies. Thalidomide, prescribed widely in the 1950s to treat nausea in pregnancy, caused severe birth defects. Diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic hormone prescribed to pregnant women between 1940 and 1971 to prevent miscarriage, premature labor and other complications, was later found to raise the risk of cancer in children, especially girls, exposed in the womb. 

Those medical failures prompted widespread caution about enrolling women who might become pregnant during clinical trials. Although the FDA lifted this restriction in 1977, pregnant and nursing women remain greatly underrepresented in medical research. “If a woman becomes pregnant during a clinical trial, it is considered an adverse effect and the woman is taken off,” said LeBoeuf. 

That leaves millions of pregnant women without tested options to treat serious diseases. “No pharmacological treatments for sickle cell disease have been studied in pregnant people,” Dr. Lydia Pecker of Johns Hopkins Medicine said at a recent NIH workshop. 

Physicians and advocates say it’s difficult to change decades of practice.

Even FDA believes there’s no problem

The argument that sex differences are rarely significant persists, even at the top levels of biomedical research. 

“FDA always looks at results by sex,” said Dr. Janet Woodcock, the agency’s principal deputy commissioner. “Usually there are not differences, but there are important exceptions where differences matter. If significant trends are seen by sex, we look into it and may note it on the drug label.”

But science isn’t the only consideration; economics are also in play. Pharmaceutical companies want to get drugs approved as quickly as possible. “They are going to do the minimum it takes to get on the market,” Woodcock said. “Companies try very hard to dose everybody at the same dose. It is very unpopular to put out a drug and say, ‘these folks need a different dose.’ Clinicians are so reluctant to prescribe personalized dosing that the pharmaceutical industry almost never does that.”

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry’s leading lobbying organization, says the FDA publishes sex differences when appropriate with new drug approvals. “It would not be practical or feasible to power every study to look for differences if the early trials are not showing clear biological differences,” said Jocelyn Ulrich, PhRMA’s deputy vice president for policy and research.

The FDA does have a plan to consider sex at every step of the drug approval process. “We know that disease sometimes manifests differently in women than in men; sometimes women also respond differently to FDA-regulated products,” the plan says. 

Failure to recognize this can be deadly.

One of the clearest cases is Ambien, a sleep aid approved in 1992. The FDA was aware from the start that its effects might not wear off by morning, and warned that users might walk and even drive in their sleep. When people taking the drug caused fatal car crashes, the “Ambien defense” became a common courtroom term.

A prescription bottle of Ambien. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

It wasn’t until years later that researchers noticed this problem affected women far more than men because their bodies metabolize the drug differently. In 2018 — more than 25 years after the drug’s approval — the FDA required a lower dose for women.

“We caught Ambien, but there are so many other drugs or therapeutics out there that are not providing outcomes that they did in trials,” said Irene Aninye, chief scientist for the Society for Women’s Health Research. 

A 2001 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that eight of the 10 drugs pulled off the market in the previous four years because of potentially deadly side effects were riskier for women than for men.

These included the diet drug fenfluramine, which caused strokes, and the heart drug Posicor, which slowed heart rates in otherwise healthy people, especially elderly women.

A followup by the GAO in 2015 faulted the NIH for failing to do more to make sure it was following its own policies.

Increasing enrollment of underrepresented and excluded populations would require better enforcement of the federal guidance and having more women scientists to conduct research, especially at high levels. “Women, people from diverse backgrounds, ask different questions,” Clayton said. 

Some drugs work better in women than in men, including so-called targeted therapies in cancer care, LeBoeuf said. “When you give immunotherapy to melanoma patients, women tend to do better,” she said. “We know very little in terms of the why.” 

More research could show whether it’s because of a hormone such as estrogen. And if tweaking hormones during cancer care improves results, that could benefit men as well.

The future of women’s health research

NIH is working on several fronts to improve things, encouraging research institutions to increase diversity among research staff and offering funding to study sex as a biological variable.

The NIH’s All of Us Research Program aims to enroll a greater diversity of people into clinical research with online questionnaires, voluntary DNA sampling by outreach to minority communities. The FDA launched a program this spring to make it easier for various populations to join clinical trials by, for example, expanding them to smaller  communities. 

The NIH has allocated nearly $1 billion to better coordinate research on autoimmune disease, which disproportionately affects women, Clayton said. It also is working to help women and people of color find funding for scientific research.

“Historically, we’re just getting to a point where women are finally in leadership positions in science. Men have been the leaders and men don’t understand women’s bodies,” said Bethany Young Holt, founder and executive director of CAMI Health, a global women’s health organization focused on sexual and reproductive health.

“They just understand their own.”

Faubion, of The Menopause Society, said that until medical journals require analysis of results by sex, researchers simply won’t do it. “We have a big problem in that journal editors are not making them do this,” she said. 

Annette Flanagin, the executive managing editor of JAMA and its network of journals, said they ask researchers to do so, but Faubion said they don’t enforce such requests.

More legislation may be needed, said Schubert, of the Society for Women’s Health Research.

Dr. JoAnn Manson, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, agrees. She helped lead the biggest-ever study into women’s health, the Women’s Health Initiative. “When the Women’s Health Initiative was started in 1992, it was a line item in the congressional budget,” she pointed out.

First Lady Jill Biden said the new White House initiative is intended to go much further in closing medical treatment gaps between men and women. “Every woman I know has a story about leaving her doctor’s office with more questions than answers. Not because our doctors are withholding information, but because there’s just not enough research yet on how to best manage and treat even common women’s health conditions. In 2023, that is unacceptable,” Biden said.

“We have a clear goal: to fundamentally change how we approach and fund women’s health research.”


This article was corrected to say that the NIH has allocated nearly $1 billion to better coordinate research on autoimmune disease, rather than for a new office, as an earlier version said.

California would become the first state to require venture capital firms disclose the race and gender of the founders of the companies they fund, under a bill currently awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature.

The business community strongly opposes the legislation, characterizing it as an example of bureaucratic overreach.  But civil rights groups and female entrepreneurs say it could go a long way to equalizing opportunity in Silicon Valley, where startup capital overwhelmingly flows to white men.  According to the business data firm Pitchbook, companies founded by all-female teams accounted for just 2% of venture capital funding last year. Those led by Black women and Latinas received even less, 0.85%, according to a report from Project Diane, a research effort focused on female founders. 

“This is a chance for us, for the industry to look itself in the mirror –  to finally, wholeheartedly internalize that we have a bias problem,” said Marquesa Finch, founding partner of the F5 Collective, a fund that exclusively backs female founders.  

A woman weating a beige blazer and black pants sits in a chair with her arms folded and her legs crossed.
Marquesa Finch, founding partner of the F5 Collective. (Photo by Carly Soderstrom)

Finch, who helped draft the bill for Democratic state Senator Nancy Skinner, is a FinTech founder and a venture capitalist with a decade of experience. A woman of African American and Filipino descent, Finch said she has experienced discrimination first hand. She said she’s been mistaken in the past for support staff. When she pitches, partners at venture capital firms, who are almost always white and male, pose questions that cast doubt on her ability to lead and perform – “a stark contrast to my male counterparts who are often asked questions related to growth and potential,” Finch said.   

Newsom has not yet indicated whether he will sign or veto the bill. His office declined to comment. 

California represented over 40% of the over $246 billion in venture capital funding invested in the United States in 2022, according to data provided by Pitchbook. Because the law would apply to venture capital firms based in California along with those that invest in the state or solicit funds from residents, the law’s impact would likely resonate from Silicon Valley to Wall Street and beyond.

Nearly all of the firms making the largest bets on Artificial Intelligence would be covered, including Silicon Valley titans Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz, Soma Capital and Khosla Ventures, which have funded ChatGPT founder OpenAI,, Cohere and SellScale.

Controversies around racial and gender bias in AI products, which drew $22.7 billion in venture investment in the first quarter of 2023, have been widely documented by the media, academics, and civil rights groups. The Biden administration released its Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights last year, designed, White House Senior Advisor Susan Rice said, to “ tackle algorithmic discrimination and address the harms of automated systems on underserved communities.”

The Fuller Project reached out to the ten venture capital firms that made the largest investments in Artificial Intelligence, according to Pitchbook, asking each for demographic information of their partners and the founders of the companies they fund. 

None of the companies shared their data and none would agree to be interviewed.

“No response, is in fact a response,” says Finch. “It communicates to the ecosystem that diversity, bias, and equity are not high on the priority list.”

The National Venture Capital Association also declined to be interviewed for this story, but has made its opinions known to the legislature. In August, the association’s president and CEO, Bobby Franklin, wrote to lawmakers to say the bill “lacks justification.” The association argued the bill was “inefficient, unnecessarily punitive, and will violate (the) privacy” of venture partners and startup founders.

If Newsom signs the legislation, venture firms would have until March 1, 2025 to provide demographic data to the California Civil Rights Department. If venture firms don’t, the state is empowered to take them to court to seek a penalty “sufficient to deter the respondent from failing to comply” in the future. 

Kathryn Youker, director of the Economic Justice Project at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law said if the law is signed by Newsom, the data provided by venture capital firms could eventually be used in lawsuits by female entrepreneurs and business owners of color who believe they have been discriminated against.

“Statistics are important” to proving discrimination, Youker noted, citing the “disparate impact” standard that the Justice Department uses to prove illegal bias in housing, employment and other sectors. The standard, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2015, establishes data analysis as a method to “counteract unconscious prejudices” and uncover “discriminatory intent.”

The threat of future lawsuits was a factor in spurring opposition to the bill from TechNet, a Silicon Valley trade group, and the California Chamber of Commerce. The two organizations, which did not respond to requests for comment, told lawmakers in a letter that they were “especially concerned” that the bill would allow the state to “use any information collected under this bill” to sue.

Female founders say diversity in venture capital is simply good business. In 2018, the investment bank Morgan Stanley published a report that made a “trillion-dollar case for investing in female and multicultural entrepreneurs.” The report found that minority-owned businesses are often more profitable and less risky than their counterparts. The same year, the Boston Consulting Group released a report that showed businesses founded by women delivered more than twice as much per dollar invested than businesses founded by men.

The California legislation comes against a national backdrop of backlash to government efforts to promote diversity. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to ban racial and gender preferences in college admissions and conservative legal advocates have been working to extend the prohibitions to other areas of life. 

In August, the American Alliance for Equal Rights, a conservative legal advocacy group sued The Fearless Fund, an Atlanta-based venture capital firm that invests in companies founded by Black women, arguing the company’s race and gender preference was illegal. On Tuesday, a federal judge ruled the Fearless Fund could continue to operate a program for Black women, because the lawsuit was not likely to succeed.

Affirmative action has been banned in California since 1996. The proposed California law does not include any preferences for women or people of color.

Nevertheless, Youker thinks the sunshine could “make a big impact in terms of public accountability for firms and the potential for firms to adjust their practices based on public pressure.”

Newsom has until October 14 to sign or veto the bill.

The Golden State overtook Germany as the world’s fourth-largest economy this year, but not all of this wealth is being shared equally. In this series, the Guardian and The Fuller Project look at the lives of women, especially women of color, who help drive the economy of the US’s second-most racially diverse state but don’t get their fair share of the pie.

Warning: This article contains references to suicide throughout.

First, her education was taken away. Then, a wedding was arranged – against her will – to her cousin, a heroin addict. Latifa* was left facing an unthinkable choice.

“I had two options: to marry a heroin addict and live a life of misery or take my own life,” said the 18-year-old in a telephone interview from her home in Ghor province in central Afghanistan.

With Latifa’s dreams of medical school dashed by the Taliban’s ban on secondary and university education for girls and her family insisting on the arranged marriage that had been six years in the making, the Afghan teenager saw only one option. 

“I chose the latter,” she said. She tried to kill herself last autumn by overdosing on prescription medicines.

Latifa’s suicide attempt is no one-off. As Afghan women see their hard-won freedoms to study, work and even to leave their homes wrenched away by the Taliban, growing numbers are choosing to take their own lives out of desperation and hopelessness, an investigation by Zan Times and The Fuller Project has found.

More than twice as many men die by suicide as women globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Until 2019 — the last year for which official data is available – more men than women died by suicide in Afghanistan. But figures obtained from doctors at public hospitals and clinics around the country for this investigation suggest that women are now taking their own lives in far greater numbers than men, a global anomaly that underscores the impact of the Taliban’s draconian policies.

Women outnumbered men for both suicides and suicide attempts in nine of the 11 Afghan provinces for which Zan Times and The Fuller Project obtained data for the year to August 2022. The figures are by no means comprehensive – they cover only a third of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and are likely only the visible tip of the iceberg in a society where suicide is seen as a source of shame and often covered up. But they do show a clear trend. In the 12 months that followed the Taliban takeover, women and girls accounted for the vast majority of both those who tried to take their own life, and deaths by suicide. 

“When I meet with Afghan women across the country, their consistent message is the impact that the growing restrictions are having on their psychological well-being. Afghanistan is in the midst of a mental health crisis precipitated by a women’s rights crisis,” said Alison Davidian, the country representative for UN Women, in emailed comments. 

“We are witnessing a moment where growing numbers of women and girls see death as preferable to living under the current circumstances, where they are stripped of  the agency to live their own lives.”

Loss of hope

Afghan activists, international aid agencies and United Nations experts say the high rate of female suicides in Afghanistan reflects not only a loss of freedom for women, but an increase in forced marriages and domestic abuse – and a loss of hope.

In July last year, Fawzia Koofi, former deputy speaker of the Afghan Parliament, told the U.N. Human Rights Council the situation had grown so desperate that “every day there is at least one or two women who commit suicide”. 

Latifa tried to end her life with cough medicine, caffeine tablets and sleeping pills bought from a pharmacy that did not ask for a prescription. Following the suicide attempt, she said she woke up in a hospital bed surrounded by her family and doctors, suffering from a burning sensation in her stomach and unable to open her eyes. 

She was informed that her cousin – a man seven years her senior – had disappeared after learning of her suicide attempt. There has been no further discussion of the marriage, but Latifa is still afraid that he might return at some point.

“If he comes back and my family tries to force me [into marriage] again, I will hang myself to make sure I don’t survive,” she said.

Afghanistan’s history of conflict, civil strife and poverty had given rise to a mental health crisis long before August 2021. 

A national survey on depressive and anxiety disorders published in the journal BMC Psychiatry in June 2021, two months before the Taliban takeover, found nearly half the population of 40 million was suffering from psychological distress.

Patients wait to see a doctor at the mental health ward in Herat’s hospital in January of 2023. (For Zan Times and The Fuller Project)

A 2019 report by Human Rights Watch said more than half of Afghans struggled with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress, but that “fewer than 10 percent receive adequate psychosocial support from the state”.

It is difficult to know how much has changed since then. A 2022 survey by Gallup found that while “suffering is now universal among men and women” in Afghanistan, female respondents were more pessimistic about the future.

The Taliban does not release health data and all the data collected by Zan Times and The Fuller Project was provided over the phone by health workers speaking on condition of anonymity. One mental health worker in the western province of Herat who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals said the Taliban had barred health professionals from publishing or sharing statistics on suicide, which had previously been published regularly.

