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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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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 dignity - with one exception: gendered barriers to information. However the implementation and awareness of the Bangkok Rules is weak.
UN Treaty Body Review
The rights and needs of women in detention have not been adequately addressed by the four major treaty bodies researched, in number and quality. Issues of safety and security have received most attention, yet recommendations are not always gender-sensitive, and violence against women in detention receives only a fraction of the attention given by the UN bodies to the issue in the outside world. Gender-specific health care needs receive limited attention by the treaty bodies, particularly mental health care and treatment for substance abuse. Most treaty bodies address the issue of contact with the outside world, but none have taken a gender-sensitive approach. Of the four bodies reviewed, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture leads in its treatment of detained women, yet requires greater gender-sensitivity; references by the Committee against Torture have steadily increased in quantity and quality over time; the Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women lacks quantitatively in this area, although this is partly remedied qualitatively; and the Human Rights Committee has given the least attention to women in detention.

The Bangkok Rules have been mentioned just fourteen times among over 80 UN reports published between the date of their adoption, and December 2013.
What matters? Key needs and vulnerabilities of women in detention in five countries? 
The needs and demands expressed by detained women are largely covered by the Bangkok Rules, other than the right to information. Contact with the outside world is a clear and unanimous priority, and the need for income and income-generating skills is a common priority. As mentioned, there is a critical and largely unmet need for gender-sensitive information systems in detention - which act as a barrier to a spectrum of rights - and for gender specific health care, with particular attention towards inmates

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 dignity – with one exception: gendered barriers to information….

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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 on arrest) with harmful if not devastating effect.

The case of police custody in Zambia highlights this painfully. Here women told us of their…

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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 more on this in our report), and it becomes clearer that their needs on entry to detention and in the planning of their…

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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 as prisons, which are largely still designed and managed for men, by men. As a minority ― although a growing one in many counties ― detained women are often overlooked at the expense of their dignity, wellbeing and human rights. Yet, as now well established in international law, women’s specific needs require different and sometimes greater attention in order for women to enjoy their rights equally to men. As particularly well established in the recently adopted UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules) there are concrete ways in which this must be done.

This study focuses on conditions for women in detention, and works by theme, from physical conditions and provisions, to areas such as health, safety and work. For each, DIGNITY presents the level of protection that has developed for detained women in international standards, and determines whether this has been well reflected in the jurisprudence of four major UN human rightstreaty bodies in the past six years (2008-13).

Dignity has intertwined this review with empirical research in women’s prisons in five very different countries, with emphasis on the voices of inmates themselves. During in-depth, private conversations, we have asked detained women, what matters most to you?

This research was conducted in Albania, Jordan, Guatemala, the Philippines, and Zambia in 2013 and early 2014, among almost 90 detained or formerly detained women in 11 facilities, and more than 80 prison staff and others working with detained populations, from NGOs staff to lawyers and social workers.

DIGNITY hopes that this study, and the voices of those in it, will contribute to the effective planning, programme development and policy formulation for women in places of detention, along with the advocacy for their better protection, and broader awareness and understanding of a group, which has, until very recently, been largely invisible in human rights discourse.

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 as prisons, which are largely still designed and managed for men, by men. As a minority ― although a growing one in many counties ― detained women are often overlooked at the…

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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 Bangkok Rules: Meeting the needs of women in detention’, International…

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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 a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.
 
With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the unemployed. There’s morning coffee, Koran reading and a walk in the park with his small daughter; then searching for work, and training at a halal pizza parlour owned by a friend. He feels both frustrated, and lucky. He has certainly seen worse.

After participating in the well known ‘Ghulja incident’ – Uyghur demonstrations in 1997 which were violently dispersed by the Chinese military – Qassim was among those rounded up and detained by the Chinese police.  He was beaten, tortured psychologically and interrogated with electricity, he says. Released after seven months without charge but facing threats and harassment, he decided to try and reach Turkey, find work in a leather factory, and send for his family.

But the slow route through Central Asia and Pakistan put him in contact he says, with a ‘Uighur village,’ just across the border in Afghanistan.  Here he says he agreed to train to fight in return for food and accommodation while he waited for his Iranian visa to process. Post 9/11 bombings in 2001 sent Qassim and many of his companions into Pakistan’s then-freezing mountains, and it was almost a relief he says, to be handed to the Americans.

Except it then took four-and-a-half years before US officials decided that Qassim posed no threat to America, and could be released. By then he had spent six months on a US base in Kandahar, a full year in a 2x2Sqm isolation cell, three more years detained in communal accommodations with some 20 other Uyghur men;  and his family thought he was dead.  “We just had to be passionate,” he says. “And remind ourselves that the situation in China was bad too, so all we could do was wait and hope to be declared as innocent.”

Qassim has found some peace in Albania: a country with food, religion and customs similar to those that he knows, and where he gets by on free accommodation and a USD$300 government stipend. Yet ‘politics’ still weigh heavily on the Uyghur.  A seven-year promise for ID cards and passports by Albania’s Ministry of Interior has yet to materialise for he and the handful of other resettled dissidents, and they can’t find out why. Qassim speaks Albanian, but the ID card issue – along with public suspicion and generally high unemployment rates – leave him a permanent pizza trainee.

The trauma of leaving a family behind has yet to fade. He left a wife and three children in Ghulja, and his ageing parents remain closely monitored, and largely barred from using the internet he says. Although he can call them, with both they and he barred from travelling, he doubts he’ll ever see them again. Qassim’s appeal to have his wife and children join him in Albania failed when China allegedly refused to comply. He has since convinced his former wife to divorce him so that they could both marry again.

Yet he harbours little anger about his time in Guantanamo. “They know that they were wrong, and they acquitted us,” he says. And he explains that they ‘protected’ the Uyghurs from those they feared the most: the Chinese authorities – who visited the men in Cuba, and requested their extradition as terrorist suspects, (as they have done since without success from the Albanian government). “I can’t forgive,” said an Uzbek friend and fellow ex-Guantanamo survivor in Tirana, Zakir Hasan, who alleges worse treatment by the Americans. “But you’ve got to take into account where  came from, what he experienced before.  Ill treatment is relative when you’re not aware of your rights.”

One former US deputy assistant secretary of state has called the situation of Guantanamo’s 22 Uyghur detainees as ‘nothing short of

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 a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.
 
With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the…

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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 Declaration emphasized that women’s…

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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 trappings that follow, seems low indeed.

Wang Shu’s career has been…

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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 inequality and sexual violence but traditional societal structure discourages them to be open about these issues. Youth join MASVAW because this network provides an outlet for…

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