Memorial for U. Robin Romano, Award Winning Human Rights Photographer


Rep. George Miller (D-CA) set to retire

News from The Hill:

Top Pelosi ally Miller to retire from House
By Cameron Joseph

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a top ally of House Minority Leader george millerNancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), will retire from the House, he announced Monday.

“I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish on behalf of children and families, working people and the environment and I look forward to working in new venues on the issues that have inspired me,” Miller said in a statement.

Sequestration-House passes budget

Daniel SheehanThe House of Representatives has passed the so-called “sequestration relief” legislation by a wide and bipartisan vote of 332 to 94.  About 73 percent of House Republicans voted for the bill, while about 84 percent of House Democrats supported it. 

December 12th, the special rule allowing the Ryan-Murray plan to be packaged with a three-month Medicare “doc fix” and allowing other end-of-year legislation passed by an almost completely party-line vote of 226 to 195.

The Ryan-Murray/doc fix bill, which is now the House amendment to the Senate amendment to H. J. Res. 59, moves over to the Senate. Majority Leader Reid can call up this “privileged message” from the House at any time, preempting other business, and will do so sometime in the next week. We’re told Senate passage of the bill is certain, though the percentage of Senate Republicans who vote “no” on the bill could well be higher than in the House, since Minority Leader McConnell has announced his opposition and thus given cover to others.

The next step is for House Appropriations chairman Rogers and Senate Appropriations chairman Mikulski to agree on how to divide the Ryan-Murray deal’s $1.012 trillion in discretionary budget authority for fiscal year 2014 amongst each panel’s twelve subcommittees so that the subcommittee staffs can spend the remaining weeks of December and the first week of January drafting an omnibus FY14 appropriations law to be enacted by January 15.  It is likely that Rogers and Mikulski will give each subcommittee its number by sometime next week, though it is not clear if there will be a public announcement of the subcommittee totals.

A Child’s Story through His Lens: In Memoriam of Robin Romano

normaIt has been three weeks since we lost a dear friend and powerful advocate, U. Roberto Romano — better known to those who loved him as Robin.

Robin used his talents to help shine a light on the most vulnerable populations, especially working children.  During his years as a photographer and filmmaker, he captured some of the most moving images of children robbed of their innocence performing some of the most back-breaking work imaginable.

One of his greatest works of art was his award-winning documentary, “The Harvest/La Cosecha,” in which he followed three migrant farmworker youth as their families journeyed across the United States to follow the harvest. It was a touching film that captured the reality of America’s migrant families and the challenges they face.

Robin and Perla

Perla from “The Harvest/La Cosecha” and filmmaker Robin

One of these young farmworker children was Perla Sanchez from South Texas.  Robin did more than just document the lives of these working children – he connected with them and cared about them.  Perla wanted the opportunity to share with the world how important Robin was to her. Being a part of the film, “The Harvest/La Cosecha” changed her life completely. With renewed determination and the support she needed, she graduated from high school last year and is currently attending college at Western Michigan University.

Below are her words:

“Changes are rare where I come from: situations, settings and life styles seldom change. I lived in Weslaco, Texas for 19 years, and I can still remember the day I was reborn. My eyes were opened to a whole new world, the day Robin came into my life.

It was difficult to accept this man, whose culture was so different and alien to mine. His personality won me over within a few days. I could talk to him about my problems, and he was always understanding. There was nothing I was embarrassed to say, he was never surprised about my difficulties, and he was always humble and willing to listen. I admired his humility, his graciousness, and most of all his drive to work; he worked just as hard as the migrant community. He changed my life and taught me to see beyond the fields, and he showed me that I could accomplish my dream of going to college. His persistence and drive demonstrated what could be accomplished with enough determination. Robin brought out my potential and helped me make my image shine, and I always work hard to do him proud and never let him down.

Even though I came from a financially impoverished home, he helped me to believe in my own capabilities. When things got hard for me, one call from him put me back on my feet. Robin destroyed my prejudices, and helped me to understand that everyone deserves an equal chance.”