Spokespeople for the Taliban and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Herat had the most reported suicide attempts of the provinces for which data was obtained: 123, including 106 by women. There were 18 reported deaths, 15 of them women. Historically, the conservative region, which has a larger share of educated women, has recorded high levels of gender-based violence and female suicide attempts, according to the now-exiled Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

The Herat mental health worker said the province had always had a high suicide rate, but that staff were now overwhelmed. About 90 percent of the provincial hospital’s mental health patients were women who “are breaking down under the weight of the new restrictions,” they said.

“Patients do not get the hospitalization time and counselling they need,” the worker said. “Many times, we put two patients in one bed.”

Patients sleep in the mental health ward of Herat’s main hospital in January of 2023. (For Zan Times and The Fuller Project)

The worker cited domestic violence and forced or underage marriages among the drivers of suicide, saying stopping secondary schooling had meant girls were married earlier. Women often “paid the price” when families were struggling financially and men became abusive, the worker added.

Social stigma

Roya*, 31, was found hanged in her house in Herat city in May 2022.

Her younger brother, Mohammad*, who asked that his real name be withheld, said that Roya had spoken to their parents repeatedly about her husband’s abusive behaviour, which included frequent beatings. 

“But every time, my parents would persuade her to keep her family together,” Mohammad said. “One morning, we were informed that Roya had hung herself. We never thought it would get this far.”

The family told people she had died of an illness, fearing her suicide would bring shame if it became public, Mohammad explained.

Shaharzad Akbar, former chairperson of the AIHRC, said such behaviour is common due to the social stigma surrounding suicide.

“The rare instance when they willingly admit to suicide is when they don’t want any member of the family to be accused of murder,” said Akbar, who is now executive director of Rawadari, a new Afghan human rights organization.

The mental health of women and girls in particular is deteriorating, activists and aid agencies say, because the Taliban has systematically closed off nearly all avenues for female education – with girls unable to attend school past the age of 12 – and opportunities for women to work, earn an income, or exercise any autonomy.

According to the obtained figures, most of the attempted suicides and deaths involved women and girls who were educated – they had either been in school before the Taliban takeover or had school qualifications. Rat poison, which is easily accessible in Afghanistan, and hanging were the most common suicide methods.

Research published in August 2022 by Save the Children found that 26 percent of girls were showing signs of depression compared with 16 percent of boys.

Behishta Qaimy, project coordinator for Save the Children Afghanistan, said girls were increasingly despondent since being banned from attending school, recalling how one had told aid workers: “I am hopeless, I get angry quickly, I cry for myself, and when I go to bed, I have nightmares.”

While some organizations are still able to operate in Afghanistan, many have suspended operations after the Taliban barred women from working for national and international NGOs. As a result, 11.6 million women and girls are no longer receiving vital aid, UN Women has warned, and services for survivors of violence or to prevent sexual exploitation have shut down.

Nine in 10 women in Afghanistan suffer some form of domestic violence, according to the United Nations. Experts say modest progress in tackling the issue before the Taliban takeover has been wiped out.

“The mechanism to respond to domestic violence is totally eradicated; women have no choice but to bear the violence or kill themselves,” said Akbar. 

Warnings about female suicides are only intensifying as the Taliban tighten their grip on women’s and girls’ rights.

In May, U.N. experts including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, said after a visit to the country that they were “alarmed about widespread mental health issues and accounts of escalating suicides among women and girls”.

Some see these actions as the only remaining form of defiance possible for women in a country where dissent and protests are punished.

“We cannot reduce the message of women who commit these very ostentatious forms of suicide to simple act of despair,” said Julie Billaud, an anthropology professor at The Geneva Graduate Institute and the author of Kabul Carnival, a book about gender politics in post-war Afghanistan.

“The despair is settling in. Perhaps [suicide] is the last attempt by those who have left no power to say something and be heard.”

* Names have been changed to protect interviewees.

This story was a collaboration with Zan Times, a female-led news organization that covers human rights in Afghanistan.

The bankruptcy lawyer spread all of Jean’s debts across the table. She pored over each document, trying to swallow her shame. The papers documented more than $140,000 that Jean and her ex-partner owed creditors.

It was June 2021. Jean, who the Guardian and Fuller Project are identifying by her middle name to protect her identity during ongoing divorce litigation, had separated from her husband two years earlier. She had already been granted a domestic violence restraining order in Alameda County, California, after experiencing what she describes as physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse. But in the meantime, shared loans and expenses between Jean and her ex-partner had been piling up. Since Jean was the account holder on most of their credit cards, she was beholden to the bank. Declaring bankruptcy seemed like her only hope for a fresh start. 

“I was basically [financially] worse off than when I started working at 16,” Jean said. 

The financial system has become an important new frontier in the fight against intimate partner violence. More than nine in 10 survivors of an abusive relationship experience economic abuse, according to the US National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 

More than half of survivors surveyed by FreeFrom, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit and a leader in the space, said harm-doers had accessed their bank account, monitored it, withdrawn from it or otherwise controlled it — all considered forms of economic abuse. Survivors reported having less than $300 they alone could access, on average. In a separate study from the Allstate Foundation, nearly eight in 10 survivors identified not having enough money as a primary barrier to leaving an abusive partner.

“Financial institutions are not the ‘bad guys’ here, but folks are abusing their infrastructure,” said Amy Durrence, director of systems change at FreeFrom.

Regulators are taking note. Countries like the UK and the state of New South Wales in Australia have already expanded domestic violence legislation to include “coercive control” — patterns of behavior that abusers use to dominate partners and limit their freedom. 

Dialogue around economic abuse is beginning to gain steam in the US as well. California is one of a few states that has expanded its legal definition of domestic violence to include coercive control, and a new law effective in July prevents creditors from collecting on a debt if a survivor can demonstrate that it was coerced. But other legislation introduced in the state last year, which would have created online training for financial institutions to learn how to detect and respond to economic abuse, didn’t make it through the legislature.

“Imagine taking on enormous credit card debt, or worse, taking on a mortgage against your will. This is a fast track to financial ruin,” said California State Senator Dave Min, who authored the bill against collecting coerced debt. “We cannot allow survivors of domestic violence no way out of a situation that is not their making.”

As the legislative branch in the US slowly catches up, nonprofits have long worked to fill the gap, with organizations like FreeFrom distributing cash grants to survivors. Advocates also are focused on helping legislators and banks better understand what economic abuse consists of, hoping to instill the basic literacy necessary before institutions can make broader shifts.

Jean had disclosed to her credit card company that she was a survivor of domestic abuse, but this didn’t change her situation. “They said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ but they didn’t do anything about it,” she said. “They don’t care what’s wrong with my personal life. They just want me to pay my bills.”

Financial exploitation can take many invisible but insidious forms. It could consist of damaging a partner’s credit by starting a business or opening a credit card in their name without their knowledge, said Judy Postmus, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work. 

Some people prevent their partners from going to work, harass them at work, or behave in ways that lead someone to lose a job and income. Another common tactic is to maintain complete control over someone’s financial accounts. The CDC has estimated that intimate partner violence costs women survivors nearly $104,000 over their lifetimes.

“People can be out of the relationship for 20 years but still be having problems recovering their credit score,” Postmus said.

Economic abuse also can be concealed behind a facade of wealth.

“We know there’s a whole range of places where this is happening, but it’s not as easy to spot as broken bones and bruises,” said Moo Baulch, a domestic violence expert and advisor who has worked with Australia’s largest bank, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, to implement programs that support survivors.

“There are rich, affluent women who’ve got five cars in the driveway and have a beautiful summer house, who are living — to all intents and purposes for everybody on the outside — a beautiful, privileged life,” Baulch said. “But if they are not allowed to put petrol in their car, or have to account for the number of miles in their car when they drive it down and drop off their kids at the private school, or if they don’t have any access to money because all of the money is tied up in a financial family trust,” she said, then they cannot meet their basic needs.

Before Jean’s marriage, she worked for a nonprofit and lived paycheck to paycheck. She and her partner moved in together in 2013, marrying the following year. He had a family trust that purchased their house, and not paying rent reduced her expenses. 

Some people prevent their partners from going to work, harass them at work or behave in ways that leads someone to lose a job and income. (Illustration by Susie Ang for The Guardian)

She left her job after having a child in 2015. “I was nervous about the lack of having my own money, and the balance of power,” she said. The trust fund deposited money into her husband’s personal account, but Jean was responsible for paying household expenses. 

“I would have to ask him to put money into our shared account for me to pay the bills…for our credit cards, for our health insurance, our electricity,” she said. 

He began withholding funds as their relationship grew increasingly fractured.

“I felt like a child,” she said, but she didn’t identify this behavior as a specific type of abuse. “At the time, I just felt like it was controlling, it was just a relationship problem. It was just a disagreement on how finances should be dealt with.”

Legislative initiatives in the US are in the early stages, but financial institutions in other countries can provide a beacon to follow. The finance and banking sector in the UK has updated an industry-wide Financial Abuse Code of Practice that nearly 40 brands have signed onto, and some UK bankers are trained on how financial exploitation is a tactic of domestic abuse.

In Australia, Baulch has played a part in training private sector teams that provide support to survivors and detect red flags of economic abuse before their customers rack up significant debt. Baulch helped the Commonwealth Bank of Australia develop trauma-informed responses when customers were using messaging features of banking platforms to harass and maintain contact with ex-partners who had cut off other forms of communication. 

Say someone pays a friend back on a mobile financial platform — you “might send them 50 bucks through your app and you say, ‘Thanks, Moo, had a great night,’” she explained. “Our team found… a whole load of really small transactions going between two accounts with abusive messages in them.”

The messages they found ranged from overtly threatening to more subtle, she said, like a string of one-cent transactions with a single word in each that together formed a litany of violent messages.

In the United States, FreeFrom offers a national-level cash grant program for survivors through a safety fund that provides cash with no strings attached. It also administers a savings match program to help survivors build emergency savings over six months. Data from 2020 show that more than half of grant recipients spent money on food, and nearly one in three used it for utilities or household items.

Recipients told Freeform that this financial cushion made it easier to leave unsafe situations or pay emergency expenses without contacting their abusers. Similar programs providing grants and savings matching for survivors have been rolled out by other nonprofits in San Francisco and Kansas.

At the same time, the organization is pushing for broader systemic change with its “safe banking” guidelines, a set of 11 recommendations that any U.S. bank could implement to better protect customers being subjected to abuse. Key points include implementing enhanced fraud protections on survivors’ accounts, allowing them to open new bank accounts with alternatives to disclosing their address — which may need to be kept secret — and offering flexible repayment plans so people don’t further damage their credit while paying off debts.

These guidelines could have been a lifeline for Jean when she had barely any income and was buckling under debt. 

“I’m still not as far along as I would like to be toward my goals of financial stability when I compare myself to other people, or when I compare where I am now to where I thought I would be 20 years ago,” she said.

But she now has a new job she loves, and dreams of moving to another state closer to family so she can start a fresh chapter. Though she remains mired in divorce litigation, she clings to the hope this will be finalized soon, allowing her to truly begin again. 

“I will definitely be celebrating,” she said, “like throwing myself a party or going out dancing with my friends.”

Baringo County, Kenya – “This charcoal is from hell.” 

Susan Chomba glares out the window of the Prado Land Cruiser at dozens of motorcycles speeding in the opposite direction. Each motorcycle carries at least five bags of charcoal and for every bag, at least three medium-sized acacia trees must be chopped down and burned. Charcoal production is banned in Kenya.

Chomba loves trees. She can rattle off the scientific and local names of countless species and detail their ideal growing conditions. She holds a PhD in forest governance and master’s degrees in agriculture development and agroforestry. She is director of food, land, and water programs, continent-wide, at the World Resources Institute (WRI), a global environmental research non-profit. She manages a portfolio of $20 million and a staff of 100.

She is a rarity.

Roughly 12 percent of the world’s top climate scientists are women and fewer than one percent are from Africa – a continent hard hit by climate change. “If you look at the way the world operates, it’s almost blind to the fact that women bear the biggest burden and brunt of climate change,” Chomba says. That Chomba is an African woman in such a key role is potentially revolutionary, especially because she goes out of her way to solicit the views of those most affected and often most unheard – local farmers, community elders and, notably, women. 

“The way climate is seen in the world, it’s seen very much from a masculine perspective,” Chomba says. For example, while male climate scientists focus heavily on developing renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels like oil and gas, Chomba believes they pay far less attention to the hundreds of millions of women worldwide who are burning wood for tasks like cooking. Incorporating the perspectives of women – particularly poor, rural women – would better ensure comprehensive solutions, she says. 

Susan Chomba during a meeting with country officials at Baringo County government offices. (Fredryk Lerneryd/The Fuller Project)

Chomba is 40 years old but still remembers the hunger pangs she suffered as a child when the land failed to yield enough food for her family. More people, most likely women and children, will suffer the same fate, or worse, if wise and profound changes aren’t made soon.

Today, she is traveling with a team of WRI experts from Nairobi to Baringo County in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, home to mountainous forests that supply 75 percent of Kenya’s water. But the expansion of agriculture into previously natural environments, deforestation for charcoal and logging, urbanization and climate change have ravaged the land, leaving it thirsty and bare. Locals say they haven’t had a yield of maize or beans, their staple crops, in three years.

Chomba and her team visit a massive gully that has split the ground into two in the middle of the farmland. The area has been overharvested and overgrazed, with few natural grasses or indigenous trees left to hold the soil together. That, combined with climate change and an intense dry season, has left the earth looking like parched, cracked skin. 

An elderly farmer points to a tree and says cooking oil can be extracted from the native species.

Susan Chomba and members of her team during a field visit a massive gully in Baringo county. (Fredryk Lerneryd/The Fuller Project)

“How can we do this through the Terrafund?” Chomba asks her team, referring to the WRI’s lending program to support businesses addressing land degradation and restoration. “We have a muze [an elder] with knowledge, a fund that wants to invest and a place that needs seedlings.” 

There’s an urgent need for community-driven ideas, but hasty, half-baked “solutions” can exacerbate harm, Chomba argues on the drive to Baringo County. At the end of last year, for example, Kenya’s newly-elected president, William Ruto, announced his intention to plant 15 billion trees in Kenya by 2032. But Chomba says the plan fails to specify which species will be planted (native or foreign), where they will be planted (forest reserves or communal farms), why they will be planted (for timber, carbon, fruit, or soil fertility), and who will actually grow them. 

“The devil is in the details, and that’s lacking,” Chomba says. “If you don’t address deforestation causes, forget about your tree planting. It’s useless.” 

Flamingos in Lake Bogoria, Baringo County. (Fredryk Lerneryd/The Fuller Project)

Chomba grew up in Kirinyaga County in central Kenya, where her mother cultivated a small plot of land owned by a step-uncle. Chomba’s mother grew capsicum and french beans and formed cooperatives with other farmers so they could pool their products for export. Because her mother was a single parent and was always working, Chomba was largely raised by her grandmother.

“She used to tell me that if she could have gone to school, she would have studied so much that knowledge would be smoking out of her nostrils,” Chomba says. “She made sure that I knew that education was my only path out of poverty, out of the life we had back then.”

