Alaska women work hard and know better than to expect life to be easy. But the state can and should do more to ensure Alaska's women are safe, healthy, and able to pursue opportunities without unfair burden.
We spent time this summer pulling together a package of legislation to address some of the obstacles women face in their pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness in the Last Frontier. Our hope is to continue working with women in the legislature and across Alaska to get some fixes in place this session.
Here are some ideas.
Recent reports shined light on the abhorrent amount of violence against women in Alaska. While ending that violence will take more than just passing new laws, we must have strong laws and real enforcement to get there. We must also focus on what victims need and give them real support.
Too often, women are reluctant to report rapes. Sometimes for fear the rapist won't be prosecuted anyway. The state can ensure hospitals have enough nurses and rape-investigation kits to collect forensic evidence and that the crime lab can efficiently process the evidence. This will increase convictions and give women more assurance their attackers will end up behind bars instead of attacking again.
The Legislature must also restore support for substance abuse and behavioral health treatment. These services address factors directly contributing to domestic violence. They can stop violence before it starts and help prevent it from recurring.
Without health coverage, major health issues can put families in a lifetime of debt. Denali KidCare provides health care for pregnant women and children of working Alaskans who cannot afford private insurance. Raising the income limit for Denali KidCare to 200 percent of the federal poverty limit will allow over 1500 more Alaskan women and children to get the care they need but cannot afford. Alaska is one of only three states not already meeting that standard. We can and must do better.
Unintended pregnancies can put low-income families at risk of hunger or homelessness. For the state, they lead to millions of dollars in pregnancy care. Sometimes they lead to abortion. It doesn't have to be this way. Allowing Medicaid to cover family planning services like pap smears, STD screening, and birth control would help women stay in control of their reproductive health, lower the number of unintended pregnancies, reduce the number of abortions in Alaska, and save the state upwards of $7 million a year.
It's increasingly difficult for families to stay afloat on only one income. Whether a single parent or not, safe, reliable, and affordable child care is a must-have for parents looking for work. Young families with two children under six can pay up to $20,000 each year for child care. State assistance for families who need to work but cannot afford child care has not kept up with rising costs. Increasing assistance will help responsible parents join the workforce and businesses recruit and retain good employees.
Child care providers can use a break too. It takes a special person to work with children every day, and families rightly demand quality care. Providing state grants to augment salaries and help pay for additional training for committed child care professionals helps child care businesses reduce costs and retain quality caregivers. Juneau and Anchorage have successful programs already. It's time to spread the benefits statewide.
These are but a few ways Alaska can give women and families a break. Expanding earned sick leave, re-establishing the Alaska Commission on the Status of Women, and supporting organizations such as the Violent Crimes Compensation Board, Alaska Office of Victims' Rights and the Council on Domestic Violence are others.
The Alaska Territorial Legislature's first law granted women the right to vote, years before national suffrage, although it took longer to get Alaska Native women and men that right. With more hard work, we can continue to help Alaska women this session by implementing these policies to keep them safer, improve women's access to health and maternity care, and open more doors for women in the workplace.
Berta Gardner represents Midtown Anchorage in the Alaska State Senate. Harriet Drummond and Geran Tarr represent Spenard and East Anchorage respectively in the Alaska State House of Representatives. Beth Kerttula represents Juneau and other Southeast coastal communities and is the Democratic leader in the state House.