Robin’s photographs and films are interwoven in the fabric of the Children in the Fields Campaign. Like us, he believed in the unmatched potential of farmworker children, and he made it his life’s work to make sure the world did a better job of protecting its children.  At AFOP, we will miss him and continue his legacy of social justice

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Workers Memorial Week Reflection

“Every day in America, 13 people go to work and never come home. Every year in America, nearly 4 million people suffer a workplace injury from which some may never recover. These are preventable tragedies that disable our workers, devastate our families, and damage our economy. American workers are not looking for a handout or a free lunch. They are looking for a good day’s pay for a hard day’s work. They just want to go to work, provide for their families, and get home in one piece.” 
– Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, Workers Memorial Day speech April 26, 2012 

levy schroederLast week we wrapped up the annual Workers Memorial Week. A look at worker safety and health numbers in 2011 indicate there were 4,693 work-related deaths in the general work population in the United States.  Included in that number are farmworkers who have died from grain bin entrapments, farm equipment accidents, and falls from ladders or equipment.  Likewise, there are an average 50,000 work-related illness fatalities each year within the general population, with farmworkers considered to be a highly vulnerable portion of the workforce—subject to heat stress, pesticide poisoning, musculoskeletal and repetitive motion conditions, and green tobacco sickness, just to name a few.

In 2010, there were 31.5 occupational fatalities among agricultural workers per 100,000 workers; a rate higher than in industries more commonly viewed as dangerous, such as mining and construction.  Reports from the federal government indicate there were 1,500 crop production deaths between 2005 and 2010; though we believe those numbers are much higher because it does not include premature death due to pesticide exposure or other stresses upon the body.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates there are between 10,000 and 20,000 incidents of pesticide illness from farm work every year.  These estimates are likely a woeful underestimate as we, along with the EPA, recognize that farmworkers often do not report occupational illnesses or seek treatment.  Fear of lost time and wages combined with apprehension about losing their job are barriers to reporting when they become ill.  Even when pesticide exposure results in a farmworker going to the doctor, it may be misdiagnosed, as symptoms of pesticide poisoning can mimic flu-like symptoms.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed by President Nixon in 1970 with the purpose of “assuring so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is the agency within the U.S. Department of Labor responsible for carrying out the mission of that law. There are no OSHA regulations that address the agricultural sector specifically, but employers are required to provide drinking water, hand washing facilities and toilets for the workers if they employ 11 or more people. All employers are obligated under OSHA’s General Duty clause to provide a workplace that is free from recognized hazards that can cause injury, illness, or death to the workers.

The EPA’s Worker Protection Standard (WPS) provides agricultural workers with protections against pesticide exposure.  The WPS covers all agricultural workers and focuses on three important areas:

  1. Notification of pesticide applications
  2. Providing information and training to workers about the hazards of pesticide residues and how to protect themselves
  3. Mitigation of pesticide exposure such as providing personal protective equipment and decontamination supplies

While these laws include provisions to protect workers from retaliation from their bosses, we know from numerous accounts shared by farmworkers across the nation threats of withholding pay, cutting pay, firing, blacklisting and other coercion exist.  Knowing that their workers are unlikely to file a complaint, or even know how to file a complaint, allows bad actors to flout the law.  With only one OSHA inspector for every 59,000 workers in the general workforce, and even fewer EPA inspectors, enforcement is a great challenge.  In resource-strapped agencies, the focus shifts from enforcement to other tools such as worker training.

Worker training, particularly among the 2.5 million farmworkers in the United States, is a critical need.  AFOP is joined by many farmworker advocacy groups in providing worker health and safety to those who harvest the food we eat.  AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs is pleased to have reached over 550,000 farmworkers since 1995 with our pesticide safety education and well over 30,000 farmworkers with heat stress prevention training.  Obviously, there is much more work to be done.  AFOP honors the memory of all workers who have died from an occupational illness or injury.  We will continue to support farmworkers in the fields with training and educational materials that just may help them go home healthy and safely at the end of the day.