When Chomba was nine, her mother wanted to send her to a local boarding school, but the admissions staff in Kirinyaga took one look at her shabby clothes and turned her down. 

“I’m not ashamed of my childhood poverty,” Chomba says today. “It’s what propelled me back then and what makes me sensitive to-date.”

Susan Chomba poses for a portrait on the shore of Lake Bogoria, Baringo County. (Fredryk Lerneryd/The Fuller Project)

Instead, Chomba traveled alone on a bus to a different boarding school in Western Kenya. A few years later, when Chomba’s mother ran out of money, Chomba returned to the provincial high school in Kirinyaga. Each student was given their own small patch of land to farm, and Chomba grew cabbage because they thrived in Kirinyaga’s cold climate. She experimented with organic farming, opting to use garlic and blackjack instead of chemical pesticides. 

Chomba flashes a broad smile: “My cabbages were absolutely massive.” 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Kenyans were pushing back against the dictator Daniel Arap Moi, Wangari Maathai was pressing for forest conservation and fighting for multiparty democracy. Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, inspired a generation of young, female Kenyan environmentalists.

“We just admired Professor Wangari,” Chomba says. “She taught us that nature belongs to all of us.” 

Chomba wanted to study law, but she missed the university cut off by a single point. Her second choice was agricultural economics, but by a strange twist of fate, she was placed in a forestry course. It wasn’t until her third year, when Chomba took an agroforestry class, that she realized she had found her calling. 

“The gods chose my life for me,” she says. 

While Maathai was protesting in the streets, Chomba chose another path more aligned to her strengths – research. 

“I have a lot of respect for activism, I think we need activism,” Chomba says. But she opted instead for a job that relies on evidence-based data as the basis to change systemic structures. 

Chomba joined the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) and led an eight-country land restoration program, called “Regreening Africa,” which restored one  million hectares of Africa’s degraded lands. By now a single parent, Chomba had to leave her son at home with her mother to pursue dual master’s degrees in Europe.

“[S]he had to really fight,” says Tom Vandenbosch, one of Chomba’s first mentors at ICRAF. “Her having a young son when she had to move to Europe to finish her studies – that’s not something which is so easy to do.”

Susan Chomba and members of her team during a field visit in a massive gully in Baringo county. (Fredryk Lerneryd/The Fuller Project)

Chomba returned to ICRAF as a climate change researcher advising some of the brightest diplomatic minds in Africa convened to tackle climate change at the Conference of Peoples (COP). Chomba called it “the most humbling space I ever occupied as a young researcher,” and says the job “touched the social justice part of my soul.”   

This experience convinced Chomba to get her PhD at the University of Copenhagen. 

Chomba married her husband in 2009 and gave birth to their son in 2010. Both her sons seem interested in the environment, but “kids never do what their parents want them to do,” Chomba admits. She wants them to carve out their own paths. 

Chomba’s team pulls up to the Baringo County government offices after a five hour drive, enters a tiny office and crams around a table occupied by local officials. She will need their staff, resources and approval to operate in the county. 

She strategically mentions budget numbers for Terrafund and as she utters the amount set aside for the Greater Rift Valley region – $6 million – the officials straighten up, their interest piqued. 

But challenges remain. Chomba broaches the issue of illegal charcoal production. One government official waives aside her concerns, citing Kenya’s struggling economy. “They are selling charcoal because they have no other option,” he says. 

Chomba rolls her eyes.  

The following morning, Chomba spends hours in the stifling heat speaking with women who are part of a grassroots gender-empowerment cooperative. Florence Lomariwo fled her home as a child to escape female genital cutting and child marriage and became a college-educated teacher. She describes how the ongoing drought is causing armed clashes between male herders, who are ranging farther from home to graze and water their livestock. Left alone, women are bearing the brunt of this.

“Most of the women are suffering deaths because of lack of water,” Lomariwo says. “For our family to survive, a woman [must] travel, even if it is 100 kilometers.”

Monicah Aluku, a 37-year-old widow, speaks up. 

“Feel our pain,” she says. “There is no water. Women are walking so far to get water that they are miscarrying. There is no healthcare system. Kids are drinking dirty water and getting typhoid. We are really suffering.” 

Chomba leans forward. She nods intently with a serious, steady gaze. Chomba and her team were scheduled to head back to Nairobi around 1 p.m., but they don’t leave until hours later. And only after Chomba has heard from every woman in the room.

Every morning, Luul Siciid Jaamac starts her day with a cup of tea and the burning of frankincense. She says she breathes in the incense to relieve her back and joint aches, hard-earned from a lifetime of sorting frankincense resin in Somaliland.

The woodsy, piney scent is sweet—and lately, so is victory.

Jaamac used to sort frankincense resin for an allegedly exploitative company named Asli Maydi, which supplied frankincense to doTERRA, a major US essential oils company that generates more than $2bn in annual sales. 

Today, Jaamac is the chairperson of a new frankincense sorting collective called Beeyo Maal, which empowers about 280 women to run their own business in the male-dominated frankincense industry. “Now, we are in charge and we have got the freedom to run our business,” said Jaamac, who’s also one of the founding members.

A woman wearing a head scarf and a yellow outfit sits at a white table.
The Chair of Beeyo Maal Cooperative, Luul Siciid Jaamac sits in a sorting house. (Photo handout from Beeyo Maal Cooperative)

Before, Jaamac and several other women sorters—workers who divide frankincense resin by color, grade and quality—were subject to the whims of leaders like Asli Maydi owner Barkhad Hassan, and they were excluded from decision-making, many of the women say.

Since its founding in 2008, doTERRA has built its brand on a promise of ethical sourcing. But a two-year investigation by The Fuller Project found women working for the company’s frankincense supplier Asli Maydi were underpaid and required to work in harsh conditions. Multiple women accused Asli Maydi’s politically powerful owner Hassan of sexual harassment and assault. The Fuller Project article led doTERRA to suspend operations with Asli Maydi; several weeks later the women registered their collective. 

On a late afternoon in March, I spoke with a group of Somali women wearing colorful headscarves and waving enthusiastically over a WhatsApp video call. They were standing in a small green room—their very own warehouse. Smiling faces crowded in front of the camera, seemingly eager to show off their new workspace.

Beeyo Maal, which means the “milkers of frankincense,” is based in Erigavo, a major city in the self-declared republic of Somaliland, and it was registered as a business with Somaliland’s Ministry of Trade and Tourism in January. Jaamac has never held a meaningful leadership role before, she said, and as chair of the cooperative, she hopes to cultivate a caring and respectful work environment. 

The floors are dusty with frankincense resin and the roof is corrugated aluminum, but, unlike their old warehouse, this one has running water and a toilet—no longer do they have to rely on the kindness of neighbors to let them go to the bathroom. Overflowing bags of frankincense sit in corners, and the women scoop handfuls of unsorted resin, holding them before the camera for me to see.

The British-based charity Horn of Africa has been involved since the collective began—the charity’s director Amina Souleiman came up with the concept and helped the women acquire the warehouse, obtain their first frankincense resin, and register for a business license. The warehouse is rented through the year, according to Souleiman.

Women in Somaliland rarely own frankincense trees, since traditional law dictates they be passed down to male heirs. This system has marginalized women to sorting, which is one of the lowest-paid positions in the industry. “I want the women to really have the opportunity to buy the resins themselves and then to sell it themselves,” Souleiman said.

Wages are paid weekly through a mobile money service called Zaad. Nimo Abdi Salah, the cooperative’s treasurer, said she hopes to teach basic math and money management skills to some of the cooperative’s members. At 23, she’s younger than some of the other women in managerial roles. It’s not easy for women to be leaders in Somaliland, but she has “big dreams,” she said.

Right now, the women are buying from Somaliland harvesters, and selling sorted incense for burning and chewing in local markets. Eventually, they hope to sell their product more widely online—and even internationally. The women also hope to expand from just incense to marketing frankincense creams, lotions, and soaps.

The women are paid $1 to $1.50 for sorting about two pounds of resin, totaling about $5 per day, they say. For Asli Maydi, they were making just over $1 a day. Though they’re earning more now, a fair wage would be $15 a day, based on what they would need to support themselves and their families, Souleiman said.

Piles of incense sit in brown bags at a market
A market has incense for sale. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

It will take time for them to grow their customer base and reach their goal wages, Salah said. For now, women are investing any extra money they have back into the business—primarily to buy more frankincense from harvesters.

Shots fired

It’s unclear if the sorters’ former employer, Asli Maydi, is still in business — many women stopped working with Asli Maydi when frankincense harvesting slowed during the pandemic. Its owner, Barkhad Hassan, appears to have left the country, according to his social media posts. Hassan has posted several times since The Fuller Project published its original story in January, including several videos of him firing weapons at a shooting range. On February 17, he shared a video of himself holding a gun. The caption read, “I know my enemy and they will die painfully and suffer a lot for sure. sooner or later.” He also posted a photo of Anjanette DeCarlo, one of his alleged sexual assault victims, describing her as his ex-girlfriend and threatening to post nude photos of her. (He has no such photos of her, unless they are digitally altered, DeCarlo said.)

Other alleged victims of Hassan and his associates are still in hiding, Souleiman said. “They haven’t got back to their normal life,” she said. “He’s making a lot of threats … It’s really disturbing.”

Hassan denied posting threats on social media. In an emailed statement, he noted that “Somaliland is plagued by extreme poverty, a corrupt government, and a lack of institutions,” and he claimed that the allegations against him are “fabricated by those looking to advance their own economic and political interests.” 

He declined to say whether Asli Maydi was still in operation, but he said his work “will not stop.” 

When asked if it was still working with Asli Maydi, doTERRA said in an email that it had “suspended its operations in Somaliland and will not reopen its operations until it is satisfied that it is appropriate to do so.”

In a statement, the company announced it had appointed the law firm Sidley Austin to lead an independent investigation into the allegations of substandard working conditions and sexual assault. Thus far, doTERRA said it “has not uncovered anything of substantial concern,” but expressed disappointment “that on-the-ground investigations have not yet been completed due to interference from certain clan and political officials as well as regional violence which has led to safety concerns for our employees.”

Sidley Austin will advise doTERRA and its supplier to implement workplace training on fair working conditions, sustainable practices and sexual harassment. DoTERRA also noted “a hotline has been established and will soon be operational” for workers to lodge complaints. 

Anjanette DeCarlo, a sustainability consultant who formerly worked as a contractor for doTERRA, said no one from doTERRA has contacted her since The Fuller Project published its investigation, in which she alleged Hassan had raped her in 2018. In its January statement, the company suggested that she contact law enforcement—even though doTERRA acknowledged that the company itself did “not have the authority or investigative powers needed to fully investigate these allegations.”  

“It kind of felt like being assaulted again, to be honest,” she said. (DoTERRA said it did contact DeCarlo but she did not respond.)

Otherwise, DeCarlo said, life is good. She’s teaching in the sustainable innovation MBA program at the University of Vermont, and since her sexual assault experience went public, her students have “leaned in harder to everything that I teach them, knowing that I have been through stuff trying to uncover injustices in the supply chain.”  She’s published in scientific journals and started co-writing a book. With her consultancy company and her project Save Frankincense, she’s continued her sustainability work, including teaming up with harvesters to track the tapping of individual frankincense trees, delineate their farms by GPS coordinates, and ensure reliable payments.

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘Wow, you’re still here?’ Like that’s a surprise,” she said. “I strongly believe I was assaulted to be stopped … If I stopped, then they win. He wins.” 

In the years since the assault, she’s found renewed purpose in her work, and has only recently started to “feel like myself again,” she said . 

“I’m still here,” DeCarlo said. “Because there’s work to do.”

 ‘This is ours’

Back in Erigavo, things are not perfect, the women say. Sorters still walk to work, in some cases as long as two hours each way. Wages remain low. And sorting still involves backbreaking labor, which can lead to health problems.

But “at least this is ours,” Jaamac said. 

The freedom is inspiring, said Fatima Mohamoud Mohamed. She’s worked in frankincense for more than four decades, since she was an 8-year-old apprentice to her mother. Mohamed can still remember the first paycheck she ever received. “I bought a pair of flip flops,” she said. They weren’t the best quality—her feet were still scratched by thorns—but they gave her “some comfort,” she said. “That meant a lot to me.”

She hopes she can replicate that feeling for the other women in the cooperative, though in more meaningful ways. For example, she wants to set up retirement funds for the women.

“We can build our future,” Mohamed said, “and the future of other women.”

SAN FRANCISCO: For two years, Virdell Hickman managed to avoid getting a raise. In the summer of 2020, the education nonprofit where she works launched a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiative. Hickman, a Black woman, saw her salary bumped up. But she pleaded with her employers to not raise her pay.

What should have been a cause for celebration has instead become a headache. The higher salary, which in theory should be helping Hickman better navigate these inflationary times, will come with a major catch. It will mean she no longer qualifies for housing subsidies through the federal government’s Section 8 voucher program.

Last year, her employers told her they could no longer avoid giving her a raise. Succeeding at work could cost the Bay Area native her home and stable rent this April, when the government will review her eligibility for housing assistance.

“I got a raise and am so stressed out,” Hickman says. “I need a huge jump [to] over $100,000 a year to be able to make the rent on my own.” 

Hickman’s resistance had created awkwardness with her Black co-workers at 826 Valencia, making it more difficult for them to present a unified front in demanding higher pay. Inside the institution, the pressure was on to get Hickman’s salary to match the median pay for her role as determined by an outside consultant. In July 2022, her salary was increased to $75,000 a year, pushing her past the $60,000 a year threshold beyond which she will no longer receive housing subsidies.

If she loses the voucher, the amount she pays for rent could more than double from $700 to $1500, even though her salary increased by a far smaller fraction.

Economists call Hickman’s dilemma the “benefits cliff”: get a new job or a promotion, and a rise in income beyond a certain threshold can disqualify people from benefits which they rely on to survive. Housing is only one worry: Food, cash assistance, and healthcare support are also based on income requirements.

Men, women and children stand single file in a line across from brown cardboard boxes.
People wait in line to receive packages of food during an Alameda County Community Food Bank food giveaway at Acts Full Gospel Church on July 15, 2022 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The problem is especially acute in California. The Golden State experienced some of the highest inflation in the country over the past two years — and it was already one of the most expensive places to live in the United States before that. In major urban areas like San Francisco, the problem is compounded by high costs of living and fierce rental markets

Wages don’t keep up with rising costs, so the threshold for losing financial assistance, linked to income levels, rises at a slower pace than the cost of living. Because of the instability of the economy, fluctuations in gas prices, and cost-of-living increases, many are unable to make accurate budget predictions that would enable them to confidently taper off their use of welfare programs.

The result is it’s easy for someone like Hickman to get bumped up to a salary range that’s high enough to disqualify her from government assistance, but too low to actually make ends meet. 

Like Hickman, many who struggle with this Catch-22 situation are women of color. Welfare statistics do not break down how many recipients are women of color, but two out of three recipients of public assistance in the United States are women. Black and Hispanic women earn less than all other demographic groups, respectively earning $0.64 and $0.57 for every $1 earned by white men in 2020. This means they’re in disproportionately greater need for financial assistance, especially as they’re more likely than white women to be a single parent or primary income earner for their families.

