Yasamin Kusunoki was a young girl growing up in California when she made an observation that stayed with her.

“I saw the power dynamics between boys and girls and that didn’t sit well with me,” she explained. “I come from a family of strong women, so whether it was on the playground or in a classroom, it bothered me when I saw girls not being treated equally.”

The disquiet carried into Kusunoki’s career, which is rooted in public health and sociology. Kusunoki is a faculty associate, Population Studies Center; faculty associate, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research; and assistant professor of nursing, School of Nursing. She found herself drawn to research that examined the factors contributing to gender, racial and ethnic disparities.

Yasamin Kusunoki, who has a joint appointment at the School of Nursing and the Institute for Social Research, focuses her research on gender, racial and ethnic disparities. (Photo courtesy of the School of Nursing)

One of Kusunoki’s earliest projects at the ISR provided new insights into the sources of these disparities, with a focus on unintended pregnancy.

Kusunoki and her colleagues followed a diverse set of 18- to 19-year-old women for more than two years to gain a better understanding of connections between relationships, life aspirations and contraceptive use.

“We realized how much violence these women were experiencing, not just in their own intimate relationship, but their moms’, their sisters’ and friends’ relationships,” Kusunoki said.

The study reinforced a common finding that violence and unintended pregnancy were linked, but the researchers were also able to show something new.

“Because we had weekly data, we could see that the violence precedes the decreased contraceptive use,” she explained. “That kind of relationship is unhealthy for both parties, and then you’re potentially bringing a baby into a violent situation.”

The violence can also be linked to reproductive coercion.

“Reproductive coercion can happen in different ways, such as the men coercing their partners not to carry a pregnancy to term, contraceptive sabotage like a partner saying they are going to withdraw but not doing so, or throwing away birth control pills,” she said.

Kusunoki saw an opportunity to make a real-world difference in an area that she’s passionate about.

“For me, it’s about women and reproductive justice,” she said. “Every woman has the right to have or not have children, but there are many factors that get in the way of that happening including violence, discrimination and socio-economic disadvantages.”

Now Kusunoki is exploring new ways to reach women who need help but are afraid to ask for it or don’t know how to find it. She’s developing interventions to incorporate that assistance into health care services that women are more likely to use such as a general health care setting, family planning clinic or a substance use treatment facility.

Kusunoki says these collaborations are a key reason why the School of Nursing is a good fit for what she’s trying to accomplish.

“Nurses have always been holistic and have understood that where the patient is coming from plays a role in what comes next,” she said. “They also represent the largest number of health care providers and have the most reach with individuals and their families.”

When Kusunoki reflects on her drive to equalize the dynamics between men and women, she credits the women in her family who led by example.

“My mother is from Afghanistan,” she said. “My mom was supposed to be arranged to be married several times but she kept saying no. She was not going to settle for what everyone else wanted her to do.”

It’s a message Kusunoki is passing on to her own twin girls.

“I want them to have a future in which they can feel safe in their environment and in their relationships,” she said. “These issues of sexual harassment and assault have always been happening, but now we’re talking about it in a much more open way. I’m hopeful and I haven’t always been able to say that.”