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:

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…

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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 and discipline, their sense of insecurity and fear, as well as their ability to respond, heal, and achieve change or justice, as our conversations with women prisoners in five countries last year found.

Key among these was the deep sense of degradation women detainees would feel around the times of personal searches, often invasive and carried out in breach of international standards in some of the countries. “You queue, strip, lie down on the floor, spread your legs and they ask you to insert a finger in your vagina,” said a woman in Zambia, years into her remand, noting that young, aggressive female cadets were often assigned to this procedure, carried out in front of other cell mates. “We find this very hard. Our self esteem dives.” In Jordan a former detainee cried as she recalled being ‘screamed at’ to squat and jump by multiple staff while naked and menstruating.

Others spoke of the stigma. In two countries, women who had broken certain social codes and gender norms in their societies (other than the fact of their arrest), appeared to be treated with disdain as a default by female staff. “They were going through my belongings, my face creams and expensive things from abroad and I was crying,” said one disabled survivor of a so-called honour crime, in Jordan. “And they asked, ‘from which prostitute house did you come from?’” An inmate in Zambia told me that she had been whipped and slapped years earlier in custody, yet she found the verbal abuse from prison staff more painful. “They say, ‘you’re criminals, that’s why you live like animals’. They look at us like animals.”

Our report also details the impact of harmful disciplinary measures on female inmates, among them excessive isolation and confinement, and callous responses to self-harming (a much more common practice among imprisoned women than men). In Jordan an ex-inmate recounted her own series of increasingly desperate attempts to self harm. She concluded: “Finally, so that I wouldn’t do anything to myself they put me alone behind a fence with one police woman. I tried to hang myself with the prison clothing. Then the punishment is that they take away your visits: you can’t buy anything from the supermarket, and no phones. Or they put you in the Cell, a very small room.”

And while NGOs in most countries reported that cases of sexual abuse in prison were much rarer now, thanks to the stricter separation of male and female staff and inmates, our team occasionally heard quiet whispers from inmates of sexual relationships with male staff ― usually among women who have the least support on the outside. “Some women are forced into that kind of situation because they feel desperate,” said one NGO worker. “We have a phrase in the Philippines: it’s like holding onto a knife for your life.”



While it was heartening to hear almost unanimously that outright violence now is much rarer in the visited prisons (largely credited to human rights trainings and international intervention) ­­-- and we encountered an example in Albania of commendable gender-sensitive management -- this was not the case for police custody, where women reported a much greater degree of vulnerability, and a lack of female staff. In Zambia, in particular, our researchers were told of gender-based brutality, humiliation and rape taking place; of women forced to barter rights such as food, contact with family, and even visits to the toilet for sexual favours. One inmate who had killed her husband was taunted, whipped and beaten by policemen. “As they beat you, they said things like, ‘one man is entitled to 18 wives and you have taken a man out of this world – so you have deprived 18 women’,” she told me. “They think they are above women.”

And, contrary to international standards, gender barriers were often indicated along avenues of complaint and protection, from complaint books/boxes kept in male sections, to the absence of medical screening for abuse on arrival at prison, to overt discriminatory attitudes.  “When you report abuse in Zambia, as a woman you will be blamed more than the man,” I was told by a researcher in Zambia.

“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 and discipline, their sense of insecurity and fear, as well as their ability to respond, heal, and…

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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 and consequence of women’s imprisonment.

My aim here today is to try and give a brief introduction to the scope, the forms and the causes of this violence, as experienced by women detained in the penal system.

Since we don’t have much time, I’ve included on the handout some definitions of VAWG in international law. I will just quickly add that this form of violence is recognised as a type of gender-based violence, which means that it is caused a) by the social expectations/norms associated with a gender and b) the unequal power relationships between genders, in a specific society. It is therefore largely a product of discrimination, and it disproportionately affects women compared to men.
How bad?
So let’s consider scope. Studies suggest that the proportion of women in prisons and pre-trial detention who have survived violence is very high - even higher than among women in the outside community (although under reporting makes this research particularly challenging). In countries around the world, 60, 70, even 90% of incarcerated women have experienced sexual or other forms of gender-based abuse in the past. You’ll find some examples on your handout.