The federal government’s Section 8 housing voucher program, created in the 1970s as part of an effort to reduce segregation by helping low-income families afford housing in more expensive neighborhoods, was intended to address disparities in costs of living by providing financial assistance based on an area’s median income. 

In Hickman’s case, she qualifies for Section 8 vouchers as long as she makes less than roughly $60,000, half of San Francisco’s median household income of $119,136. Having crossed that threshold, she would have to pay full rent in a city where the fair market rate for a studio apartment is $2,069 a month, as assessed by the government.

It’s a strange moment for Hickman, who finds herself dreading departing a program that’s rarely seen as a desirable one. She recalls the stigma associated with Section 8 vouchers, with those who rely on them frequently being seen as people who have many children or who don’t take care of their homes. The stereotypes have long been debunked but their impact lingers.

“Now people don’t mind it because they know it’s guaranteed rent,” she says. “Before, it was discrimination left and right. As soon as you said Section 8, nobody wanted to rent to you. It was humiliating.”

“Threading the needle”

At 826 Valencia, Hickman is in charge of emergency plans and cost-effective approaches to the pandemic, including providing gloves, masks, and test kits for three learning centers. She paints on the side, and her larger-than-life, hyperrealistic painting, Beekeeper 3, hangs in a gallery a block from her non-profit, a pandemic-era piece inspired by beekeepers’ use of personal protective equipment. 

She and a relative share a small studio space which her daughter helps pay for. If she loses this space because her rent at home goes up, she’ll have to start painting in her poorly ventilated one-window home.

“I work with oils and turpenoid. There’s a smell to that, which I love, but it’s not a healthy smell,” she says. “I’ll make the space for it. That’s how important it is to me.”

Local non-profits often find themselves walking a tightrope when it comes to figuring out pay for staff like Hickman. 

“We often have to thread the needle with how much we pay residents in order to make sure they don’t lose benefits,” says Christy Shirilla, director of resident organizing at the Tenderloin Community Benefits District, a non-profit which works to improve neighborhood conditions in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco. 

Her neighborhood activists work as block captains or help provide safe passage for the children who walk to and from after-school activities in the Tenderloin neighborhood. She says several of her clients, especially undocumented women, prefer a monthly Visa gift card to avoid inaccurate adjustments that may take months to process and result in penalties for one-off payments.

Soha Abdou, a residential services supervisor for an Arab families program at the Chinatown Community Development Center, a community organization in the Tenderloin, was once a recipient of food vouchers. She chose to get a promotion from the role of coordinator to supervisor and the raise that came with it, knowing it would mean losing the benefits. She says that while the financial assistance has stopped, the financial pressure she feels endures on a daily basis.

“I came here like many others, to work to build this country in a different way. But it’s not beautiful. It’s painful,” Abdou says. “I’m not talking about going to Disneyland. I’m talking about the basics, the cost of gas, of protein. Not even buying chicken or meat.”

The San Francisco Department on the Status of Women did not respond to requests for comments by phone or email at the time of publication.  

Hickman says she has communicated her maximum allowable salary to her employer in order to stay below the threshold, but remains uncertain about the outcome of her upcoming annual Section 8 review. 

“If you really want people to transition off of assistance, they have to till that cliff, not just drop them,” she says. “Once I hit that cliff, my whole life changes.”

LOS ANGELES: When Irma Mejia moved into a garage with her three children, she was hoping it would be temporary. Then, on the very first payday after pandemic lockdowns went into effect, she says her new manager told her she was only going to get paid half of what she was owed.

“[I thought] if you couldn’t pay me, you should have asked me,” Mejia recalls. “Because I get to decide if I’m working here or not, right? If you’re only gonna pay me these hours, then I’m only working those hours.”

Mejia, 45, was stunned. She lived in a garage, but still had a $750 rent check due. She felt helpless. Undocumented, she knew she would have no legal protections in a labor dispute, and believes that played a role in the decision of her manager at a laundromat in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, to not pay her full wages.

Mejia says she quit after four months of trying to get paid what she was due. She believes she’s still owed almost half of her total wages, but isn’t sure about the exact amount as she says she wasn’t keeping track during the chaos of the early days of the pandemic. She says she has lost hope of recovering that money.

“My immigration status has been weaponized,” she says.

Over one million of workers in California are undocumented, making up 6% of California’s workforce and contributing $3.7 billion towards the state’s tax revenue, according to a University of California, Merced, report released in March. They also play a crucial part in the labor force, filling one in 16 jobs, especially in manufacturing, food service, construction and agriculture. Yet these workers are not eligible for unemployment benefits, making it more likely that they’ll end up working in exploitative or high-risk environments.

Farmworkers work on a farm with green grass.
Farmworkers on farm near Bakersfield, Kern County, California, USA. (Photo by: Citizen of the Planet/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The UC Merced report found that undocumented migrants in California were eligible for $1,700 in state and federal assistance in the first year of the pandemic, compared to $35,000 for residents who were also U.S. citizens. Immigrants made up 58% of pandemic-related deaths in California’s deadliest industries — agriculture, landscaping and food processingbetween March and December 2020. 

The data is not broken down for undocumented migrants, but activists who work with them say they have been especially vulnerable — particularly women, whose top 10 occupations in the U.S. all involve in-person work, such as cleaning, child care and restaurant work.

“A lot of the inequities that we see generally out in the world are ramped up for that population,” says Sasha Harnden, an attorney at Inner City Law Center in Los Angeles. “They are dealing with mountains of rent debt, having to go back to work, despite potentially having to take care of family members, and have to deal with the loss of a lot of lives, including primary breadwinners [during Covid].”

Providing undocumented people with a pathway to citizenship would be one solution to this problem. But ongoing efforts in the Senate to achieve this before the Republicans take the House stumbled in mid-December over disputes about also increasing funding for Customs and Border Protection at the same time.

In the House, 28 Democrats led by Reps. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), Jesús García (D-Ill.) and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) called on Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to move legislation forward on this issue, claiming that providing access to citizenship to undocumented migrants would raise U.S. GDP by $1.7 trillion over 10 years. The House has passed a bill providing a path to citizenship for undocumented people who came to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers, but supporters have little hope that the Senate will consider it.

‘Honest labor’

Before the laundromat, Mejia worked in different convention centers in Long Beach, Anaheim, and Los Angeles as janitorial staff and also looked after the elderly in a private home. “Honest labor,” she calls it. 

When the pandemic hit, she worried about exposing her children and elderly mother by going into work, but the state of her finances left her with no option. Unable to afford childcare, Mejia worked the night shift from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. at a 24-hour laundromat in East Los Angeles. Her oldest surviving children are in college now, and she wants the younger ones to follow suit. To her, this means not just working to provide for them, but also being present with them during the day. Having to call a garage their home has made this dream feel more distant.

When asked about Mejia’s overdue wages, her former employer, Fresco Laundromat, in a written statement said: “After an internal investigation into the allegations that an employee of our company was dismissed without full compensation for work rendered, we have determined that this event happened under the direct supervision and management of an outside contractor hired to build a night processing team in early 2020.”

They also went on to state that the outside contractor was dismissed from the role in June 2020 for multiple reasons, such as poor performance and lack of communication. The owner, Adam Xavier, added: “The employee never spoke directly to me regarding missing pay. In fact, the reason for her dismissal was not brought to me, as those decisions were handled by the contractor due to a language barrier.”

Xavier says they will reimburse Mejia if she brings her pay slips, but Mejia says the contractor did not give her any to begin with. The Fuller Project and The Guardian have requested the name and contact information of the contractor from Fresco Laundromat several times but have not received a response. Mejia, who did not realize the person who hired her was an outside contractor and not an employee of the laundromat, referred to the person as “the manager” and told The Fuller Project that she cannot recall his name.

Fighting over funding

Twice as many noncitizen workers (38%) live below a “living wage” than citizen workers (18%), according to the same UC Merced study. This has generational implications.

Alejandra “Honey” Arias, a single mother of three daughters, says she was fired from a clothing store in the summer of 2020. She believes her immigration status made it easier for her former employer to fire her. Being undocumented also meant that she was not eligible for unemployment funds.

“I lost my job and I got evicted from where I was living,” she says. “They literally told me to get out. They didn’t care. The landlord did not care. And I got evicted with my three children.

For over a year, Arias shuttled between temporary housing and shelters, trying to make ends meet with the $1,600 she gets from CalFresh food subsidies, as well as $1,600 in Supplemental Security Income cash assistance that she gets for her youngest daughter, who is autistic.

The disparities highlighted by the pandemic prompted some lawmakers to try to take action. State Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a Democrat from Coachella, introduced legislation AB 2847 in April to create the Excluded Workers Pilot Program. It aimed to make unemployed undocumented migrants eligible for $300 per week for 20 weeks — a total of $6,000 in assistance.

“Access to unemployment benefits can make all the difference in a family affording rent and food to feed their children,” Garcia said in a written statement to The Fuller Project. “Our immigrant communities are Californians who contribute millions to our unemployment program and economy.” 

A man cries while holding a microphone and a girl hugs him. A woman is standing next to the guy with a sign that says "immigration reform starts here."
Activist Jorge Narvaez speaks while his daughter Alexa,9, weeps, during a rally for deportees and Dreamers in Downtown San Diego, CA. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Corbis via Getty Images)

But California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill in September, arguing it needed a dedicated funding source. 

“With our state facing lower-than-expected revenues over the first few months of this fiscal year, it is also important to remain disciplined when it comes to spending,” Newsom said when announcing his veto. 

Advocates of the bill say the program would have cost $597 million, but Newsom countered that it would cost “well over $20 billion in one-time spending commitments and more than $10 billion in ongoing commitments.”

Struggling to remain resilient

State support can make a bigger difference for undocumented people than most, as their precarious immigration status means problems can easily compound. Arias says she was run over in a hit-and-run accident while crossing the street, and ended up in the hospital, seeking emergency treatment. Friends and family came together to raise almost $20,000 to pay the ER bills for the uninsured Arias, but she says she could not afford to pay for follow-up treatment or physical therapy. 

For now, Arias focuses on the day-to-day, helping her two older children with online schooling. Without a car and reliant on temporary housing, she felt her children’s education was being disrupted by having to change schools frequently, and enrolled them in a K-12 program that offers a virtual public school.

Her youngest daughter attends a special education school nearby in Boyle Heights. Like Mejia, Arias values education for her children above all else. She says she dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to help provide for her family and is determined to see that her children don’t share the same fate. 

“I needed to help out my mom because my mom was in a really toxic relationship with my father. He was really abusive,” she says. “I didn’t want to be home so I would just go outside to try to bring some money in so there wouldn’t be that much tension at home.”

She recently started a job working as a canvasser for a community organization, and is hopeful this will help her attain the stable and secure housing she craves, a place “where I could feel relaxed.”

“At shelters, you see a lot of things that you shouldn’t,” Arias says. “I do want to protect my children.”

Mejia echoes this sentiment. “A home,” she says, “is where you play, where you eat and where you have conversations.” Without that, she says she feels no control over life. 

She reaches up to touch her red, heart-shaped pendant. It contains the ashes of her son, who passed away in 2016, a month shy of his 20th birthday. He was walking down a street with friends when he was caught in an argument between rival gangs and was gunned down.

“I am going to keep fighting,” she says.


Arias’ story was corroborated by members of Community Power Collective who know her through her mother who organizes with Fideicomiso Comunitario Tierra Libre (FCTL – a local community land trust). They’ve helped her connect with supportive services in the past including temporary shelters.

Mejia’s story was corroborated by members of Inner City Struggle.

Like many working mothers, the first months of the pandemic were a nightmare for Andria Kemp-Sellers. The state of California declared her husband’s job at a sugar factory essential, so he continued to go in for 12-hour shifts. She stayed at home in Vallejo, juggling raising their three children and teaching 25 four- and five-year-olds online in Oakland. 

“The kids were eating me out of house and home because they were bored,” Kemp-Sellers said, laughing. “Eating became an event!” 

Even with two parents working full-time in unionized jobs, the family struggled to afford the basics. They needed high-quality internet for their children’s schooling and her teaching, which wasn’t cheap — around $50 a month. Along with their food costs, their electric bill also went up. Kemp-Sellers, who grew up in Oakland but left after getting priced out, took on extra work and cut back in other areas. But the family still struggled to keep up.

“It’s a terrible feeling when you have to essentially introduce poverty to your kids,” she says. “When you have to explain: ‘Well, I could make you that extra peanut butter sandwich, but then we won’t have any bread for tomorrow. 

“It does something to your psyche as a mother. It makes you ashamed.”

When the federal child tax credit$500 for each child arrived in the mail, it was “a saving grace,” she said. The Pandemic EBT card — a federal program that supplied $200 a month per child for food to parents with school-age children who would have otherwise qualified for free and/reduced lunch — also helped the family to get through. 

Then came the Golden Gate Stimulus — a one-time $600 or $1,200 payment per tax return for residents of California who earned less than $75,000. It was the biggest direct cash payout a state has ever offered taxpayers, ultimately reaching 8.4 million people. A child care subsidy also came as part of the relief package. For a brief moment, Kemp-Sellers felt she had room to breathe.

The impact of the relief initiatives led to many anti-poverty advocates calling for them to be made permanent. Instead, these state and federal relief dollars have all but disappeared, with critics saying the policies are too sweeping and should instead be targeted towards a middle class struggling to cope with inflation. 

Today, only the child care subsidy remains. But that too is set to expire this June, setting up a confrontation between a state legislature which overwhelmingly supports making the subsidy permanent and a governor strongly opposed to doing so.

The legislature has already had one effort rebuffed. Last year, a bill by Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes, Democrat from San Bernardino, was passed with no dissenting votes and strong support from parent and child care advocates. Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill in September, saying it would be too costly. 

Those pushing to make the policies permanent say the consequences of ending programs that buoyed so many women of color and their families during the pandemic — particularly Black families— could be profound: the loss of jobs and homes, hungry bellies, toxic stress.

“At the end of the day, politicians and policymakers still do not trust Black and brown women to do what’s best for their families,” says Jhumpa Bhattacharya, founder of The Maven Collaborative, a grassroots organizing group centered on Black women.

A time of unprecedented aid

This wasn’t the first time Kemp-Sellers had to face up to harsh financial realities. Though she teaches transition kindergarten at a public school in Oakland, the city where she grew up, rising rents forced her to move to nearby Vallejo in 2013. 

She’s not alone. A recent study of the Bay Area found that 58% of women of color are “housing cost-burdened” — a federal designation for households that spend more than 30 % of their income on rent or mortgage. California’s housing shortage is the leading cause of poverty and homelessness in the state, and experts warn that the displacement of women of color like Kemp-Sellers is especially damaging as they act as an informal support system that keeps their communities alive. 

“What people don’t understand is that another pandemic was happening before the [COVID-19] pandemic – the pandemic of economic struggle for the people who, as soon as the check comes in, it’s going back out,” says Keta Brown, a Black mom raising four kids in Oakland.

Brown knows the “pandemic of economic struggle” first-hand; now, as an organizer who helps mostly Black, single moms advocate for their children’s educational rights, she saw how Covid-era relief helped some women get by. 

