Skip to Content

Advocacy & commentary

Blog Series: Seven human rights challenges faced by women in detention

This seven-part series looks into the challenges, risks and discrimination faced by women imprisoned around the world. They have been published by: The Oxford Human Rights Hub, Essex Human Rights Centre, Inter-Press Service, Open Democracy, and Penal Reform International, and can be found aggregated on the website of DIGNITY - Danish Institute Against Torture. They draw from my research in 2013-2014 with DIGNITY among prisons and prison communities in five countries -- Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia -- now published as a comparative report: 'Conditions for Women in Detention: Needs, Vulnerabilities and Best Practices', and as four country studies.     1. Vulnerabilities during admission “The first day is the most horrible, the most humiliating.” 2. The particular impact of detention conditions Published by Open Democracy “These things make you feel inhuman if you concentrate on them, so you try to forget them and accept life.” ­   3. Gendered information ... Read the full article

Violence against women: A cause, a condition and a consequence of detention

Speech delivered by Jo Baker for DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, and partners, Amman, Jordan, September 2015. During the past two and half years, as part of my work with DIGNITY, I’ve visited and spoken with detained women and those who work with them in six countries. My aim has been to understand the needs, risk and vulnerabilities that relate largely to their sex and their gender – that result from biological differences, social norms, and discrimination. I’ve had the chance to explore and reflect – through our research and that of others – the role that Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) plays in the experiences of many women in priso, and to an extent, in their route to incarceration. Indeed, as the former Special Rapporteur on violence against women, has well identified – VAWG is often a critical cause, condition ... Read the full article

Hong Kong is still failing its women

The South China Morning Post, 8 March -- Op-Ed on International Women' Day, with CEO of The Women's Foundation, Su-Mei Thompson. Later this year, Hong Kong will come under the microscope of a UN committee reviewing the city's compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). While Hong Kong is ahead of many other societies in protecting the human rights of women, big gaps remain, and The Women's Foundation has submitted a "shadow report" to inform the committee's analysis. The gaps we have identified are wide- ranging and affect women and girls across age bands and social strata. Chief among them is the feminisation of poverty, reflected in the lack of specific consideration given to elderly women in the government's budget for health care and the fact that, because many were not part of the ... Read the full article

We need to talk about Quotas: Making women’s views count in Myanmar

South China Morning Post (Op Ed), 12 December 2013 Myanmar’s first high level international forum for women showed a surge of new ideas being tolerated by its government. Of the most impactful was in the debate on quotas – with global female icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Christine Lagarde on either side. Myanmar’s most famous icon may be female, and yet women have been absent in decision-making throughout its five-decade military stranglehold. Its activists have been at best, ignored – at worst imprisoned or killed. So last week’s high level international forum on women’s leadership – the first in the country, and with the support of the government – was a high profile suggestion of change.Hosted by the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, and attended by political icon Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the International Monetary ... Read the full article

Op-Ed: Dynamic security – political change bad news for the women in Albania’s prisons

Open Democracy, 11 October 2013   Albania has been leading the Balkan region in its management of women’s prisoners – a complex group to detain and rehabilitate. Now, as a new government is sworn in and politically motivated staff changes look likely, this progress – and the wellbeing of its female inmates – is at risk.  The formation of Albania’s new left-wing coalition this June signalled change for the country on many fronts. Yet one old fashioned tendency will likely pose unintended problems for a small minority – the women in its prisons. “Of course we are pleased with the democratic process,” says Erinda Bllaca, a lawyer with a local human rights NGO that makes regular monitoring visits to the country’s prisons. “But a change in government here unfortunately still means administrative change too. And when staff appointed by the previous ... Read the full article

Recovering the right to be human

For the Helen Bamber Foundation in London, to commemorate Human Rights Day, December 2011 "I would say this is a place that recognises who you are, what you have suffered and lost, tells your story when you cannot, and documents your injuries. It recognises and acknowledges you, for otherwise no one would ever know who you are and what’s happened to you. In this way, we help our clients understand that that they have the right to be human."Helen Bamber More than six decades since the UN Universal Declaration was signed, human rights standards continue to unite millions of people in their efforts to have every person treated according to his or her inherent dignity and worth. Yet for clients at the Helen Bamber Foundation, the concept sometimes proves challenging. For a start, many who visit its therapy rooms may ... Read the full article

