Oklahoma Women’s Coalition tries to make an impact through state legislation 

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Launched just seven years ago, Oklahoma Women’s Coalition (OKWC) has made an impressive impact on Oklahoma’s legislature, with even more changes anticipated this upcoming year.

Started in 2009 by Jean Warner, Donna Lawrence, Jan Peery and Pat Potts, the coalition serves to unite like-minded individuals and organizations within the state to advocate for the rights of women and girls. Those organizations include YWCA Oklahoma City, YWCA Tulsa, Girl Scouts’ eastern and western Oklahoma chapters and Oklahoma Nurses Association.

OKWC works with its partners across the state to establish coalition priorities before presenting those concerns to lawmakers. Additionally, OKWC hosts educational events to heighten awareness of those priorities and promotes partner events to effectively advocate statewide.

While driving any change is challenging, OKWC specifically focuses on four women’s rights areas: health and wellness, alternatives to incarceration, violence prevention and economic security.

“Unfortunately, Oklahoma is typically in the bottom five states for any factor in any of those areas,” said Danielle Ezell, executive director of OKWC.

Getting graded

The National Partnership for Women & Families organization, which performs comprehensive analysis of each state’s laws and regulations governing paid sick leave, protections for pregnant workers and other workplace rights for expecting parents, released its latest report Aug. 3.

The Expecting Better report shows Oklahoma, along with 12 other states, received an “F.” OKWC is working to change that.

Last year alone, OKWC worked with Oklahoma lawmakers to pass eight bills. Five focused on alternatives to incarceration. After analyzing statistics, Ezell said it was apparent where the coalition’s focus should be: “Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration,” she said.

With only 26 counties in the state incarcerating women below the national average, Oklahoma currently has twice the amount of female inmates as any other state. The bills OKWC helped author and pass included House Bill 2479, which “reduces or eliminates minimum sentencing and reduces maximum sentences for convictions under the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Act,” and House Bill 2472, which “allows district attorneys the discretion to file a charge as a misdemeanor offense rather than a felony after considering provided circumstances,” according to summaries on OKWC’s website.

Another successful step last year was the passing of Senate Bill 1196, relating to Oklahoma’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, which allows exceptions to parental consent regulations and allows minors to self-consent to sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE, examinations if they have been sexually assaulted. Previously, due to Oklahoma’s stringent parental rights laws, minors with non-life-threatening injuries could not receive treatment or examinations — including forensic rape kits — by medical professionals without parental consent.

Equal pay

But OKWC isn’t always so successful.

House Bill 2929, or the Equal Pay Act, is a bill that would examine the issue of equal pay. It survived eight days of deliberation and voting before it died on the Senate floor.

“About 60 percent of employers have policies in place preventing or prohibiting employees from discussing pay,” Ezell said. “It prevents employees from having that discussion, potentially finding out they aren’t making as much and going to their manager to discuss why and what they may need to do, performance-wise, to see that pay increase.”

While there are laws in place that protect employees up to a management level regarding salary discussions, they lack protections for employees above management level, Ezell explained. HB 2929 would protect all employees discussing compensation and increase previously established fines.

Looking forward

From the concerns being presented by the network this year, Ezell said OKWC also plans to focus its attention toward the economic security sector. As a part of that, OKWC leadership remains hopeful that HB 2929 will be introduced again next year.

“We’ve already seen some opposition,” Ezell said, “but we’ve seen a lot of support for it as well.”

Already this year, OKWC has seen some success with its priority areas; in February, Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order directing state agencies to eliminate questions about prior felony convictions from initial employment applications.

OKWC also joined with nonprofit and state organizations to successfully prevent elimination or cuts to the child/childcare tax credit.

“I definitely think equal pay and paid family leave are two very exciting things I think that we’re going to see on the horizon,” Ezell said.

Learn more about Oklahoma Women’s Coalition at okwc.org.

Print headline: Unifying for change, Oklahoma Women’s Coalition brings together people and organizations to advocate for women’s rights legislation.

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