“When some of these women got a little check in the mail, you best believe it went to good use. They’re calling PG&E [the electricity company] and saying, ‘I know I owe $300. I can send you $100 now and you keep the lights on. I’ll send more later,’” she explains. “That little check changes the whole game. They stretched every dollar.”

The pandemic hit these women of color hard. Black, Latinx, and most other women of color suffered disproportionately — struggling to juggle jobs and kids out of school, and working risky and unpredictable jobs in retail, food services, and the in-home care space. 

These women were often not set up to weather a financial crisis. And during these last two years, more than 40% of women of color in the state in households struggled to pay housing costs or afford food, according to the California Budget and Policy Center, compared to 29% of white women.  In fact, this was the first recession in which more women than men lost jobs, and Black and Latinx women and women who are immigrants lost their jobs at especially high rates in the early months of the pandemic. 

A woman wearing a face mask in a car talks to another woman standing outside of the car.
A woman talks with a volunteer at a drive-thru food giveaway at Mile Square Regional Park in Westminster, California. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Inflation is only making things worse. About one-half of Black, Latinx, and other Californians of color reported struggling with basic expenses in recent months, compared to about 30% of white Californians. 

The impact isn’t just economic: half the women in the state report experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Among women suffering through multiple hardships, such as the loss of household income or the inability to pay for food or housing, as many as three-quarters report these symptoms. 

But the pandemic has also been a time of unprecedented aid. 

Federal stimulus payments prevented 1.7 million Californians, particularly people of color, from falling below the poverty line between 2019 and 2020, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Unemployment insurance helped an additional 1 million Californians avoid poverty.

The state itself — one of the largest economies in the world — pushed through an array of support programs. On top of the Golden Gate Stimulus payments of $600-1200, California offered critical rent relief of nearly $4 billion to about 431,000 households so far, and eviction protections. 

The state also provided child care subsidies, and led the way nationally when it permanently repealed a series of controversial legal fees, including what states call “supervision and programming fees” — whereby people on probation or parole have to pay for their own mandatory supervision, drug testing, and electronic ankle monitoring. These fees disproportionately hurt already vulnerable families of color

The relief measures seem to have made a difference. During this time, the poverty gap between whites and other racial demographics narrowed. The Public Policy Institute of California found that disparities in poverty between minority groups and whites narrowed during this period — particularly for Latinos. In 2019, Latinos were 2.3 times more likely to be in poverty than whites, compared to 1.8 times more likely in 2020.

Researchers have found that the expanded child tax credit reduced child poverty nationally by 26% compared to pre-pandemic levels. Childcare is the highest household expense in all California counties, except for five Bay Area counties that have the state’s highest housing costs.

These numbers led to a push among many local groups to make pandemic-era policies permanent. What took place was the opposite — the state has allowed almost all of the initiatives to expire.

A battle over who deserves the money

At the heart of the dispute is disagreement over what type of role the state should play in providing support. Opponents of extending the policies say the state has misplaced its priorities with such universal programs, instead demanding more targeted policies such as an also controversial gas rebate proposal that would be much more focused on helping middle-class voters.

“California can’t afford to waste state resources providing unneeded assistance to those with higher incomes, assets, and wealth. Instead, policymakers have a responsibility to provide targeted relief using proven paths to the children, families, and individuals blocked from the opportunity to thrive in our communities,” wrote Sara Kimberlin and Alissa Anderson of the California Budget & Policy Center, arguing that the universal nature of the relief programs funnel money towards more well-off families who don’t need it.

Supporters of extending the policies believe opponents are acting out of their own unchallenged bias, noting that the state’s relief programs have been crucial in helping middle-class women like Kemp-Sellers survive. From their perspective, the argument that the relief efforts unnecessarily help rich families is a smokescreen to bash programs that in practice overwhelmingly support poor families and people of color.

Candice Elder, an Oakland native and Executive Director of the East Oakland Collective, a group that advocates for food security, says her group has had to become more creative since state support dried up in March, grabbing leftover meals from empty Silicon Valley offices or from food festivals. But that hasn’t been enough to meet the needs of the community.

“We’ve had to tell some of our elders, ‘You can come in for hot food on Mondays, but that’s it. We no longer have hot meals to provide on other days. You gotta stop coming other days’,” Elder says.

Many extension advocates look to New Mexico as an example of a state that’s doing it right, or at least better. In early 2020, the state spent $300 million to create an Early Childhood Education and Care Fund — an endowment which draws on oil and natural gas taxes. It is projected by area lawmakers to be worth $4.3 billion by 2025. A new program, which started May 1, makes child care free for most residents (families of four can earn up to $111,000 and still be eligible) through June 2023, what Michelle Lujan Grisham, the state governor, calls the next step on the road to universal free preschool for the state.

For women like Kemp-Sellers, a little support meant basic dignity. 

“When we had that extra money, it actually helped me learn who my children were. I could take them to the grocery store and say, ‘Pick out what sounds good to you,’ and they loved knowing, ‘These are my strawberries. I picked them out and I can eat them,’” she said. “If only we could live like that all the time.”

SEBASTOPOL, Calif. — At Radical Family Farms, Leslie Wiser recently planted bitter melons, what she refers to as “one of our most beloved crops,” a staple in many types of Asian cuisine that grows on a vine and is related to zucchini, squash, and cucumber. It was a warm day on her three-acre farm, yet the cloud cover made it just right to be working on what Wiser refers to as her “dreamy but expensive” mixed-Asian vegetable farm that she started in 2018.

“Regenerative climate, smart farming takes a lot of time,” said Wiser, the child of Chinese-Taiwanese, German and Polish-Jewish immigrants who came into farming in her early 40s. She dreamed about growing vegetables that reflect her heritage and teach her children where their food comes from, and this is exactly what she’s doing.

Women like Wiser are increasingly the face of farming in California, and nationally as well. Experts say the growing presence of women in agriculture is having an impact on how the industry operates, especially in the face of generational challenges like pandemics and climate change, with research showing that women-led businesses are more likely to take a community-minded approach to how they operate and fill in gaps during crises. And as Congress prepares to debate its latest farm bill, many women are calling for it to provide more support for what the legislation calls “specialty crops”: locally produced fruits and vegetables, often grown by women, as opposed to heavily subsidized industrial staples such as wheat, corn and soybean.

Women in California today represent 37 percent of all the producers in the state, according to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture — which only began tracking these numbers in 2017. And since 2009, women are clearly outpacing men in agricultural education. 

Leslie Wiser of Radical Family Farm. (Photograph: Courtesy Radical Family Farm)

Caitlin Joseph, Women for the Land program and policy manager at American Farmland Trust, said that 75% of the students who earned a bachelor’s degree in agriculture-related majors from 2019 to 2020 at the University of California, Davis, were women. This trend tracks with the rise in the number of women majoring in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and establishing careers in physical and life sciences, which comprise agriculture.

Joseph said that young women might also be inspired by the “community supported agriculture model”, in which people farm together on land they co-own and do everything from grow food to raise children and feed their communities.

“We think there is strong evidence that women are a growing share of the people in California’s agriculture industry,” Joseph said. “We know that women have always been essential parts of the farming community in California. But their roles have often been overlooked in behind-the-scenes tasks that are undervalued as key pieces of [agricultural] operations’ success, such as bookkeeping, marketing or customer relationship building.”

Now they are more and more a part of the actual production. This trend in California mirrors a similar shift nationally. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of women-operated farms grew by 23% in the US.

In her dissertation about women farmers for Utah State University, published in 2019, Ennea Fairchild wrote: “Not only are women making up at least a third of those in most agricultural fields, but … their numbers are continuing to grow, with women increasingly becoming involved in all aspects of agriculture.”

This is having an effect on how American farms operate. Female farmers in the US are younger, more likely to be a beginning farmer and more likely to live on the farm they operate compared with male farmers, according to the Census of Agriculture. American Farmland Trust says women-led farms in the US have laid off fewer workers during financial crises, along with being at the forefront of ensuring food security in their communities.

“​​Research shows that women-led businesses in general have a community networking mindset approach to their operations, which does mean in times of crisis, like the Covid pandemic and supply chain issues, women are filling in the gaps,” Joseph said. She adds that women of color, in particular – continuing a long history of creating community-based mutual aid networks – have supported access to land and healthy food for all.

Produce box from Radical Family Farm. (Photograph: Courtesy Radical Family Farm)

Evan Wiig, director of membership and communications at the Community Alliance With Family Farmers (Caff) in California, said that he, too, has witnessed women farmers in California leading the charge through some of the state’s worst crises, whether it’s recovering from a fire or sharing tips about smart water practices and irrigation efficiency.

“Men say, ‘I don’t need help, I know everything I need to know,’” Wiig said. “But women have the grace to say that ‘I can learn a lot.’ Maybe this is a stereotype, but maybe it’s true.” Women make up two-thirds of Caff, whose mission is to build sustainable food and farming systems through policy advocacy and on-the-ground programs that create more resilient family farms.

Joseph agrees that women farmers often lean on their community in tough times and, in return, it’s women who support others who need it. “That’s my observation. I think these things are interconnected,” she said.

During the pandemic, for example, Joseph said women farmers filled “the gaps in local communities for food access”. Radical Family Farm stepped in to feed food-insecure seniors throughout the Bay Area when it was not safe for them to go to the grocery store or farmers’ market.

“A lot of this was driven by the attacks on our Asian elders during the pandemic,” Wiser said. “It’s still happening, with seniors afraid to walk on the streets without being pushed down, murdered or beaten.” Her long-term goal is to dedicate one-third of the produce from her farm to seniors in the Bay Area.

“It is part of my cultural heritage to honor our elders,” she said, adding that her grandparents on both sides took care of her growing up, so delivering “culturally relevant produce” to seniors is meaningful. “Instead of getting bags of potatoes, they can get vegetables, produce and herbs that are familiar to them.”Farmers in California grow an array of what Joseph calls “specialty crops.” California farms produce more of these crops – such as almonds, artichokes and broccoli – than any other state in the country. More than a fourth of the food produced in the US, including most of the country’s fruits and vegetables, comes from California, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, which credits the state’s long hot summers and mild winters for its ability to produce so much.

And as climate-related disasters threaten that production, it’s increasingly California’s women farmers who are rallying to face the fallout in creative ways, such as keeping money circulating locally to support job growth and ensuring that local communities have fresh food to eat. Joseph explains that because so many women-owned farms in California sell directly to consumers to feed local communities, this reciprocation is beneficial to everyone.

During the 2018 Paradise fire in northern California’s Butte county, Azolla Farms donated produce to World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that works to feed those displaced by natural disasters. “The Paradise fire was pretty intense over here,” said Rosie Kaperonis, co-owner of Azolla Farm, which she runs with her partner Scrivner Hoppe-Glosser in Pleasant Grove.

It just goes to show that the formal participation of women in agriculture is at “a historic high”.

Wiser is among those women. This spring, she is back outside at Radical Family Farm to check on her plants, prep the fields and transplant the remaining crops with her crew. On Instagram, she posts a sweet photo of a bitter melon plant and says: “They are looking good!”

*Warning: contains offensive language in paragraph 37

“I’m not speaking metaphorically—a bottle of doTERRA essential oil can change the world,” says David Stirling, a mild, clean-cut, middle-aged man. His largely female audience cheers and whistles, as if for a celebrity. Stirling, then-CEO and co-founder of doTERRA, a Utah-based multi-level marketing company that sells essential oils, is making his opening remarks in September 2021 to the packed Salt Palace Convention Center, in Salt Lake City.

In a setting reminiscent of a megachurch, Stirling’s soft-spoken voice echoes. He reminds the audience that the world needs healers more than ever — “and that’s you,” he says, to raucous applause. He quotes C.S. Lewis, speaks of miracles, and says he’s seen people turn to doTERRA in their lowest moments. People cry.

DoTERRA, which generates more than $2 billion in annual sales, promises its products are better than those of other companies—the oils are purer and more sustainably harvested, workers are paid better wages, and local communities are supported. On its website, doTERRA highlights its frankincense supply chain as an example of how it creates “more stable and reliable income, fairness, employment, and security” for harvesters and sorters. 

Frankincense, distilled from the resin of Boswellia trees found in the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s oldest traded commodities, most recognized as one of the gifts brought to the newborn Jesus by the three wise men in the Bible. It’s also one of the most highly marked-up—a half-ounce bottle of doTERRA’s frankincense oil retails for $100. DoTERRA’s website says it’s revered for its ability to “rejuvenate skin when applied topically and to promote cellular health and immunity… when taken internally”. 

A frankincense tree in the middle of the desert
A Boswellia tree seen in Oman. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Art In All Of Us/Corbis via Getty Images)

The mostly female “wellness advocates” who sell doTERRA’s products often say its ethical approach is what attracted them. But a two-year investigation has revealed a different reality in Somaliland, a self-declared republic north of Somalia and the source of a large portion of doTERRA’s frankincense. 

More than a dozen women working for doTERRA’s frankincense supplier, a Somaliland company called Asli Maydi, have told The Fuller Project that the company routinely underpays its workers, requires them to work in harsh conditions that are linked to health problems, and is led by a politically powerful man, whom multiple women have accused of sexual harassment and assault.

Presented with The Fuller Project’s findings, doTERRA said it would “temporarily suspend” its operations in Somaliland and was working to engage a third party team to help it investigate the matter. It said it was “concerned” by the allegations of poor work conditions, which were “‘inconsistent with our current understanding of the operations,” and found the allegations of sexual misconduct “troubling.” DoTERRA “prides itself on supporting and empowering women” and plans to investigate the allegations of misconduct once it can access the country safely, said the company in an emailed statement.

Asli Maydi owner Barkhad Hassan did not respond to specific questions about the claims of mistreatment and assault, but he denied all allegations against him and said he had done much to improve the industry.

Broken promises

Thirteen frankincense sorters—female workers who divide frankincense resin by color, grade, and quality—spoke to The Fuller Project anonymously about working nine to 12 hours a day, up to six days a week in a warehouse for Asli Maydi. Many say the company lured them with promises of a fair wage, food supplies, and money for their children’s school fees.

According to a supervisor in the Erigavo warehouse and multiple other women, Asli Maydi pledged to build housing near the sorters’ warehouses and to provide transportation to and from work, but the offers never materialized. Another sorter says she walked two hours each way to the warehouse in Erigavo. 

The women say they made 10,000 Somaliland shillings, or slightly over $1 a day for sorting six pounds of resin. While this pay rate is typical for sorters in the region, a fair wage would be about $2.50 per pound, or about $15 a day, based on what these women would need to support their families, says Amina Souleiman, director of the charity Horn of Africa, which is advocating for Somaliland’s harvesters and sorters. 

One of the 13 women says the warehouse had no toilets or running water. She says women developed kidney complications and urinary tract infections from being unable to go to the bathroom. The women also say they weren’t given breaks and had to ask to use the restrooms in neighboring houses.

Another says she’s barely able to walk because of back pain caused by carrying pounds of resin every day. She says she had to keep her job at Asli Maydi because her husband died, and she must provide for her eight children. “You can imagine life is very hard,” she says.