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Immigration Now and Then: The Elusiveness of the American Dream

CatBoth my mother and father left Vietnam in April 1975, a time known to expatriates as “Black April,” the month Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. Their homeland had been torn asunder by years of bitter war. My mother, my aunts and uncle, and my grandmother escaped to the United States through a series of helicopter rescues orchestrated by the U.S. government. After being routed to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and San Jose, California, my mom and her family settled in Fresno, California where they found work as farmworkers, picking raspberries, bitter melons, onions, and a variety of other crops in Fresno, California. She was 16 years old.

My family was lucky. They had a sponsor and a support system already present in the United States and were also never separated from each other. My mom and her sisters were young and they eventually got the chance to enroll in school, learn English, and make better lives for themselves. It wasn’t always the easiest transition, and it certainly wasn’t easy working in the fields while going to school, but they knew that they had opportunities here in the United States that wouldn’t exist anywhere else.

My mother (center) holding her nephew with her sponsor, my aunt, and my grandmother in 1977.

My mother (center) holding her nephew with her sponsor, my aunt, and my grandmother in 1977.

It is a sobering reality that the United States my mother first experienced, a land ripe with the promise of opportunity for herself and her family, is so drastically changed from the United States we see today in terms of immigration policy. In just the last four years, the federal government has spent more than $73 billion  on immigration enforcement alone. The border between the U.S. and Mexico is now separated by 651 miles of fencing and patrolled by 18,500 agents. These facts reinforce the notion of an “illegal invasion” popularized by anti-immigration reform fear-mongers.  The fact of the matter is the problem is not how to deal with an “unprecedented influx” of immigrants crossing the border illegally, as they would have us think.  The actual number of people seeking illegal entry into the country is down dramatically, as indicated by the steep drop in those caught making illegal crossings.  The real issue is about reforming immigration laws now and implementing a realistic path towards citizenship for those individuals who live in the U.S. and consider themselves Americans, but just don’t have the proper documentation.

My mother came to this country legally, but she came during a time of uncertainty when the U.S. was ending its engagement in an unpopular war. Immigration to the U.S. isn’t just about filling out paperwork in your country of origin and waiting to hear your name called – it often is rife with themes of political persecution, warfare, a lack of opportunities available, or being brought to the U.S. at a young age and not ever even considering your legal status. There are a numerous instances, in fact, of young people not even knowing of their legal status until they apply for a driver’s license or submit applications for college.

This afternoon, thousands will converge for an immigration reform rally on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to challenge the broken system in place now. Dozens of cities nationwide will also host their own immigration reform events, as well as reach out to their representatives, in solidarity with the rally at the Capitol. Prominent experts on the subject of immigration reform, such as civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, Illinois Representative Luis Gutierrez, Executive Director of CASA de Maryland Immigration Gustavo Torres, and SEIU President Mary Kay Henry are scheduled to speak, as well as members of immigrant families speaking about their own experiences. The purpose of the rally is to demand comprehensive immigration reform that also provides a clear cut path towards citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in living and working in the United States.

In my mother’s case, the path towards American citizenship meant better pay, better jobs, and better lives. She and my aunts and uncle began their lives in the U.S. as refugees, and then worked as farmworkers. Today they all have steady jobs, warm homes, and bragging rights for all their kids who have gone to college. They are the epitome of the American Dream.

The United States is a country of founded by immigrants. Only when there is an equitable immigration policy, can the American Dream ethos continue to reflect the values on which the nation was founded.

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Remembering and Celebrating César Chávez

Daniel SheehanToday marks the 86th anniversary of the birth of César Chávez and of the final day of this year’s National Farmworker Awareness Week.  It is fitting we celebrate farmworkers this week for all the difficult and dangerous work they do in ensuring a ready food supply for our nation.  It is also fitting to recognize the man who did so much to make our nation aware of the troubles and perils farmworkers face in planting and harvesting its crops and to help secure basic labor rights for them. 

