Women empowerment has long been a topic of interest among all socio-economic groups. It has inspired many women to rise up to their potential and become women of value.
Unfortunately, however, this may not be the case for everyone. Many women are still in the rut trying hard to make their mark in their respective communities. And it may be as simple as exercising their rights.
Although the United States is known as a country where the general consensus revolves around everyone having equal access to healthcare including maternal care, studies have proven otherwise. There is a persisting harsh reality that African American women do not enjoy the same privileges with other racial groups.
A series of publications conducted by the Center of American Progress have unraveled page by page a series of multifaceted issues regarding disparities in maternal and infant mortality for African American women and infants.
In fact, studies have established that African American women have a higher mortality rate from childbirth than non-Hispanic white women. This disparity exists regardless of socioeconomic status and education, with sexism and racism as the primary drivers (Chalhoub and Rimar, 2018). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention further cemented the reality that these disparities still exist even up to now, citing access to care, quality of care, prevalence of chronic diseases, structural racism, and implicit biases as the major cause for variability in the risk of death by ethnicity (CDC, 2021).
The stark truth is that African American women are not given the same level of care as with other racial groups. And even if they do, it comes at a substandard level which is associated with a higher risk of death. This issue of attaining optimal care even just for basic pregnancy-related healthcare is a major obstacle hindering African American women to thrive.
Despite the historic advances made possible by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), many people of color continue to go on without health insurance. And despite having health insurance, many people of color remain to have trouble gaining access to high quality, patient-centered care (Chalhoub and Rimar, 2018). It shows that income and risks associated with a specific race is not a determinant to gain optimal healthcare. Many women of color are dying from preventable pregnancy-related diseases and it should be a cause of concern among people of all groups. Statistics have shown that African American women in general die from these preventable pregnancy-related complications at three to four times the rate of non-Hispanic white women. Maternal morbidity and mortality have been closely tied to infant mortality as well: the death rate for black infants was revealed to be twice that of infants born to non-Hispanic white mothers (Taylor et al., 2019).
Deaths due to pregnancy-related conditions among African American women have deeper roots. Studies have shown that women of color were also noted to less likely have access to vital reproductive health services. This includes family planning, abortion, and even screenings for sexually transmitted infections and cervical cancer. Studies further show that African American women in general receive lower-quality health care, highly contributing to higher risk of mortality. This further contributes to wider gaps in racial disparities in terms of pregnancy-related risk factors such as hypertension, anemia, gestational diabetes, obesity, cardiac diseases, HIV, AIDS, and even cancer. Consequently, African American infants receive lower quality of care inside neonatal intensive care units (Novoa and Taylor, 2018).
The sad reality that comes with these statistics is that behind the numbers are actual stories of women and children. Women who continue to bear the brunt of being born into a community where racial disparity continues to exist in a highly developed country, despite various efforts to promote equality among all races. There exists the irony of the United States having the worst records for maternal and infant mortality despite being a highly developed country, with data revealing higher rates of maternal and infant deaths among African American women as drivers of the mortality crisis (Novoa and Taylor, 2018).
The effects of discrimination extend from maternal and infant mortality to as overall health and well-being among African American women. A study implicated that racism is often a cause of “chronic strain and psychological distress” among African Americans, citing specifically that African American women are more prone to be subjected to stressful events in comparison to other racial groups (Perry et al., 2013). Multiple studies also documented that perceived racism is substantially linked to subjective well-being, psychological distress, depression, and substance abuse among African Americans (Brown et al., 2000). In effect, it was revealed that racial and gender discrimination heightens risk for poor health and low well-being, causing increased vulnerability to individual stressors through direct or indirect means (Perry et al., 2013).
How do we, as women, address a predicament as detrimental as this? How do we end a vicious cycle that has claimed the lives of so many women and children? Despite government strategies refined to undo the legacy of racism, the numbers of cumulative deaths due to racial discrimination remain high.
We cannot just fully depend on the government to do its part. We also need to work within ourselves to be able to assume our place in society. We need to be able to recognize the problem as a whole, and address this problem by parts constituting the whole.
For instance, a significant proportion of severe maternal morbidity and mortality events are preventable, regardless of race and color. But why is there a visibly larger population of maternal deaths among women of color? The problem must lie elsewhere. Common preventability factors such as communication failure as well as policies and procedures not in place, and even provider factors such as inappropriate or delay in diagnosis or treatment, are commonly cited problems (Howell, 2019). Although some studies infer that all these factors do not fully explain the elevated rates of severe maternal morbidity and mortality among races and colors, it is essential to note what we can do as women in order to eliminate the biases and risks that come from a long legacy of racism.
In order to fully assume our role as African American women and as mothers, we need to change how we view ourselves. A change in mindset significantly affects how we approach problems and how we formulate solutions. We need to fix our minds that just like the rest, we can make our mark on this world.
The essence of women empowerment is raising the status of women through literacy, training, education, and awareness. It aims to elevate a woman’s sense of self-worth, her ability to make sound choices, and her ability to influence change in the community.
Barack Obama's wife, Michelle Obama, was an inspiration for many women in America and across the world. In a society where people tend to overlook or ignore certain populations, she made an impression by saying “There is nothing more powerful than a woman who has been empowered.” Empowering women is the key to economic growth, political stability, and social transformation.
True enough, the first step starts with ourselves - we need to make it a priority to empower ourselves! With empowerment, we will be able to define and create from our perspective and viewpoint. With empowerment, we will be able to influence social choices and decisions affecting an entire society, not just limiting ourselves to women’s societies. With empowerment, we begin to change the world.