On its website, doTERRA says it “supports the community by paying Somaliland women to clean and sort the resins all while ensuring fair labor conditions and promoting safe and healthy working environments free from exploitive practices, harassment, and discrimination.” But several of the women complain of back pain, as well as headaches, and vision impairment that they say came from sitting on the floor, hunched over dusty, raw resin and carrying heavy loads of sorted resin around the warehouse.

Bottles of doTERRA's essential oils sit on a table for display.
A view of a doTERRA essential oil booth. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz)

In its statement, doTERRA said its “highest priority is the safety and proper treatment of each of our employees,” adding: “Just as important is the safety and proper treatment of everyone in our global supplier network. All vendors are required to abide by our stringent Code of Conduct to ensure safe and healthy working conditions, fair and on-time payments and respectful and ethical conduct.”

‘I didn’t tell anyone what happened’

On condition of anonymity, three Somali women told The Fuller Project about their experiences with Asli Maydi owner Hassan and his employees.

One woman, age 22, says that when she went to Hassan’s bungalow in Erigavo for a job interview last year, he asked to take photos of her in underwear. She says Hassan intimidated her by saying he already had a photo of her and could edit it to remove her clothes. She says her family is “very poor” and that she needed work, so she agreed. She says a white man who was with Hassan took photographs of her in the underwear but stopped when a woman arrived to clean the house. (A woman who also asked not to be named for fear of retribution, corroborated this account, telling The Fuller Project that when she went to clean Hassan’s bungalow during the time in question, she saw a young woman being photographed in underwear.) 

The young woman says she ran to the bathroom to change and asked Hassan to delete the photos. “I never went back,” she says. “I feel shame that I did this and worry so much about the pictures.” Another woman shared a similar experience of abuse.

A third woman says that in the winter of 2016, when she was 16, she heard about a job opportunity with Asli Maydi. She says two Asli Maydi associates drove her from her home in Erigavo to what she was told was the worksite in a neighboring town. (In rural Somaliland, there’s limited public transportation, and women often have no choice but to rely on strangers for rides.) When they arrived, the site turned out to be a private house—the scene of a party hosted by Hassan and other Asli Maydi employees.The woman says she accepted a non-alcoholic fruit drink called Rani. After she drank it, she says she doesn’t remember what happened. The next day, she woke up in another house and knew she’d been sexually assaulted.

Over the next few days, she says she was held there and raped multiple times by two men. Five other teenage girls, all of whom had been promised jobs, were also assaulted by 10 men—including Hassan, she says. When some of the men finally agreed to take the girls home, she says one man threatened them: “He showed us his pistol and said, ‘If I hear anything, this will make holes in your head.’” 

She says that after the assaults, she considered suicide. “I was so devastated that I didn’t leave the house for a long time … I didn’t tell anyone what happened to me.”

Hassan did not respond to specific claims, but called the allegations “ridiculous” and said in an email, “I’m not a rapist.”

“I have never been known to be violent to any female or to have sexually threatened or assaulted any woman in my life,” he wrote. Hassan said that because resin export is “one of the country’s largest trades” in Somaliland, “there are powerful people” who “badly want to replace me as an exporter. They will stop at nothing to see me replaced,” he wrote.

Anjanette DeCarlo, a sustainability consultant who formerly worked as a contractor for doTERRA, corroborates part of the woman’s account. She says she was in the town near Erigavo, attending a focus group hosted by Asli Maydi, and that evening she was urged to leave so the men could have a party. When she asked if she could join in, she says an employee told her, “No, you can’t stay for this kind of party.” The next day, they smelled of alcohol, and she asked how the party was. She says one of the men laughed and said, “Girls.”

None of the three women say they reported the incidents to police or clan elders—they said they were too afraid of what Hassan and his men would do to them.

Sexual violence is prohibited under the Somaliland penal code, but rape is rarely reported, according to Erica Marsh, an independent researcher of humanitarian issues in Africa. Police presence is scarce in rural Somaliland, and clan elders usually handle cases of sexual violence, she says. Women often are ashamed to speak about sexual assaults, let alone report them. And under Somali customary law, alleged rapists may be required to compensate the victim’s family—often her male relatives, since traditional law treats women as legal minors. On occasion, clan elders even order victims to marry the perpetrators.

A woman walks past a wooden fence in Somaliland
A woman walks in a street of the city of Hargeisa, Somaliland.(Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images)

Somaliland recently came close to passing a bill criminalizing several forms of gender-based violence, including rape, but in 2020, parliament introduced a regressive new bill that would penalize women for “false” reports of rape, punishable by up to five years in prison, and women who use “witchcraft to obtain sex”—punishable by death. Nafisa Yusuf, executive director of Nagaad Network, a nationwide community of women’s advocates, says incidents of rape are on the rise.

An employee’s allegation of rape

Asli Maydi has demonstrated “a pattern of exploitation of women,” says DeCarlo. A recent VICE documentary told DeCarlo’s story and gave a platform to male doTERRA harvesters who say they were never paid in full or were paid in food. Since then, sources say little has changed on the ground. 

DeCarlo describes her time working with Asli Maydi as “chaos.” 

In November 2018, on the last night of one of DeCarlo’s trips to Somaliland, she says Hassan invited her to his home, where a group was gathered. Under the guise of showing her frankincense resin in another room, DeCarlo says Hassan locked the door, pushed her to the ground, and raped her.

DeCarlo says she didn’t report the assault to authorities because she was traumatized and was leaving the country the next morning. The U.S. doesn’t recognize Somaliland, and its embassy in Somalia is more than 600 miles away. “There’s nowhere to report it that I know of,” she says. DeCarlo told people close to her about the incident, one of whom corroborated her version of events.

“When I got home, I wasn’t in good shape,” she says. “I wasn’t really functional for a few months.”

In 2019, DeCarlo says she reported the assault to doTERRA.  

“I felt that they should know who they were dealing with,” she says. “I was, like, ‘if he could do that to me … imagine what he’s doing to local girls.’”

In its statement, doTERRA wrote, “when we learned of the allegations, we encouraged [DeCarlo] to report the matter to law enforcement. As is company policy, we investigated the matter to the extent we could, however, we do not have the authority or investigative powers needed to fully investigate these allegations. We continue to encourage and support law enforcement’s efforts to fully investigate the allegations, as we would for any victim of alleged assault.”

More than a year after DeCarlo says she reported the alleged assault, she says Hassan sent her abusive text messages, screenshots of which she shared with the Fuller Project.

In one, Hassan wrote: “Does [that] mean some fucking mad bitch should try to ruin my life, after ive been nothing but good to her. Is that how u treat people. wow. Talk about being ungrateful.” DeCarlo says she tried to get him to admit to what he’d done by telling him he’d hurt her. He responded, “I’m sorry. It was naughty.”

DeCarlo hasn’t returned to Somaliland, and no longer works with doTERRA. The company continued working with Hassan for at least three years after DeCarlo reported the assault. 

“If [Hassan] wasn’t so powerful, he wouldn’t be able to do this to so many women,” DeCarlo says.

Critics say doTERRA’s funding and support has empowered Hassan to grow wealthy and influential over local clan dynamics in Somaliland, which according to U.S. think-tank Freedom House has few institutional safeguards against corruption. 

“People are scared of Barkhad Hassan and his gang,” says a sorter. “We are living a life of hell.” 

As Hope* arrived to start her cleaning shift, her eyes anxiously scanned the room. If she spotted him, her heart sank. She might spend the next eight hours dodging his requests for a date, for a kiss, for more than that.

Over an 18-month period from mid-2020, Hope’s male supervisor at the hotel in Qatar where she was employed repeatedly sexually propositioned her, she says. When she refused his advances, he gave her extra housekeeping work for no additional pay.

“I was feeling low,” she says on the phone from her home in Kenya, where she returned at the start of this year after her contract in Qatar came to an end. “Because when someone tells you such things, you ask yourself, why is he taking advantage of you?”

The plight of the tens of thousands of men who traveled thousands of miles to help build Qatar’s World Cup dream and the exploitation that many faced has been widely documented.

Yet rights groups say the problems facing migrant women have not been explored or scrutinized in the same way and their voices have been largely absent from the debate on migrant workers’ rights in the lead up to the start of the tournament.

Women working in the global hospitality industry are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and gender-based violence. A survey by the Unite union into gender-based violence in hospitality industries found that over half of respondents had directly experienced sexual harassment and assault in their workplaces.

The Fuller Project and the Guardian spoke with five women, including Hope, employed at different hotels in Qatar between 2017 and 2022 about their experiences. They detailed allegations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse. Most of these hotels are among more than 100 now endorsed by Fifa, football’s governing body and the tournament organizer.

The testimonies of women interviewed for this piece, as well as those of experts who have worked extensively with female hospitality workers in Qatar, suggest few feel able to report sexual harassment should it occur.

“There’s been so much focus on [men working in] construction and the stadiums, as they are central to the tournament,” says Isobel Archer, Gulf programme manager at the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, a non-profit that has researched working conditions in Qatar’s hotels. “But [sexual harassment] is absolutely happening in hotels.”

Women simply won’t be able to speak up

Although men dominate the country’s migrant workforce, government data shows nearly 300,000 migrant women worked in Qatar as of June this year.

In 2020, female migrants made up just over a fifth of hotel workers, according to the most recent government statistics, although this is probably a significant undercount as the figures exclude subcontracted workers, say rights groups. To cope with the influx of 1.3 million football fans, an additional 108 hotels have been built ahead of the start of the tournament.

Archer says that high-profile sporting events are linked to an increase in violence against women, further increasing the risks facing women hotel workers and anticipates the same happening during the upcoming World Cup.

She says that urgent action has to be taken by hotels, which will be packed to capacity with football fans, to protect women and allow them to be able to report abuse safely without fear of repercussions.

“I don’t think we’ve seen any evidence that hotels are doing anything, frankly, [to support women],” she says. “And [the women] simply won’t be able to speak up.”

Qatar representatives said the five women’s stories were extreme cases which were not the reality for millions of female workers. Fifa said it took any allegations of misconduct extremely seriously and had a clear process in place for anyone who wanted to report any such incidents.

Whilst women hotel workers across the world face a disproportionate risk of gender-based violence compared to other industries, rights groups say that those working in Qatar could find it particularly difficult to report the abuse they may face. A report published this year by Equidem, a labor rights organization, said gender-based violence and harassment are “a fact of life for women” at some Fifa World Cup hotel partners. Equidem’s researchers contacted more than 800 migrant workers across the region, male and female, but only 10% agreed to have their experiences recorded.

Women stand outside of a metro station in front of a soccer stadium.
Women leave the metro station in front of the Khalifa Stadium in Doha on November 6, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament. (Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

Some women, like Hope, dread deportation. Others might have paid illegal and exorbitant recruitment fees, forcing them to stay in jobs with abusive conditions. Despite sweeping labor reforms in 2019, with migrants now allowed to change jobs or leave the country without an employer’s permission, workers say little has changed. Employers still have a huge degree of control over employees’ lives and with migrant worker unions banned, there are few routes to effectively raise grievances.

Migrant women who come to Qatar, mostly from Africa and Asia, are often the main breadwinner for their families. Many are reluctant to speak out because they fear losing those jobs, says Ann Abunda, founder of Sandigan, a Kuwait-based domestic worker organization. When she asked her network to inquire about issues of harassment in Qatar’s hotels, more than a dozen women replied, either directly via social media or through her contacts in Qatar.

Women told her there was no point in reporting harassment because employers would not act and were angered by the complaint. “[Women] just don’t want to talk [publicly] about that,” says Abunda. “But they are saying it’s rampant.”

The country’s penal code also criminalises sex outside marriage. Police often do not believe women who report sexual violence, says Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, instead siding with men who claim it was consensual, which can lead to the survivor facing charges.

Facing further barriers, all women in Qatar need to show they are married in order to access certain forms of sexual and reproductive healthcare, adds Begum. This can include treatment for sexually transmitted infections, HIV and pregnancy. 

“It made me feel very small.”

Sally* was just trying to do her job. Her hotel cleaning shift was nearly over, tiredness was setting in, and the dirty sheets weren’t going to wash themselves. But the male guest asked for a kiss, she says. When she reported the incident to her supervisor, the reply was essentially: “You’re a woman, learn to handle your issues.”

What she experienced at the luxury hotel still affects her, says Sally. “I don’t like getting close to strange men because you never know their intentions. It brings back the memory,” she says from her home in Kenya, her voice tearful. “I never want to go back.” 

Management often took little action or sided with guests when female workers complained about harassment, say several. 

Instead of dealing with harassment allegations directly, one cleaner describes a policy of swapping staff members in and out when guests behave inappropriately. Once, when a guest tried to slap her, she alleges her supervisor responded by saying she shouldn’t have been serving him in the first place.

“It’s a bit disheartening,” she says. “Besides sexual harassment, maybe a guest is mishandling you or being rude. All these things you report but nothing [is done]. So you just have to deal with it. It made me feel very small. And vulnerable. At the end of the day, ‘the guest is always right’.”

In an attempt to tackle violations, Qatar’s supreme committee has been auditing hotel working conditions and an online platform for worker complaints was launched last year.

Yet rights groups say audits often don’t detect serious abuse as they only provide a snapshot of the situation and rely on input from workers. Women are also reluctant to report issues as sensitive as harassment. “Are you really going to disclose a violation against your body to a complete stranger during a corporate audit?” says Archer. “It’s just a very unlikely scenario.”

Men work outside on a concrete floor in front of a soccer stadium.
Labourers work near the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on November 8, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup football tournament.(Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images)

The Qatari government has said it will intensify labor inspections during the tournament, including extra health and safety checks. 

Mustafa Qadri, the executive director of Equidem, believes the increased scrutiny over the next month will ensure a degree of protection for workers. Yet fundamental structural problems such as migrant workers being unable to organize and their lack of freedoms won’t have been adequately addressed once the world’s attention moves on, he says.

Hotels are not creating an environment for workers to speak up, says Archer. Risk assessments need to be conducted in order to understand who their female migrant workers are and what might make them more susceptible to gender-based violence, she says. Management needs to be trained to spot signs of harassment and to communicate effectively with the entire workforce, particularly subcontracted female employees, who are often at higher risk. Hotels also need to be clear on the reporting process and next steps in terms of safeguarding as well as psychosocial and medical support.

There are reports that restrictions on consensual sex and women’s access to reproductive services may be relaxed during the World Cup. Should this happen, says Begum, the Qatari authorities need to ensure it applies to all women, not just fans, inform all women about the changes and ensure they continue beyond the tournament.

In response to the claims, Fifa said it was steadfast in its commitment to ensuring respect for internationally recognised human rights, takes allegations of misconduct seriously, and has a number of reporting mechanisms in place for anyone wishing to make a complaint, including a workers’ welfare hotline. It added that it was implementing an “unprecedented due diligence process in relation to the protection of workers involved in the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, in line with FIFA’s responsibility under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

The guest is always right

A Qatari official said anyone who came forward with a complaint would be supported and their complaint fully investigated: “Qatari law prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of all women. Assault is criminalized under the penal code, and access to justice is a guaranteed right for everyone through the Qatari court system. Female foreign residents play an important role in Qatar’s economy and society, and we do not tolerate any infringement to the fundamental human rights of women or anyone in our country.