Building alliances: Indigenous women leaders unite against development-based violence

UN Women, 23 November 2012 The sound of helicopters still makes Soi Tonnampet shake, years later. It takes her back to the first time she and others from her indigenous community, the Karen, fled from an operation to clear areas of national parkland in Northern Thailand. She recalls that during their first three-day escape through the forest – one of many – an elderly woman died and another woman miscarried. Indigenous women shared their concerns about development-induced violence, and the strategies they have used to address it during the four-day meeting. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker   For Lori Beyer, who is helping indigenous women contend with mining operations in the Philippines, gender-based violence has a different face. “Many of the male campaigners have to go into hiding,” she says. “It makes the women more vulnerable to sexual harassment, intimidation and sometimes worse.” Although they come ... Read the full article

Around the ASEAN Summit, the region’s women rally

UN Women, 20 November 2012 As world leaders meet in Phnom Penh to discuss the future of the region at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 16 – 20 November, diverse civil society groups have been working to keep their fingers on the pulse and their voices at high volume. Particularly vocal among these have been women’s rights groups, for whom the Summit and its People’s Forum are emotional rallying points – a chance to amplify issues being discussed by women in homes, civic spaces and workplaces across Southeast Asia. These range from gender-based violence to sustainable development priorities and the scarcity of female decision-makers. At the Cambodian Women’s Forum, held in the lead up to the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, a  member of the Cambodian Women’s Caucus takes notes as a campaign statement is drafted.  Credit: UN Women/Jo ... Read the full article

Where violence and HIV meet: Intersections are explored at this year’s International AIDS Conference, and the Kolkata Conference Hub

Say NO UNiTE (link), 26 July 2012 Held every two years, the International AIDS Conference is the world’s largest conference on HIV, and plays a fundamental role in shaping the global response to HIV, and keeping HIV and AIDS on the international political agenda. While the global climate for this year’s event in Washington DC (22-27 July) has seen  funding for the global HIV response diminish, important achievements are emerging on, among other areas, most-at-risk populations, the intersection of violence and HIV, parent-to-child transmission, and treatment as prevention. Attending for the first time as an official co-sponsor of UNAIDS, UN Women has been working to champion gender equality and women’s empowerment in the global response to HIV. Among the week’s discussions, UN Women convened and moderated a panel of women leaders to highlight achievements in women’s leadership that are driving change ... Read the full article

At Rio+20, diverse women leaders bring ground realities to the forefront

UN Women, 20 June 2012 The Women Leaders’ Forum, a discussion between civil society, government and public sector representatives with UN heads of agencies, has broadened the dialogue on gender equality and sustainability at Rio +20, the United Nations Conference on Sustainability. Organized by UN Women in collaboration with the Government of Brazil and other partners, the day-long event highlighted the central role of women in sustainable development, and the ways that robust policies can  improve women’s lives by reducing poverty, advancing their economic opportunities, and protecting them from adverse health and environmental challenges. It also highlighted the inequalities that continue to slow global progress towards a green economy and a protected environment. Delivering the opening and closing remarks, UN Women’s Executive Director Michelle Bachelet stressed the critical role of the women’s movement. “Twenty years ago, the Rio ... Read the full article

On World Press Freedom Day – What Hope for Reconciliation and Free Expression in Sri Lanka?

Historical Justice and Memory Research Network, 3 May 2012. Many countries emerging from conflict have relied on the free media to involve the nation in its inquiry processes, and therefore help to validate them. From Kenya to Peru, the press has broadcast televised sessions, disseminated reports in different languages and formats and, while often divided on issues, has catalysed critical commentary and debate. This has not been the case in Sri Lanka. According to Sri Lankan NGOs public interest in the report of its Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission is low. Five months after its release it has yet to be translated into Tamil or Sinhala, and with the exception of state-sponsored editorials and maverick English language platforms online, media analysis of its findings has been rare. Mentions of the Commission, along with most other issues pertaining to national security, minority rights ... Read the full article

