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Women speak out on International Womens Day

Shirley Hawkins | 3/12/2009, 5 p.m.

It was a jubilant day of activism and celebration Saturday as women from throughout California participated in International Women's Day at the Southern California Library for Social Research.

The day focused on the struggle of women around the world to reclaim the funds and other resources spent on war and occupation and efforts to get the United States government to pay for caring for people and the environment. Entitled "Fund Caregiving, Not War and Occupation," the day-long event kicked off with women holding a "Women Say No War" march in downtown Los Angeles, and culminated with a visual and multimedia art exhibit highlighting women artists.

"They talk about terrorism, but poverty is starving people out," said Margaret Prescod, host of KPFK's Sojourner Truth radio program and moderator of the event.

Panelists included Susan Burton, executive director of A New Way of Life; Rosa Romera of the South Central Farmers Women's Collective; Michele Ibarez, a former victim of domestic violence; Milady Quito of the Gabriela Network; and Nell Myhand, of Women of Color and the Global Women's Strike.

The U. S. Prostitute Collective also sent a letter to the event declaring that they are promoting and advocating the rights of women who work in the sex industry.

Burton, an advocate for women who are transitioning out of prison, declared that there are too few resources available to help formerly incarcerated women trying to rebuild their lives.

"I'm a former prisoner who was caught up in the criminal justice system for 20 years," said Burton. "I had a tragedy happen in my life. My five-year-old son was accidentally killed by a policeman. After my son was killed, I went through grief and trauma, but there were no counseling services or resources to help me deal with the grief. In order to deal with my pain, I started drinking heavily and doing drugs," said Burton.

Burton said that she was sent to jail five times for possession of a controlled substance. "But I never received any help in prison," said Burton. "When I got out of jail, there were no resources to help me. In 1997, I went to the Clare Foundation in Santa Monica. It was there that I began to heal," said Burton. "Then I thought about all the other women trapped in the criminal justice system."

After realizing that there was no housing for formerly incarcerated women in South Los Angeles, Burton opened a home for women transitioning out of prisons and jail in 1998. Burton's organization has since helped 250 women and 100 children transition back into society.

A New Way of Life offers a number of services for formerly incarcerated women. "We offer a safe, structured, sober environment at A New Way of Life," said Burton. "We pick the women up upon release from jail, we provide doctor and school referrals, and we help the women with counseling." Burton said she has also founded a project called Women Organized for Justice.

"We train former prisoners and residents to advocate on behalf of themselves," said Burton. "We teach them about racism, classism, capitalism, and we teach them about the prison industrial complex."