As in all countries around the world, unfortunate, extreme cases do occur and unscrupulous employers are a reality. But these extreme cases are not representative of the reality of life for the millions of foreign female residents who have lived in Qatar in recent decades. Protecting the rights of all women in Qatar – including female workers – is and will continue to be at the forefront of our priorities and vision.”

For Sally, her friends at the hotel were quite literally her lifeline. When they heard her arguing with the male guest who asked for a kiss, they rushed in to help, she says. Six months later, they burst in again when they heard her say: “Don’t get any closer.”

This time, a senior supervisor snapped into action. The guest reportedly sent his apologies, though Sally wasn’t sure if this was true as he never said anything directly to her. Concerned about other women being sent to clean his room, she wanted the guest’s stay terminated.

“But they didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s not a privilege for them to have you. It’s a privilege for them to have guests.”

* Names have been changed or omitted to protect identities

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UPDATE: Since this story originally published on Aug. 25, 2021, the organization founded by female genital mutilation survivor Hawa Bah to help other survivors in the UK, HawaDal Peace of Mind, received The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the highest award a local voluntary group can receive in the UK, The Fuller Project’s Louise Donovan reports.

One night 14 years ago, Hawa Bah crept out of her house in Guinea and slipped into the darkness. She says she had lost count but it may have been her 14th or 15th escape attempt from an abusive marriage she was forced into with a man 37 years her senior.

Bah made her way through a maze of streets to the meeting point where a car was waiting with two strangers inside. When they took her to the airport, Bah felt her heart beating through her chest. She had not realised until then that she would be leaving her country. Aged 17, she had no belongings and no idea where she was going.

“When the plane hit the ground … I felt like I was dying,” she says. “I’d never even heard of the UK. I’m thinking: when my husband catches me, he’s going to kill me finally.”

Now 32, Bah is an advocate for the Blossom Clinic in Leeds, a red-brick building north-east of the city centre that provides services for survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM), the ritual of removing or injuring the genitals of a girl or woman for non-medical reasons.

In the UK, it’s thought that about 137,000 women are living with the consequences of FGM, which can include constant pain, cysts, complications in pregnancy, urinary tract infections, as well as anxiety, difficulty having sex, and depression.

Most victims of FGM come into contact with NHS services when they are expecting a child and those who are not pregnant might never come to the attention of health practitioners. They are underrepresented in the NHS’s FGM database, and are less likely to access health services, according to a British Journal of Midwifery (BJM) report, so the Blossom Clinic was opened two years ago to offer specialist treatment and counselling for these women.

It was one of eight pilot clinics launched in 2019 by NHS England in Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and five London boroughs in an attempt to address the problem. The clinics are based on a model of holistic, women-centred care: specialists are joined by counsellors who provide emotional support, as well as an anti-FGM advocate who works in the community to connect survivors to healthcare professionals.

This is Bah’s role in Leeds. Women who have undergone FGM often suffer in silence due to stigma. Bah lived through the physically and mentally scarring ritual as a child in west Africa, and was told that she would die if she talked about it.

Now she uses her experiences as a survivor and refugee to connect with those hard-to-reach African women in diaspora communities who are disproportionately affected by FGM. Amid clinic closures during the pandemic and fears that those suffering with FGM were not referring themselves under lockdown, she has provided a lifeline for dozens of women.

Inside the Blossom Clinic, there is an air of calm. A woman sits quietly with her children in the waiting room.

Run by three women, in partnership with Touchstone, a Leeds-based charity providing support to mostly black and minority ethnic communities, the clinic is open every other Tuesday. Nicole Ackie and Andrea Taylor, midwives and FGM specialists, assess patients with a series of detailed questions about the procedure before discussing the health complications.

Female Genital specialists (FGM) Andrea Taylor (left) and Nicole Ackie photographed in Leeds, west Yorkshire. In the UK it’s thought some 137,000 women are living with the consequences of the procedure, which can include constant pain, cysts, difficulty having sex and depression — to name a few. (Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer courtesy of The Guardian)

Women with the most extreme symptoms are most likely to be victims of type-3 mutilation, or infibulation, in which the labia are cut and sometimes sewn together to partially seal the vagina. In these instances, deinfibulation – surgery to reopen the labia – is an option.

Each step of the way, Bah is there. Employed by Touchstone, she often makes the initial contact, arranges appointments, meets women at the railway station and holds their hands during deinfibulations. She speaks four languages, so she can translate, and keeps in contact to offer support for other issues such as housing or domestic violence.

“When it’s such a sensitive topic, you really need to put the word out,” says Ackie, a midwife at St James’s university hospital, as well as at the Blossom Clinic. “Hawa did that. She knows where these women are and she’s able to find them.”

Bah lived a happy life in Guinea until, aged seven, her father married a second wife. This caused family tensions and Bah’s mother was forced to leave. “In our culture, a woman isn’t allowed to keep the child,” she says, “so I didn’t go with her.”

Old scars

At the age of eight, Bah was taken by her new stepmother into the forest, where a woman from the neighbourhood pinned her to the ground, muffled her screaming with a cloth and started cutting. Five years later, she was forced to marry an “old man”, she says. She longed to go to school with other 13-year-olds but instead, she had to spend hours in the kitchen cooking peanut soup and cassava leaf stew for her husband’s large family. She also endured physical and sexual abuse.

Sitting on a sofa in her flat in the Leeds suburb of Chapeltown, she pulls up her sleeves. “You see,” says Bah, revealing old scars. “I ran away but my husband and father paid the police to find me. Then they beat me.”

When she arrived in the UK, Bah spent several weeks in a shelter until she was moved to Leeds. While she waited for news of her asylum claim, she went to English classes and volunteered with charities, such as Solace, which works with refugees.

Meanwhile, Bah suffered. She had trouble urinating and was often unbearably itchy from genital scarring but felt too scared to see a doctor. As the years passed, she learned more about the practice from others in her community. Her older sister had died in Guinea when Bah was a child. “I was small,” she says. “I thought God took her life.” Decades later, she realised her sister had probably died from FGM-related complications. It proved to be a turning point for Bah.

In 2014, she started working as an FGM campaigner for Black Health Initiative, a Leeds-based charity, before launching her own charity organisation, HawaDal Peace of Mind, two years later to help new arrivals settle into life in the UK. Bah used this safe space to air sensitive concerns, such as FGM and the forced marriage of children, with women in the group.

Five years later, she has developed a network among the African migrant and refugee population in Leeds. One hot afternoon last month, as she stood outside her home handing out food parcels of beans, milk and eggs to half a dozen women, it’s easy to understand why – her smiling face radiates warmth.

It has been harder to reach women during the pandemic, but Bah keeps in contact with as many as she can via WhatsApp. “If you don’t make women feel comfortable, it’s very hard to bring them to an FGM clinic because they don’t want to talk,” she says. “They don’t want to start remembering. But often the moment they hear my voice, they can tell I’m one of them.”

The Blossom Clinic team has been able to meet women face-to-face for only 15 months due to startup delays and Covid-related closures, so it has only been able to help 46 women so far. Most are from Guinea, the Gambia, Sierra Leone and Eritrea.

“We felt it was important that the advocate was able to look women in the eye and say: ‘I know how this feels’,” says Alison Lowe, the former head of Touchstone. “That’s how we were going to get women through the door. I think our numbers are among the highest in all the pilots and that’s because of the connection that Hawa is able to make with the women.”

Several FGM specialists fear that, given the delays and closures caused by the pandemic, some clinics would be unable to continue. “It has been really terrible timing in terms of setting up new services and then trying to truly analyse their worth, or the number of women who have been helped,” says one midwife, who asked to remain anonymous. “What’s true is that women 100% need these resources. It’s just quite difficult to prove, especially during coronavirus.”

NHS England said more than 200 women have had help from the eight FGM clinics since 2019 and that funding had been extended for another year.

The Blossom Clinic will be permanently funded by West Yorkshire and Harrogate clinical commissioning groups, which plan and manage local NHS services. Liz Wigley, a commissioning manager at Leeds CCG, says: “It’s a relatively small investment for a big positive change.”

In January, Bah met a woman who was desperately seeking a deinfibulation. She had suffered type-3 FGM, the most severe, and for years had been unable to have sex with her husband. Several months after the operation, the woman became pregnant. “She finally got peace,” says Bah.

Bah has not spoken to her family in 14 years. Sometimes she muses about going back to Guinea to find her mother, and to thank the older woman who helped her escape. But Bah knows she is making a difference in Leeds. “I have friends here now. I have a strong community. Life is not perfect, but it’s better.”

Keeping salmon in her children’s diet is “an entire job,” says Georgiana Gensaw, a Yurok Tribe member and mother of four in Klamath Glen, a community whose only easily accessible food store is a fried chicken shop attached to a gas station a few miles away. The nearest grocery store, Safeway in Crescent City, lies 24 miles away along a stretch of road frequently plagued by landslides and toppled redwoods—last summer it was closed for 20 hours a day due to a washout—making queues to get through the roadworks up to five hours long.

As a lifelong reservation resident, Gensaw recalls when fresh food was abundant. “I grew up with fish patties, rice and fish, noodles and fish, salmon sandwiches, dried fish,” she remembers fondly. “We never understood how lucky we were, that it was going to go away.”

The Yurok reservation where Gensaw lives sits on a remote strip of land that snakes shoulder to shoulder with the final 44 miles of the Klamath River alongside the misty Northern California coast. In 2001, drought descended on the Klamath Basin, the watershed that feeds the river. Due to a history of water mismanagement in the basin, combined with an historic drought, the river is sick—and the Yurok are too.

The salmon they’ve long depended on as both dietary staple and cultural cornerstone have become scarce. Combined with the lack of food sovereignty, it has prompted the need to fight for their main sources of nutrition and for their very way of life, they say. Yurok women, traditionally their tribe’s caregivers and food providers, bear the brunt of the food and health crisis while leading the fight for cultural preservation.

“The situation has gotten so bad that I don’t even know what kind of loss to compare it to. Because there’s no replacing salmon,” Gensaw says, her voice breaking. “My babies were meant to eat Klamath River salmon.”

In a community whose median income is $11,000, with unemployment rates as high as 80 percent, with some 35 percent living below the poverty line and most of the population in a food desert, the result is a serious impact on their nutrition sources and health. A 2019 University of California-Berkeley study of Native communities in the Klamath Basin found “91.89 percent of households suffering from some level of food insecurity and over half experiencing very low food security.”

A photo of a woman in fishing gear holding a large fish
Amy Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe’s former general counsel. (Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)

Food sovereignty—the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods—is linked to Yurok Tribe members’ rights and cultural identity as well as their nutrition and health. The tribe’s former general counsel, Amy Cordalis, finds being a Yurok woman provides her a unique vantage point from which to hold the U.S. government accountable on this issue to ensure her people’s health and way of life.

“I translate between Yurok cultural values and this colonized American law,” Cordalis, who has been part of her tribe’s legal team since 2014, tells The Fuller Project. “You can’t exercise the right to eat your traditional foods if there are no traditional foods,” says Cordalis, a mother of two and lifelong fisherwoman. “So the fight for a clean, healthy river is inextricably tied to the ability to exercise food sovereignty.”

Earlier this year, a fish kill of enormous magnitude left 70% of juvenile salmon dead, according to Yurok biologists. Tribal scientists later found the deadly pathogen Ceratonova shasta, which spreads due to low water quality and piscine stress, present in 97% of the fish they captured. The Yurok, who usually run a commercial fishery to bring in much needed income, have had their fishing rights severely curtailed to protect the remaining salmon population.

Gensaw has long campaigned for a healthier river: organizing rallies, attending state water board meetings and helping negotiate with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which governs the dams the Yurok say have ruined the ecosystem and endangered the salmon population. She sees the ill effects of salmon scarcity, especially on children. Without fish in their diet, there are “a lot more chubbier, overweight kids,” Gensaw says. “As moms, we talk about it a lot. Queenie is my first kid without a steady diet of salmon, and I can dramatically see the difference,” referring to her five-year-old and her older children, ages nine and 17.

The children’s changed diets are affecting their health. Dr. Terry Raymer, a diabetes expert at the United Health Services in Arcata, south of Klamath, treats Yurok pre-teens who, he says, have a “very significant elevated body mass index,” putting them at increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

One 2021 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics said that Native American youths have “excessive disease rates compared with the general pediatric population,” with children aged 2 to 5 having a higher combined prevalence of overweight and obesity—at 58.8 percent—than children of any other ethnicity or race. And it’s not just the children: The UC-Berkeley study noted high levels of disease related to poor diet in the Klamath Basin tribes, “with 83.58 percent of all households reporting at least one person in their household suffering from a diet/lifestyle related health issue including high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and cavities.”

In 2017, the Tribe secured additional water flows for salmon under the Endangered Species Act and challenged faulty data that U.S. government agencies used to determine water levels needed to protect salmon in a case Cordalis contributed to. Now she is fighting both for dam removal, to improve water quality and help the salmon populations recover, and for access to land owned by logging companies that contain traditional foods like the oak trees that produce acorns, a staple of the Native American diet for generations and to which Yurok mothers are turning to increasingly to feed their families as the salmon dwindle. (Under the Dawes Act, Native Americans were purposely allocated land of poor agricultural quality. Ancestral land once spanned almost half a million acres, giving the tribes plenty of land to fish, farm and forage, but the U.S. government confined the tribe to just 10 percent of that area.) A 2019 study in the journal Food Security noted that for the Yurok and other Native peoples, restoring access to Native foods lost due to colonialism is key to “revitalizing culture and restoring community health and well-being.”

A photo of a woman standing outside looking off into the distance
Annelia Hillman in her garden in Orleans, where she lives with her husband, a Karuk member, and their children. (Lucy Sherriff/The Fuller Project)

Yurok activist Annelia Hillman, 46, recruits young Yurok members to help wage her people’s long struggle against loggers, farmers and the U.S. government—not only for land and resources rights, but also for the very health and welfare of their tribe. “We need the next generation to carry on this work,” Hillman says, speaking of the activism she has been involved in for more than half her life, “so they can establish their identity as Indigenous people and challenge institutional systems.”

The Yurok women may have a powerful ally in Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman to serve as Secretary of the Interior. A member of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, Haaland wrote to FERC supporting the removal of the PacifiCorp dam early this year, noting that doing so would have many benefits including “protect[ing] public health.” But when Haaland, who taught Cordalis in her pre-law program, visited the Yurok reservation in August, she addressed several issues—but not the salmon or health crisis. “We are thrilled she’s here,” says Cordalis. “But she [didn’t] visit the river, and we were very disappointed about that.”

The Department of the Interior has not responded to queries from The Fuller Project as to Haaland’s stances on Yurok food sovereignty and protecting the Klamath River and its salmon.

The director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Tribal Relations said the health of indigenous children is of paramount importance to that agency. “Long term we are looking to support and foster local tribal food sovereignty initiatives to increase locally grown and indigenous foods to help restore indigenous food ways and protect better against food insecurity,” Heather Thompson tells The Fuller Project. Thompson, a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe member who previously represented the Yurok while working at a private law firm, says she believes one of the most important issues for Indigenous women is the “health and nutrition of our children and families.”

