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Women in prison: The particular vulnerability to abuse

“You are surrounded by men and powerless. There are no women to talk for you. They want to win as men.”  ― Inmate, Zambia Written for the Essex Human Rights Centre Blog, 2014* Despite international commitments by governments to make their prisons secure, safe and well-organized, this is aspiration (if that) rather than practice across much of the world. Sealed away from society ― its sight, and often interest or empathy ― prisoners are among the world’s most vulnerable groups. But what of the vulnerable groups among them? With the rising number of women in custody, it has become increasingly important to acknowledge the different safety and security needs of women, and the way in which the pervasive violence and discrimination in our societies can reach through and be magnified by prison walls. This vulnerability colours women prisoners’ experience of security measures ... Read the full article

Conditions for women in detention: Key findings and recommendations

What are the issues, risks and vulnerabilities that face imprisoned women across the world? How is this being addressed by those who detain them? And is this well reflected in the attention they receive by the UN human rights treaty bodies? These questions lie at the heart of at 2013 study conducted by myself with DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture, among prisons and prison communities in five countries — Albania, Guatemala, Jordan, the Philippines and Zambia. Below you will find a potted summary of our findings and recommendations. Please see our main report: ‘Conditions for Women in Detention: Needs,Vulnerabilities and Best Practices’ -- or my series of blog posts on our findings for more depth.      International Standards Since the elaboration of the Bangkok Rules in 2010, UN standards on the treatment of female prisoners, and prisoners generally, adequately address their needs, vulnerabilities and ... Read the full article

Women in prison: The particular impact of prison conditions

 “These things make you feel inhuman if you concentrate on them, so you try to forget them and accept life.” ­― Inmate, Zambia All prisoners are deeply affected by the conditions of their detention, from the amount of light they get to the quality of the food and cleanliness of cells. Yet just as some conditions or deprivations can be more common among particular groups, others experience the same conditions in different ways. Such is the case for women. In 2008, the UN’s independent expert on torture raised the bar for women by asserting that, in the context of detention, poor conditions can affect them more adversely, compared to men. My own conversations with women in prisons around the world found examples of this throughout prison life (and particularly in the many squalid and unsafe police cells used to detain women ... Read the full article

Women in prison: Their particular vulnerabilities during admission

“The first day is the most horrible, the most humiliating.” – Female inmate, Jordan Many detained women have told me that the first days in prison are among the most distressing of their whole incarceration. This is particularly so among societies in which women’s spheres are made smaller, limited to their families and communities. For such women detention tends to bring an especially intense fear of the unknown, and a sense of helplessness, shock and shame. Various research projects have suggested that suicide and self-harm are a particular risk for women at this time, compared to men, and the many conversations I have had in the past year have given me some insight as to why. Consider the common backgrounds of women offenders as mothers and/or as victims of abuse and/or substance abusers, along with other gendered social and biological factors, (read ... Read the full article

New publication: Conditions for Women in Detention – Needs, vulnerabilities and good practices

DIGNITY - The Danish Institute Against Torture, Jun 2014.  What are the issues, risks and vulnerabilities that face imprisoned women across the world? How is this being addressed by those who detain them? And is this well reflected in the attention they receive by the UN human rights treaty bodies? These questions lie at the heart of this study, written by Jo Baker with Therese Rytter for DIGNITY.             Find the executive summary and full report here                                        Find a two-page summary of findings and recommendations here While all human beings are vulnerable when deprived of their liberty, certain groups are at particular risk. For women, the discrimination that they face in broader society reaches deep into places of detention such ... Read the full article

Workshops and Presentations

Presenter and Chair: MENA regional forum on Detention Monitoring, convened by DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, 27 – 30 Nov, 2014, Marrakech, Morocco. Chaired one of three working groups on issues relating to gender, and contact with the outside world; gave a presentation on research findings relating to women in detention. (The other two chairs were the UN Special Rapporteur on VAWG, and a member of Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture).  Sponsored participant, Women and Girls at Risk Working Group workshop to increase opportunities for displaced women and girls to participate and self-advocate for their rights on issues affecting their lives, convened by the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (includes training on reciprocal research methodologies by the Centre for Refugee Research, University of New South Wales), 31 March – 4 April 2014, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Presenter:Healthcare and the ... Read the full article

Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.” Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars ... 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