AFOP President Jesús Gamboa was just fifteen years old when he first met César Chávez in 1965.  That day, Jesús had ridden with his father to the Arvin, California grape fields “in a ’56 Chevy” to work that year’s harvest.  As they arrived, they came upon a large group of protesters waving large red flags emblazoned with a black eagle, and asking people not to go into the fields.  That experience made an impression on Jesús and his father, who accepted Chávez’s personal invitation and joined the organization that would eventually become the United Farmworkers of America.

The entire Gamboa family subsequently got involved in the labor movement.  Jesús recalls routinely visiting the union’s offices in Lamont, California with family members and seeing Chávez at work there on labor issues. Jesús remembers Chávez also helping the farmworker community with advice on meeting the challenges of everyday life, utilizing the skills he developed as a community advocate with the Community Service Organization.

It was here, in those days, that Gamboa, a farmworker until age 25, developed an allegiance to Chávez and the UFW movement that endures to this day.  Says Gamboa:

I believe in what César stood for, what the movement still stands for, and for what the union has done for farmworkers.  If not for the union, whatever limited rights workers have, they wouldn’t have: better wages and working conditions, drinking water in the fields, and in some cases health care and unemployment insurance.  I’ve maintained my allegiance to César and the movement to this day because of their efforts to protect the rights of farmworkers.

Gamboa also tells of the times in the mid-1970s when Chávez would come to his university to address the student body.   Jesús recalls that Chávez brought with him two very unusual body guards, named, respectively, “Boycott,” and “Huelga” (“strike,” in Spanish).  Those guards were not people, but two large German Shepherds.   “Yeah, nobody messed with him,” says Jesús.

Still an associate member of the union today, Jesús carries on Chávez’s work through his service as AFOP’s national president.  Says Gamboa, “I see AFOP’s mission as similar to that of César’s: taking care of the farmworker, helping to secure for them the rights and dignity they deserve, and affording them a chance to succeed.  Chávez was a great leader, but also relied on those in the trenches, those organizations that shared his values and desire to improve conditions for the farmworker.  AFOP is not that different.  Our member organizations, and the good work they do for farmworkers, are reminiscent of the work of César Chávez.”

Gamboa helped organize the 20th Annual César Chávez Celebration March on Saturday, March 30, 2013 in Visalia, California to commemorate the life and work of this great man.  Paul Chávez, César’s son and president of the César Chávez Foundation, led the march and spoke to the assembled crowd of more than 500 about his father and the importance of carrying on his mission.  A celebration including live mariachi, health screenings, Easter egg hunt, food vendors, art exhibit, and magic show, the event was, by all accounts, something special to remember.

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Cultivating Brighter Futures

normaNational Farmworker Awareness Week is a time for all of us to recognize the challenges faced by the 2.5 million workers on America’s farms. Of those farmworkers, it is estimated between 400,000 and 500,000 are children. AFOP’s Children in the Fields Campaign is committed to improving the lives of farmworker children and amplifying their stories in our Nation’s Capital.

Many times in the advocacy world, without intending to, the voice of those we represent is lost. The Children in the Fields Campaign believes the best way to advocate for farmworker children is to have them advocate for themselves. Through the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, we created farmworker youth councils in the agricultural communities of Texas and North Carolina and worked with them to develop their leadership skills.

Over the years, we have brought farmworker children from all over the country to Washington, D.C. to share their powerful testimonies with top policy leaders. We also gather these stories of their struggles with school, the long days of work in the fields, and the sacrifices they make to help their families put food on the table to help educate the public.

Through AFOP’s annual Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Children Essay & Art Contests, we have been able to collect the stories and art works from hundreds of farmworker children from around the country. The contest entries reveal the incredible talent farmworker children possess and their willingness to share how the farmworker experience has shaped their lives. The Child Labor Coalition, of which AFOP is a member, helps promote the contests and select the winning entries each year.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a member of the Child Labor Coalition, has taken its commitment a step further. This year, AFT will be sponsoring the 2013 Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Children Essay & Art Contests. Together, AFOP and AFT have selected this year’s contest theme: Cultivating Brighter Futures. All entries will be due on August 2, 2013. Full contest guidelines and entry forms can be found on the Contests webpage.