If you consider the profiles of women in prison around the world, this becomes a little more understandable. Women are often from poor backgrounds, with little or no economic independence, low levels of education and primary caretaking responsibilities – which makes it more difficult for them to protect themselves or escape violence.

They are detained most commonly for economic crimes, drug or trafficking related crimes, prostitution, and for killing family members (most often, abusive family members).  These contexts – particularly sex work, organized crime, and abusive families – have strong links with VAWG.
Violence as a Cause…
Among commonly detained groups of women are those arrested for drug crimes, who operate at a minor level but who have coercive or violent partners who play a greater role in the trade.

They include the many women who have used force against their abusers in order to protect themselves or their children, once they decide that the law cannot/will not help them. In many of these cases, the fact of a woman’s long term abuse, notions of self-defence and fearing for her life, do not influence the court’s sentencing decisions.

As of course you know, in Jordan women are detained as a result of experiencing violent and so-called honour crimes – their voices are in the report. And in many countries women have been imprisoned for violating discriminatory laws which particularly affect female survivors of violence. Among these are victims of honour crimes, administratively detained for their own protection; victims of rape; and those who are imprisoned for the crime of running away from home.

So you can see how VAWG operates as a pathway to prison.

Consider how differently these women may be impacted by prison life. Consider a young woman who has been raped, or survived horrific violence from her family members. What physical healthcare might she need in the following days months years? What reproductive and sexual healthcare, or other forms? What psychological care and counselling, in response to post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression? How might she respond to isolation, or to aggressive/invasive search procedures, to so-called virginity testing, shackling, or to being imprisoned in a facility with male guards or inmates? How might she cope, away from children and family?
… A Condition…
Once in detention, women prisoners are particularly vulnerable to gendered forms of abuse, particularly those places that breach international standards by mixing male and female inmates, and allowing male supervision of female inmates.

In these situations, sexual exploitation and abuse – including rape, trading sexual favours for provisions and privileges, so-called virginity testing, and sexual assault during body searches – may take place.

Research has indicated that people with histories of sexual abuse are more vulnerable to being exploited and victimized again. This is a particular problem in a detention environment, where they may face retraumatization, and have few ways to seek protection.

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 and consequence of women’s imprisonment.

My aim here today is to try and give a brief introduction to the scope, the forms…

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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 formal workforce, they do not receive any benefits from the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme. This is all despite the fact women are outliving…

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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 Fund, Christine Lagarde and a range of international CEOs, it gave diverse women from Myanmar one of their first chances for unfettered public debate – including with Daw Su Kyi herself.

In doing so, Myanmar women were brought full force into one of the more divisive issues in developing democracies: quotas for women. Quotas are a temporary tool used to balance equality of opportunity, by allocating a percentage of positions to women, in sectors from politics to peacekeeping. Critics claim that they can lower the bar of ability or talent in a field, and lead to the tarnishing of legitimately qualified women; advocates counter that, wielded well, they are one of few ways to break through institutional barriers, change minds, and challenge stereotypes.  (Earlier this year the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reported a significant increase in women MPs during the 48 elections in 2012, and put this largely down to their use.)



Yet despite the recommendation for quotas by the UN’s independent expert on Myanmar as well as the Myanmar government itself in a strategic plan on women’s empowerment (launched in October) - and strong results from the use of quotas in other fast developing neighbours, such as India - the country has yet to host a healthy range of debates on  the issue – the kind that lead to locally owned decisions on where and how quotas are used.

It was therefore incredibly heartening to see the issue’s public debut at the conference, at full force.  In a compelling sight, Aung San Suu Kyi’s more conservative stance – softer pro women measures such as boosting education for girls – was countered with confronting questions by women from a range of sectors. Why should there be a 25% quota for the military in politics, but none for women? Will pro-women education policies really be enough to change the fact that more than 95% of 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 Fund, Christine Lagarde and a range of international CEOs, it gave diverse women from Myanmar one of their first chances for unfettered public…

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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 regime are let go or redistributed, this can mean a lot of good progress going to waste.”
Wedged tightly among the low-rise flats of Albania’s capital, Tirana, the Ali Demi medium-security women

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 regime are let go or redistributed, this can mean a lot of good progress going to waste.”
Wedged tightly among the low-rise…

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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 not have encountered these tools in a country that genuinely recognises them, as the UK does – comparatively speaking. Yet more profoundly challenging is the fact that…

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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 from villages far apart, indigenous women’s network members from across Southeast Asia found shared ground during a recent consultation on violence against indigenous women, which focused on forms of violence that are worsened or caused by economic development projects.

