A Voice for Women in the MetroWestMar 25, 2021 02:12PM ● By Chuck Tashjian
By J.D. O’Gara
The MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women makes sure voices don’t get lost in the shuffle or pushed aside.
“Our job is to basically amplify the voices of those who identify as female in our community, to make sure our community partners, our elected and appointed officials are making decisions with those peoples’ needs in mind,” said Heather Panahi. She’s in her third year as chairman of the MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women.
“Our Commission was founded in 2015. We represent 26 towns and two cities and are actually one of 11 regional commissions throughout the state,” said Panahi. There is also a state commission.
Panahi explained the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women, the state commission, was created in the mid-1990s, after a UN Conference on Women.
“The goal was to give a voice to Massachusetts women and girls,” said Panahi, of the non-partisan commission. “Over the last several decades, the state has created these regional commissions to be able to better reach women throughout the state.”
The MetroWest Commission covers Ashland, Bellingham, Dover, Framingham, Franklin, Holliston, Hopkinton, Hudson, Maynard, Medfield, Medway, Millis, Natick, Needham, Norfolk, Northborough, Norwood, Sherborn, Southborough, Stow, Sudbury, Walpole, Wayland, Wellesley, Westborough, Weston and Wrentham, and Marlborough.
“Our nine commissioners are basically appointed to their positions; there’s no election. You apply, and then they’re appointed based on experience. You can serve two terms, and each term is three years,” she said.
To get a handle on what women want and need, the MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women hosts public hearings, panel discussions, engages in community outreach programs and hosts awareness campaigns, as well as works with local community organizations and nonprofits.
Members of the commission have also given testimony on behalf of women in the MetroWest region, which is very diverse, said Panahi.
“You have rural towns, you have metropolitan towns, you have towns that are higher on the socioeconomic ladder than others. When we are bringing on new commissioners, one of the thing we try to be mindful of is bringing in commissioners as representative of our region as possible.”
Areas of focus the MetroWest Commission include reproductive issues last year, from improving access to feminine hygiene products in schools and jails to maternal health after having children. The group has also spent a lot of time on domestic violence and sexual assault prevention.
“Domestic violence prevention and sexual assault prevention are big items for us and continue to be for us, and COVID has exacerbated the problem, where women are in their homes trapped with their abusers. We’ve also done work talking about the experiences of incarcerated women in the region, making sure they have appropriate access to the resources they need, that they’re safe and that their health needs are being taken care of. We’ve also looked at economic empowerment, job placement after incarceration, and helping to protect immigrant families, particularly immigrant women and their children,” she said.
This past year, the Commission decided to focus on racial equity, hosting a Zoom public hearing on “Racial Inequality Affecting Woman and Families of Color in the MetroWest” in late February.
“The public hearing was really our first step before we start to develop a plan of action,” said Panahi. The Commission will use the feedback they’ve gained from BIPOC women in the region to help identify issues to prioritize, support and raise awareness.
“We recognized we needed to hold ourselves accountable, to make sure all of the girls and women in our region were adequately supported and have access to the services they need,” She said, adding the commission itself is also a majority (75%) white, and the group would like to attract a more diverse panel of commissioners.
Panahi suggested that COVID has also highlighted where inequities lie.
“Whether or not people can access Wifi so that their children can learn – those things have become much more accentuated as a result of the pandemic,” she said.
In particular, said Panahi, the many immigrant families in the MetroWest face enormous barriers because of COVID.
The Commission also endeavors to listen to MetroWest’s youngest women constituents. It has created the Athena Council, and internship and advocacy for women aged 14-19 to channel their passions into energy and action. The 12 members of the Athena Council are girls who’ve applied from all over the MetroWest.
Panahi added that all meetings of the MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women are open to the public and “any women who want to come and listen and share their questions.”
The best way to stay apprised of when the next meeting is to visit the MetroWest Commission on the Status of Women’s Facebook Page (you can also find them on Instagram (@metrowestcsw) and Twitter (@MassCSW). You can also find out more at the state website, https://www.mass.gov/service-details/metrowest-commission-on-the-status-of-women .
Panahi had a message to any women interested: “We are a nonpartisan group. We want to emphasize that. To us, gender does not belong to a political platform. We want all women in the MetroWest to know we are here to advocate for them, and to listen.”