The selected winners of the contest will win cash prizes to help their families cover educational expenses, such as school supplies and backpacks. Their winning entries will be featured by AFOP on the organization’s website, in its national newsletter the Washington Newsline, and in its educational materials distributed to national policy leaders, media, and the public. Press releases will be distributed to the local papers of the winners to ensure they receive recognition in their communities too. In addition, our national partners typically publicize the winning entries on their websites and through their networks.

Along with the cash prize, all first-prize winners are offered an all-expense paid trip to the AFOP National Conference. The 2013 winners will be joining the AFOP community to receive their awards in Washington, D.C. this September.

In honor of National Farmworker Awareness Week, we ask our partners and allies to help us spread the word about this opportunity, and to encourage farmworker children in their communities to participate in the essay and art contest.

Contest guidelines can be found on our website. For additional information or questions, please contact Norma Flores López, Director of the Children in the Fields Campaign.

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Socioeconomic Status and Life Expectancy: Can Job Training Improve the Odds for Farmworkers?

jeanna1Many facets of life are affected by socioeconomic status. These include quality of education and health care, job benefits, such as paid time off and sick leave, access to transportation and services, and many more.  One you may not have thought about before is life expectancy. A recent article by the Washington Post discusses the correlation between lower socioeconomic class and shorter life expectancy and shows the problem is only getting worse. In 1980, the highest socioeconomic groups outlived lower socioeconomic groups by an average of 2.8 years; that figure rose to 4.5 years by the year 2000.  More recently, a Social Security Administration study found the life expectancy of male workers retiring at 65 rose six years in the top half of the income distribution over the previous three decades, but rose only 1.3 years in the bottom half during the same time frame. An almost five year difference in life expectancy is no small matter.  This issue is particularly troubling for farmworkers, one-fourth of whom live below the poverty line.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report the average life expectancy for migrant farmworkers is just 49 years old, compared to 73 years for the population as a whole. Bending, stooping, crawling among crops along the rocky ground, and lifting heavy containers—all common tasks performed by farmworkers for 10 to 12 hours per day, most days of the week—result in extremely high rates of persistent musculoskeletal injuries. Despite the incredible physicality of the work, most farmworkers earn very little, with the average annual income falling between $10,000 and  $12,000, far below the National Poverty Line.

Year after year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks agriculture as one of the three most hazardous industries in the United States, alongside construction and mining. Currently, agriculture is the most dangerous, with the highest rate of fatal occupational injuries and high rates of occupational illness and injury.  Farmworkers are exposed to pesticides on a daily basis which are absorbed primarily through the skin.  Their families are also exposed to dangerous pesticides when they come home from work and their bodies and clothing are covered in residue. AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs has long-reported on the effects of long-term exposure to pesticides, which have been linked to cancers, birth defects, blood disorders, neurological problems, and reproductive problems. Farmworkers are also exposed to the heat and the sun which can cause heat stress, organ failure, and death.

As farmworkers age, agricultural work becomes more and more difficult and risk of injury is greater. Being able to find employment outside of agricultural that is not as physically taxing and hazardous is important because low wages and extreme poverty require farmworkers to continue working in order to support themselves and their families.  Farmworkers face multiple barriers to employment, such language skills, education, and lack of knowledge of hiring processes. Age can add an additional barrier if employers believe they will not be able to keep up or will have a harder time learning new skills.  This is why it is very important that older farmworkers are able to participate in the National Farmworker Jobs Program (NFJP) to obtain the training, education, and job coaching assistance they need in order to find employment in other fields of work. In the past year, the MET, Inc. program in Plainview, Texas enrolled three farmworkers over the age of 55.  Due to the training and support they received from the NFJP, two went on to obtain employment as truck drivers and the third as an electrical groundsman at a renewable energy company.

Through the MET, Inc. National Farmworker Jobs Program, Moises Cavazos received the support and training he needed to get his CDL and obtain a job as a truck driver.

Through the MET, Inc. National Farmworker Jobs Program, Moises Cavazos received the support and training he needed to get his CDL and obtain a job as a truck driver.