Master of the House: Architect Wang Shu

Discovery Magazine, May 2012.  Chinese architect and Pritzker winner Wang Shu may draw from the spirit of traditional architecture, but with enough depth and ingenuity to keep the clichés at bay He calls his studio ‘Amateur Architecture’. His work is anything but. This year, China’s Wang Shu was lifted from the relative quiet of his small practice in Hangzhou by a heavyweight panel of his peers, hailed as a “virtuoso” and presented with architecture’s equivalent to an Academy Award: a Pritzker. And yet just as Hollywood has its naysayers and anti-heroes, the Chinese architect is emerging as a kind of anti-designer.  “Design is an amateur activity. Life is more important,” he has said. “The Amateur Architecture studio is a purely personal architecture studio; it should not even be referred to as an architect’s office.” The likelihood of him accepting ‘starchitect’ status and all the ... Read the full article

Five Questions for Shishir Chandra: Men’s Action for Stopping Violence against Women (MASVAW)

Say NO-UNiTE to End Violence Against Women, 28 March 2012 Shishir Chandra is a community organizer with Men’s Action for Stopping Violence Against Women (MASVAW) in Uttar Pradesh, India, an alliance of individual men and organizations that are committed to reducing gender-based violence through education and advocacy. Here he talks about the struggle to challenge gender roles for both men and women in India, and why he believes that young men can and should step up to the challenge.   1. Why do you think it’s important for young people to get involved in these issues? Although gender equality is such a burning issue, not many youth in India get an opportunity to get involved in advancing gender equality. Young men and boys all over India have had many difficult experiences regarding gender ... Read the full article

AHRC Urgent Appeals: Theory and Practice

*This text can be found on the AHRC Urgent Appeals homepage. It was written for civil society, across Asia. The AHRC's Urgent Appeals system was created to give a voice to those affected by human rights violations, and by doing so, to create a network of support and avenues for action.  If X’s freedom of expression is denied, if Y is tortured by someone in power, or if Z finds his or her labour rights abused, Urgent Appeals swiftly and effectively broadcast and deal with the incident. The resulting solidarity can lead to action, resolution and change. And as more people understand their rights and follow suit, as human rights consciousness grows, change happens faster. The Internet has become one of the human rights community’s most powerful tools. A need for dialogue on human rights Many people across Asia are ... Read the full article

Defamation of religions at the UN: The current consensus

Taken from 'Defamation of Religions: International Developments and Challenges on the Ground' for the SOAS International Human Rights Clinic Project and the Cairo Institute on Human Rights Studies (2011) As now established, international support for the OIC-sponsored resolutions has been waning since a high point in 2006, despite the minor concessionary changes in language. This section aims to establish the present consensus on the concept at the UN, both in the reception of the resolutions in the past year and through the expressions of official opinion via various other UN fora. The 2010 resolution at the HRC in March 2010 saw its lowest margin yet, placing it just four votes from defeat: 20 states in favour and 17 against. Although a small number of states moved to abstain after holding positions against the resolution, no new states chose to support it. Both ... Read the full article

Architecture Week

Find my full series of articles written for this US-based publication here, including on Steven Holl's Linked Hybrid in China, Norman Foster's Beijing Terminal 3, China's emerging generation of architects, Alaska's Museum of the North (also covered for TIME), and Berlin's Grand Central Station.

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

Winning Ways

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011 Since Architecture for Humanity first made its mark in 1999 with a competition to design transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, it has used designers’ competitive streaks to its advantage. Its competitions have produced the ultimate mobile health clinic for AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, a factory to connect indigenous chocolate producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the global marketplace, and many more. Each competition has garnered fame and funding, showing in travelling exhibitions and drawing a range of panellists, from architect Frank Gehry to actor Cameron Diaz. The blueprints are uploaded on the Open Architecture Network ( ) for use across the world, while the winning prototype is funded and built. This may present an interesting challenge for the 2011 competition, which will ask architects to repurpose disused military installations for ... Read the full article

Manor in the works

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011 Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian manor houses amid rolling hills, or perhaps the sooty brick-and-mortar of Sherlock Holmes’ London. And while this has long been good news for the tourist board, for writer and popular philosopher Alain de Botton, it is an endless source of frustration. “Liking modern architecture is a kind of sect here,” the Swiss-born de Botton complains from a cosy brickbound office in north London. “It’s like witchcraft, or something slightly unusual. Because Britain industrialised so fast there’s a tremendous desire for history. But there’s a reason things become history.” As a writer, long based ... Read the full article