Building skills, finding voices: HIV-positive women in Cambodia

UN Women, 5 April 2012 Mom Ra lives just a few hours from Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, yet the 30-year-old felt very far from state support when first diagnosed with HIV. Like other HIV-positive women in her small village, she knew almost nothing about the illness and was diagnosed late, after countless costly trips to the local village doctor and losing a child to the disease. Like many such women, she says she also struggled to find information on treatments and her rights, and has been isolated by open discrimination from her neighbours. Yet in 2011 Mom Ra found promise and a sense of solidarity when she became one of 1,300 women to receive a USD 100 grant, and training to help her start a small business. The project is supported by ... Read the full article

From the margins of memory: seeking truth for women

UN Women, 23 March For women, who have long been invisible during and after conflict, truth-seeking is an opportunity to have their experiences recognised and their roles understood, as survivors and agents of change. In the past three decades approximately 30 truth commissions have been established, along with many national and international fact-finding missions and commissions of inquiry. These have been used to draw a clear picture of past events, and identify how best to move forward on issues of accountability and redress. While there has been significant progress in recent years, many of these historically failed to include or respond to women’s experiences of conflict. For individuals and societies affected by human rights violations, the right to truth can be life-changing. It gives them the right to know the fate ... Read the full article

Partnering to Close Data and Evidence Gaps for Women

UN Women, 12 March 2012 There has been growing recognition that good development models are based on evidence and mutual accountability. Yet for years the lack of gender-related statistics has been used as a reason to not take bolder action on gender equality and women’s empowerment. A dynamic new partnership, the Evidence and Data for Gender Equality (EDGE) Initiative, is responding to this gap. Jointly managed by UN Women and the UN Statistics Division, in collaboration with Member States, the World Bank, the OECD and others, it will work to meet the rising demand by countries across the world for greater support in accessing and using gender statistics – mainly by helping to build national capacity and strengthen national systems on data collection in critical areas. It will also promote ... Read the full article

Seen and not heard: Women in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation commission

Open Democracy50.50 Inclusive Democracy ,  also carried by the International Centre for Transitional Justice website, and Salem News, 24 Nov 2011 If and when Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) releases its report later this month, as scheduled, it will do so amid wide scepticism on many critical fronts – except, it seems, for one. The credibility, independence and the ethnic balance of the post-war commission have been well-challenged internationally, since it was established by the President last year to ostensibly help reconcile the nation.  But for the war’s tens of thousands of female survivors there has been little space and little said, by either the commission or its critics. The LLRC’s weaknesses in this area deserve greater attention. They also add significantly to the impression of an instrument trailing far behind modern truth and ... Read the full article

Update: Gender analysis of Sri Lanka’s LLRC published by local and international media, and cited in political report

Groundviews and various, Nov 2011. A renowned Sri Lankan site for independent journalism has published an abridged version of my legal study on the exclusion of Tamil women from the country's flawed Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 'Long Reads'. The section publishes long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign Policy and the New York Times , was carried by various international news sites and blogs, including the site of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). The power and promise of national exercises like the LLRC lies in the way that they can access the voices of those who have not traditionally been heard, and use them to build a more  inclusive collective memory. Yet for Sri Lanka’s Tamil women, the LLRC simply reaffirms bad old habits, writes Jo Baker In the lead up to the ... Read the full article

Advocacy for the Asian Human Rights Commission

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at high level fora, namely the UN Human Rights Council. Other activities, included field research on witness protection, violence against women and torture in various Asian countries and delivering workshops for human rights defenders. Below is a small selection of my work, taken from over a hundred articles and appeals written during my time there.  Reports and submissions: ASIA: Council urged to act to protect rights by protecting human rights defenders, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human ... Read the full article

Pakistan’s judiciary must confront suspected state agents on the issue of disappearances

Asian Human Rights Commission , 20 November 2009. It may have a recently-restored judiciary and an elected government that claims a strong interest in the rule of law, but Pakistan is seeing little progress in the hundreds of missing person’s cases still pending. Pakistanis continue to be regularly 'disappeared' after arrest. With the police force exposed as increasingly negligent and corrupt, the responsibility of identifying such cases and intervening has long fallen to the judiciary. Judges taking suo moto action have secured the rescue of numerous persons from illegal military detention in the recent past, and this is widely believed to have been a major motive behind the sacking of the Supreme Court judges in 2007 by then-President and Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf. Yet despite the restoration of the ... Read the full article

Losing Ground

October 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 150,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights Losing Ground In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed. “See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as ... Read the full article