Women Helping Others

Oklahoma may sometimes fail its female residents, but five crusaders are working to change the nature of the conversation.

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According to a recent Center for American Progress report, no other state in the nation ranks as consistently bad as Oklahoma does.

The report, “The State of Women in America: A 50 State Analysis of How Women are Faring Across the Nation,” presented it findings in the categories of economic security, leadership and health of women and families. Oklahoma ranks 48 out of 50.

The high female incarceration rate, double the national average for more than a decade, places Oklahoma as the No. 1 state for women in prison.

Also in the report, Oklahoma comes in dead last concerning women’s health issues, has the third-highest maternal mortality rate and is among the top 10 worst states for infant mortality.

The state has the second lowest rate of obstetricians and gynecologists for its population of women, ranks third worst in the nation for domestic violence and has become a central hub for an increasingly alarming issue for women: human trafficking.

“There are a lot of women in Oklahoma doing very well, and these women tend to work hard to try to raise all women up with them,” says Lou Kohlman, chair of the Oklahoma Commission on the Status of Women, a state advisory board. “We’re fortunate in that respect. If you’re a woman in Oklahoma, you may not feel like this is a bad place to live, but that may be because we just don’t see where we could be because we’re used to where we are.

“It’s important to look at the larger picture, and look at the picture of what women in other states enjoy that we don’t even know we miss,” she continues. “For example, if you don’t realize what a difference it makes to have more women in your legislature, then you don’t necessarily understand why that’s important. Women in the legislature changes the nature of the conversation for women. There are different topics on the table, they’re considered differently, and this effects serious change. Policy makers talk a lot about family values, but not a lot of our policies reflect a real respect for women’s lives. If we had more focus on those things we’d see everybody in the state benefit.”

While studies show that Oklahoma statistically struggles where women are concerned, in other ways it is also a good place for women to be. Kohlman emphasizes that a lot of good things happen here.

“There’s some great conversations being had about women, and there are a lot of people working very hard to not only improve the lives of women, but also to draw more women into the conversation,” she says. “By bringing more women together to talk about these issues, we can change the nature of the conversation, raise more awareness and visibility within our communities, and make a difference.”

Carmelita Skeeter, Executive Director, Indian Health Care Resource Center. Photo by Brandon Scott.

Carmelita Skeeter, Executive Director, Indian Health Care Resource Center. Photo by Brandon Scott.

CARMELITA SKEETER

Distinguished both locally and nationally for her expertise on a wide range of critical health issues and policies, Carmelita Skeeter has served as executive director of the Indian Health Care Resource Center in Tulsa for the past 25 years.

As leader of the nonprofit organization, she has played a crucial role in building IHCRC into a comprehensive, quality healthcare facility since its beginning, as she strives to eliminate health disparities and improve the general health status of Tulsa’s American Indian community.

A seasoned healthcare advocate, Skeeter says that in the time that she has been with IHCRC, the biggest issues she sees with women are poverty and lack of education, both of which have a tremendous effect on health.

“I’m seeing third generations in families now. We have some very good stories of evolving, and then we have some stories that aren’t so good. A lot of times a family that is extremely poor continues (in poverty) for generation after generation. It’s hard to get out, and we see many, many single mothers in this situation,” Skeeter says.

“We still live in a very male-dominant society. Men seem to have it easier making a living – they still earn higher wages than women do – and taking care of the children almost always falls upon the mother. This makes it much more difficult for women when it comes to making a living and raising children, especially if you’re a single mother,” she says. “We have women who come in that we’ve worked with who have continued their education, but there are always so many that are constantly struggling. We see the entire spectrum, and I think it’s a reflection of what’s going on with all races of women across the state.”

Despite progress made over the years with the availability of health services on the state and federal levels, Skeeter says that Oklahoma’s faltering statistics show there’s plenty of room for improvement, particularly when it comes to funding education and childcare.

To educate the American Indian community on healthy lifestyles and habits, IHCRC partners with organizations to promote community gardens and farmers markets. It also offers classes on nutrition, health-conscious shopping choices and cooking so that clients can learn how to prepare healthy meals for themselves and their families.

“I think that there are so many things going on in your life today that eating healthy meals takes time and planning, and believe it or not, this is something that many people have to learn to do,” Skeeter explains.
“Many of our young, single mothers have no idea how to cook because they’re accustomed to fast food, which is quick and cheap,” she says. “Women play such a crucial role in family health. They are the primary caregivers in their families; if you start with women getting their own health in check, there is the opportunity to impact everyone else in her family. If mom’s healthy, everyone has a better chance of being healthy.”

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