For Gensaw, that means restoring the river and its salmon population to health, because when the fish thrive, so do the children and families. “No fish means no food,” she says. “Our communities depend on the river for sustenance.”

Correction (10:07 a.m. Oct. 14, 2021): An earlier version of this story misstated Annelia Hillman’s age. She is 46, not 34.

Correction (6:04 p.m. Oct. 19, 2021): An earlier version of this story misstated Amy Cordalis’s role. She is the former, not current, general counsel for the Yurok Tribe. Her role in a lawsuit was also clarified to make more clear that she contributed to the case and did not lead it.

This story was published in partnership with The Guardian and The Fuller Project.

Marissa vividly remembers the day last September when her son’s counselor asked to speak with her at the end of his Zoom session. The counselor told Marissa to try to control her reaction to what she was about to hear.

Marissa stepped into the backyard of their home outside of Seattle, Washington, to speak to the counselor privately. At the time, Marissa’s nine-year old son Zachary attended regular counseling sessions as a result of Marissa’s ongoing legal battles with her ex-boyfriend, Carter. That day, Marissa heard the news she would spend the next several months going over again and again: Zachary had revealed to his counselor that Carter had “touched his private parts” in bed when the family had lived together.

The disclosure was deeply troubling on its own — in the months that followed, Zachary would disclose additional and increasingly severe incidents of abuse, including rape, by Carter to a King county child interview specialist and his counselor over multiple interviews and sessions, according to a case report filed by the local police department. (The Guardian is using pseudonyms for the families in this article to protect their privacy and safety.)

But the allegations of abuse also complicated an already contentious custody battle between Marissa and her ex – and for Marissa, illuminated the unexpected pitfalls that mothers face when accusing their partners of abuse in family court.

At the time of Zachary’s counselor’s call, Marissa was a medical school student supporting herself and her children on student loans. She was also receiving federal food benefits, Medicaid and state heating assistance. She’d been dealing with the court system since she and her ex separated in 2018, the same year she filed a police report alleging Carter physically assaulted her (he was found not guilty of domestic violence in court six months later). After filing the report, she hired an attorney to put together a plan for how she and Carter would share custody of Zachary’s then-three-year-old brother Eli, their biological son (Zacharyhas a different biological father).

Carter has repeatedly denied Zachary’s allegations through his lawyer and has been fighting for parental rights not only of Eli but also of Zachary, whose biological father is out of the picture. Carter is seeking to legally change Zachary’s birth certificate to list him as the father — a change known as “de facto” parentage of Zachary in court, which would grant Carter legal rights to act as Zachary’s father. Throughout their three-year legal battle, Carter has retained steady legal representation — unlike Marissa — and countered that Marissa has been “coaching” Zachary to report allegations of abuse by Carter. Later this year, a judge is scheduled to decide the role Marissa’s son’s alleged rapist will play in her children’s lives.

Assertive and a quick learner, Marissa is a ready advocate for herself and her family — a skill she’s used elsewhere in her personal life. She spoke out against the nursing home where her father and many other residents contracted Covid-19. She has the dogged determination that would lend itself to the lengthy legal battle against Carter that she says has drained her savings and forced her to learn how to become her own attorney when she could no longer afford to pay for one. (She says she did not trust an overworked court-appointed lawyer to have the bandwidth to catch up on the hundreds of pages of detail that make up her cases with her ex.)

However, the way Marissa has had to aggressively advocate for herself and her children in court — made more urgent by Zachary’s allegations — and the mistakes she’s made while learning how to represent herself have compounded the difficulties she faces in the family justice system. Her ex’s legal team has been able to paint her as “belligerent”, “unreasonable” and “intransigent” and therefore a less fit parent than Carter.

Marissa’s time in court also made clear that when women accuse former partners of abusing their children, they risk uphill legal battles. Navigating a criminal justice system that tends to favor those who have the most resources to make their case can become a nightmare, as women seeking justice from their alleged abusers learn how far they must go to be taken seriously.

Courts ‘helping abusive fathers keep custody’

Mothers who accuse their partners of abuse can be seen as the “less cooperative” parent in custody and visitation cases, say lawyers and domestic violence experts, because they’re not facilitating a relationship between father and child — a relationship the court sees as important for the child’s development. Opposing counsel can portray them as combative and intransigent, making their clients appear to be better custodial parents.

As a result, mothers often find themselves on the defensive, says Joan Meier, a clinical law professor and the director of the National Family Violence Law Center at the George Washington University Law School.Advertisement

“That’s like the ticket to death,” she says. “If you’re a mom and you raise [allegations of] child sexual abuse [by the father], the odds are you lose custody.”

In 2019, Meier looked at 200 cases in which mothers alleged child sexual abuse by fathers and found that courts sided with the mothers in just 15% of cases. In the same study, she found that, of 1,137 cases where mothers alleged domestic violence, courts credited the claims in just 517 cases. (In general, mothers tend to be custodial parents, usually as a result of out of court settlements, says Meier. Eighty per cent of mothers have primary custody of their children, compared with approximately 20% of fathers, according to 2015 census data.)

Accusing your partner of child abuse can be a lengthy, unpredictable process for mothers seeking justice in US family courts; historically, the process has pushed women to take drastic measures to protect their children from allegedly abusive guardians.

Women whose allegedly abusive husbands are granted custody sometimes go to extremes to get their children back and keep them safe. (Illustration: Anastasia Ivaschenko/The Guardian)

In 1987, Elizabeth Morgan sent her five-year-old daughter to live with her maternal grandparents in New Zealand after a family court granted unsupervised visits between the girl and her allegedly sexually abusive father. Morgan was jailed in Washington DC for two years when she refused to reveal her daughter’s whereabouts. A TV movie about the story aired in 1992.

Morgan’s story inspired Holly Collins when a Minnesota family court granted her allegedly abusive ex-husband custody of their children in the early 1990s and denied Holly’s requests for unsupervised visits, Collins told the Guardian. Collins coordinated an escape with her kids and flew to the Netherlands in 1994, where she and her children were granted asylum in 1997. About a decade later, Chere Lyn Tomayko became the first person granted asylum in Costa Rica on the grounds of domestic violence after her two daughters accused her ex-boyfriend of abuse. Tomayko initiated the move after a Texas court granted her ex-boyfriend joint custody of their shared daughter.

Wariness of child sexual abuse allegations also has roots in Child Protective Service workers’ training. According to Meier, CPS workers are taught to scrutinize child sexual abuse claims more closely when families are going through custody litigation, and to flag claims they believe are fishy. “In such cases, I call it taxpayer-funded child abuse,” says Meier, “because they are basically helping abusive fathers keep custody.”

“I’ve been accused by the judge that I’m doing all this because I like to fight,” Marissa says. So as not to jeopardize the ongoing court case, the Guardian did not contact the people on Marissa’s witness list for the upcoming trial, and instead verified accounts through court documents, including witness testimony, police reports, emails, photographs and attendance at a parentage case hearing.

Marissa has spent hours learning to represent herself in court in the midst of her rigorous medical school schedule. She has also had to pay thousands in fees to her ex’s attorney and court-appointed experts. His lawyer successfully argued, on several occasions, that filings Marissa made while representing herself created more work for their team.

“I’m losing everything,” Marissa says.

Crushed by legal fees

Legal experts say that when a partner is abusive, the realm of their control can often include the family’s finances — which can leave them better suited to pay for lawyers and endure longer legal battles. Most attorneys bill by the hour. Months or years of responding to lengthy court filings add up. Marissa estimates she has spent $150,000 on her defense, including on payment to join the nearby law library, parking fees and fees awarded to Carter’s counsel.

Stephanie, a mother of two teenagers, has been stuck in a costly, ongoing legal battle with her ex-husband, Luke, since she filed for divorce in 2014. Multiple police reports dating back to 2002 — first from Florida, then from their subsequent home in New Jersey — say that Luke threatened to murder Stephanie, fractured her arm, “grabbed her throat” and pushed her while she was pregnant with their first child. (The Guardian did not contact Luke for comment due to Stephanie’s concerns for her and her children’s safety but instead reviewed multiple police reports, emails, court documents and photos to corroborate Stephanie’s story. Both Stephanie and Luke are pseudonyms.)

Police have been called to Stephanie’s homes in Florida and New Jersey — by Stephanie and her children — close to 30 times over the past 19 years, according to those police reports, and Luke has been arrested six times. One 2014 police report mentions Stephanie’s youngest child, then seven years old, “punching” Luke to “get him away” from Stephanie. In May 2020, Stephanie’s chiropractor wrote in a letter provided to the court that Stephanie had visited his office 157 times in nearly four years and that he finds her injuries to be consistent with domestic violence.

Related coverage: How domestic abusers weaponize the courts

In 2020, Stephanie spent months filing motions in court and emailing New Jersey child protective services and police to try to protect herself and her children from her ex after he allegedly threw their 16-year-old son down the stairs and against a wall. As of April 2021, Luke is seeking “reunification therapy” with his son and also plans to seek increased custody should Stephanie not agree to his requests, per a letter to Stephanie from Luke’s lawyer.

But Stephanie says that the judge hearing her case did not consider the New Jersey child protective services report concerning her son’s allegations. Instead, she says, he urged her to “put aside [her] differences” with her ex and work things out for “the sake of [their] kids”. New Jersey’s child protective services department declined to comment on Stephanie’s specific case, but a representative told the Guardian that judges generally consider “recommendations or reports offered by” their staff in custody decisions.

Last year, Stephanie filed for a restraining order against Luke. She estimates she has spent nearly $200,000 in legal fees fighting him in court over the years.

“The biggest problem I have isn’t the fact that I have an abusive ex-husband,” says Stephanie. “It’s the fact that the courts have not only not done anything, but they’ve penalized me and … my children.”

Accusations of coaching

Peter Favaro is a court-appointed forensic evaluator who has been on the job for 37 years in Brooklyn, New York. His job is to conduct multiple interviews with parents and children, speak with teachers, doctors and other adults in children’s lives, and conduct psychological tests. An evaluator does not tell a judge whether a child has been abused, he says, but they can testify to “signs and symptoms”. Child sexual abuse allegations are particularly tricky, because there are often no physical signs of abuse, Favaro says.

Evaluating allegations as serious as child abuse takes time and careful deliberation, says Favaro. But he acknowledges that his work is also lucrative – his evaluations cost between $8,000 and $10,000, but he says other forensic evaluators can charge more than $100,000.

Favaro also sees the evaluations as an “income source” for lawyers, “because attorneys get paid money to attack experts in court”. In addition to lawyers and parental evaluators, guardians ad litem (GAL), who are appointed to represent the interests of children, stand to make money in high-volume court cases involving children like Marissa’s and Stephanie’s. In Stephanie’s case, the GAL first charged a $6,000 retainer when appointed to the case in late 2020, and later requested additional fees. As of last year, Carter had paid $14,000 to the appointed parenting evaluator.

Favaro has worked on “hundreds” of cases with child abuse allegations, he says, and can’t say how often children falsely allege abuse by relatives. He says he witnessed one scenario in which a mother “coached” a daughter to lie about sexual abuse by a male family member, later adding, “I’m not sure I would disagree that [false allegations] rarely happen … but my job is to take a neutral position.”

After Marissa’s son Zachary told his counselor in September that he’d been abused by Carter, child protective services began an investigation into his claims. In February 2021, CPS investigators determined Zachary’s allegations to be “founded” — meaning that an evaluator deemed the allegation to be more likely true than not. The Washington department of children, youth and families, which oversees these investigations in the state, does not decide whether to remove a child from a parent, though its reports may factor into decisions ultimately made by law enforcement or courts.

A month earlier, in January 2021, the King County prosecutor’s office had declined to press criminal sexual abuse charges against Carter. A representative from the prosecutor’s office told the Guardian that they declined to file charges because “from the information we received from police investigators, there was insufficient evidence to establish the suspect’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” — but that the police could resubmit the case should “additional information come to light”.

The Guardian reached out multiple times to Carter’s attorney for comment about the case and Zachary’s specific allegations. She referred us to hundreds of pages of publicly available court filings. In a filing from March 2021, Carter points to “the likelihood of [Marissa] coaching [Zachary]”, a concern the GAL appointed to Eli’s parentage case also mentions in another case filing. (The idea of mothers “coaching” children to report abuse by fathers comes up in many cases like Marissa’s, including in the above-mentioned case of Holly Collins, who was granted asylum in the Netherlands.) A police report showed Carter took four polygraph tests last year in which he denied Zachary’s allegations. The tests inquired about several different allegations made by Zachary, and all found Carter was “not attempting deception”.

Although the prosecutor’s office filed no criminal charges against Carter, the court overseeing Eli’s parentage case says it “requires additional information from CPS regarding their findings of sexual abuse by [Carter] of [Zachary]”. This information will probably be presented in Eli’s parentage trial, which is scheduled for September, and will help determine the role both parents will play in Eli’s life.

Eli is now six years old. Carter can have visits with him once during the week and on weekends, but is not allowed overnights. According to a court document from March, Zachary is not supposed to be present when Marissa and Carter meet to exchange Eli. The visits with Eli are supervised by several court-approved associates of Carter, including his mother.

Women are ‘routinely deemed hysterical’

The former Connecticut state senator Alex Kasser had hoped to give intimate partner violence survivors more resources in court with Senate Bill 77, which passed earlier this year. The bill expands the definition of domestic violence in family court to include “coercive control”, a strategic pattern of behavior used to oppress and control a partner, and sexual assault or related threats. The bill was inspired, in part, by Kasser’s own experience. In June, she resigned from the Connecticut senate due to her contentious divorce with her husband, whom she called “coercive” in a 2020 op ed.

Kasser’s definition of domestic violence also includes “threatening a victim to prevent them from reporting child abuse”, she says. Her bill would ensure judges consider child safety as the number one factor in custody decisions (currently in Connecticut, judges can choose how they weigh various factors, like the child’s “temperament”, “cultural background” and the “willingness” of each parent to facilitate a relationship between their child and the other parent).

“I think that there is confusion and disbelief about what the real outcomes are in family court,” says Kasser. “Generally, women are still not believed. They are routinely discredited. They are routinely deemed hysterical.”

Marissa relates to that. “I am a damn good mom,” she says. “It’s not always easy to stay grounded, and I don’t always feel grounded … but I’m not crazy.” She attributes “any mental health I’m struggling with right now” with the ongoing stress of facing her ex in court.

As of May, Marissa says she still hadn’t been able to find a pro bono attorney to take her case. “The amount of stuff opposing counsel does is too much for her,” Marissa wrote in a text to the Guardian about one potential pro bono attorney. “So I’m back to being on my own.”

This ongoing legal battle has drained her emotionally and psychologically while she cares for two young children as a single mother. “I want to move forward, and the case is just so much,” she says. “I’m trying to do what I think is best.”

Correction (10:07 a.m. Aug. 17, 2021): An earlier version of this story referenced 2015 census data that said courts award custody to mothers more than fathers. In fact, more mothers have custody than fathers as a result of out-of-court settlements, not court decisions.

This story was published in partnership with The Guardian and The Fuller Project.

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