 



Soi Tonnampet and Kruemebuh Chaya, both members of the Karen tribe from Keng Kra Chan, Thailand, share their experiences of violence and displacement with the group during a story-telling session. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker.



 

Organized by the Asia Indigenous Peoples’ Pact and supported by UN Women, the meeting is part of work to connect indigenous women with each other, rights experts, and the skills they need, to define and respond to pressing issues. As decisions on the sustainable development framework are made, and countries – particularly ASEAN members – open up economically, the need to battle their invisibility and lack of public voice has become increasingly important.

“The impact of the violence on indigenous women that comes with militarization of indigenous territories, with the destruction of our natural resources and with the consequence of displacement, affects them not just as individuals but as a collective – through the social-cultural dimension of their identity and dignity,” says Joan Carling, AIPP Secretary General. “If  are not participating in any decision-making where it concerns them, then this issue is not being addressed”.

Although often found in areas of natural wealth, indigenous groups make up 5% of the world’s population, but 15% of the poorest worldwide, according to the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Many contend with extensive damage, marginalization and human rights violations as a result of aggressive development processes.

For women, these harms can take on different forms. The influx of non-indigenous workers and security personnel into indigenous areas has seen prostitution increase, for example, along with sexual harassment and rape. As indigenous livelihoods are altered or destroyed, levels of gender-based violence often rise, and economic, social and cultural harms can affect women differently as their burdens shift or increase. Yet with lower levels of education, and held back by multiple layers of discrimination, indigenous women can struggle to highlight their concerns and lead change.

 
Despite language and cultural barriers the women found solidarity –
and lighter moments – during the consultation.
Photo credit: Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact

 

 

Nevertheless, with support, women leaders are emerging as effective advocates.  The Chiang Mai consultation connected twenty-nine indigenous women from eight countries in Southeast Asia  with regional and international human rights experts, women’s rights and indigenous peoples rights advocates – including representatives from the ASEAN Commission on the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Women and Children, and the UN’s Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP).  “At this workshop I can hear other country’s cases, and how they have overcome  so that I learn from them,” says Seng Mai, who has been helping indigenous and rural people to respond to development projects in Myanmar, through the Kachin Development Networking Group. “And I can hear about international law, such as customary law and CEDAW.”

Participants also shared positive progress – whether cases pushed into and through their criminal justice process, interventions triggered from the UN Human Rights Council, or in the case of the Philippines recently, a military court martial successfully campaigned for, for soldiers suspected of extrajudicial killing.

Other network members, with support from UN Women and others, spoke of meeting with decision-makers on international platforms like the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), or the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 (Rio+20).  Many spoke of placing force behind their lobbying using the women’s and collective rights frameworks, found in international instruments such as the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples  and CEDAW, known as the Women’s Convention.


Indigenous women from three areas of Indonesia meet with women from
Thailand’s Akha hill tribe, during the participants’ trip to a tribal village in
Chiang Mai. Photo credit: UN Women/Jo Baker

 

At the conclusion of the meeting, participants agreed on an action plan - a series of research, advocacy and capacity building steps for the coming year. For women like Soi, Lori and Seng Mai, the solidarity and the strategizing are a source of knowledge, but also critical encouragement and moral support.

This is a chance for me to bring this information to my country, my village and the women there,” explains Seng Mai.

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 from villages far apart, indigenous women’s network members…

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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 Baker

For one dynamic network, preparations have been long in the making. The Southeast Asia Women’s Caucus on ASEAN, a…

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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 and transformation of the HIV response; and co-sponsored events focused on…

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