The health statistics for farmworkers are staggering. They face long term medical issues and shortened life spans due to the hazards of their jobs and the poverty in which they live, without benefits such as health care, medical leave, or workers compensation.  These are reasons the NFJP exists—to address the unique needs of farmworkers, and assist them in moving into higher paying jobs which provide benefits for them and their families. In Program Year 2011, the NFJP served 19,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers and exceeded their program outcomes in every category. Not only are participants earning more money for themselves and their families right now, but the steps they are taking will help them for years to come.  With better jobs, higher incomes, and benefits, NFJP participants can possibly avoid or decrease some of the health outcomes lifetime farmworkers face.

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Demanding Equality and Respect for the Women Who Feed America

AyrianneMarch is the month during which National Farmworker Awareness Week and César Chávez Day take place—two very important events in the farmworker community. It is also the month the United States pays tribute to the many women who have made great contributions to our society. Every year since 1995, the U.S. President has proclaimed March as Women’s History Month. Harvesting the food that we all consume is certainly a great and most honorable contribution, but it is a role that is rife with inopportunity and abuse—especially for women. Farmworker women often see their hard work and desire to achieve the American Dream undermined by poverty, their gender, and racial discrimination.

There have been many noteworthy advancements in addressing gender inequality, but a wide gap still remains when it comes to earnings. For women of color, that gap continues to be a chasm often too great to traverse. In fact, according to the “Survivors of Color & Economic Security” report published last month by Wider Opportunities for Women, 80 percent of Hispanic women fail to make ends meet, higher than black and white women, and their male counterparts. This is especially true for many farmworker women.

Farm work is already one of the lowest paying jobs in America, with an average annual income between $10,000 and $12,000, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey. Benefits like paid time off, health care, and overtime pay are almost unheard of in agriculture, with the exception of a few thousand workers who are unionized. As a result, most farmworkers live below or at the poverty line—and farmworker women are even worse off. Women performing farm work typically earn substantially less than their male counterparts. Sometimes this disparity in income is due to employers’ preference to hire men for work they deem more physically demanding or as a result of the piece rate system, which pays workers based on the amount picked.  Women are also looked over when there are opportunities for promotions to supervisory roles and those tasks that require the use of heavy equipment, which may offer increased pay and are viewed as male roles.

Photo by Martha Beltran, AFOP Health & Safety Programs AmeriCorps memberThree farmworker women in Arizona at the end of a long day in the fields.

Photo by Martha Beltran, AFOP Health & Safety Programs AmeriCorps member
Three farmworker women in Arizona at the end of a long day in the fields.

Moreover, some agricultural employers do not permit pregnant women to work due to the harmful effects of pesticides on developing fetuses and fear of liability for birth defects and malformations associated with exposure. This discriminatory practice, which is a violation of the Sex Discrimination in Employment Based on Pregnancy Act, can be devastating for farmworker women who are already struggling to make ends meet. Language, education, and cultural barriers help further trap the women and their families in a cycle of poverty.

Harassment and abuse are also so prevalent in agriculture that female workers in Florida often refer to the fields as a “green motel,” where women are sexually harassed and even raped by supervisors and colleagues. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 80 percent of women working in agriculture had been victims of sexual harassment, compared to half of the general population. Extreme poverty, isolation, language barriers, and immigration status often make farmworker women the “perfect victims.” Next month, AFOP’s Health & Safety Programs will release an in-depth report on health issues experienced by female farmworkers, including lack of access to health care and sexual violence. The report titled, “The Hidden Faces of Farmworker Women,” will feature conversations and personal testimony from farmworker women of varying ages from around the country on their experiences.

This week, as farmworker advocates from across the nation come together to highlight agricultural workers through National Farmworker Awareness Week, it is especially important we draw attention to the many issues plaguing the women who not only take care of their families, but help feed America. These extraordinary women offer so much of themselves and ask for so little in return. It is time we demand the change necessary to honor, respect, and provide equal opportunities for farmworker women by insisting on fair pay and equal access to employment and investing in non-traditional training opportunities that lead to higher paying jobs for women.

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