LOS ANGELES ? On International Women's Day, Friday, March 8, 2002 the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California announced the launch of its Latina Rights Project. The Project, a pilot initiative of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, will utilize model litigation, bilingual/bicultural public education and public policy advocacy to address priority civil rights issues facing Latina women and girls in Southern California.

Working in collaboration with community-based advocates and a multi-disciplinary Advisory Board, the Project will serve as a bridge among diverse civil rights advocacy communities, addressing barriers to access and opportunity, while promoting Latina's self-empowerment.

"Latinas represent one of the fastest growing demographic groups throughout the state," said Rocio Cordoba, Staff Attorney with the ACLU/SC and Director of the Latina Rights Project. "Unfortunately while the Latina population continues to grow and expand, their access to basic services and equal opportunities in the areas of health and education continues to dwindle. The Latina Rights Project will work to address some of the alarming disparities that exist in the Latina community."

According to U.S. Census estimates, Latina/os represent 32.4% of California's population, Latinas make up 25% of the state's female population. While representing a major constituency in the state, Latinas face some of the most daunting problems in the areas of health and education. For example, 61% of California Latinas aged 25-44 have no high school diploma, 24% graduated from high school and only 15% have gone on to post-secondary education.

"What we find is that there are a number of pressures that contribute to some of these unfortunate statistics," said Mireya Gutierrez, project Advisory Board member and Director of National Latina Alliance, a grasssroots organization that seeks to empower Latinas through education and policy analysis. "Often times, these girls have to act as surrogate mothers, taking care of younger sisters and brothers because their parents have to work long hours in order to make ends meet. This leaves little opportunity to participate in after-school programs or extra curricular activities."

In the area of health care, Latinas make up the majority of uninsured women throughout California at 33%, nationally the number climbs to 42%. The maternal mortality rate among Latinas in the United States is 1.7 times the rate for white women.

"Working with the Latino/a community, we see that often times women are not aware of the resources that are available to them," said Kristina Moreno, Policy Director for Latino Health Care of Los Angeles. "Whether it be in the area of prenatal care, reproductive health or access to basic health services there is a lack of public education and the community suffers because of that. This project will work to inform Latinas of their basic health care and reproductive rights."

"The Latina Rights Project is in the great tradition of the ACLU," said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU/SC. "We have always fought to make sure that everyone's civil rights and civil liberties are respected and this will be an extension of that unchanging goal."