Another woman dies in an American prison

February 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

The death of a pregnant woman in prison in Indianapolis is worryingly reminiscent of a post on this blog back in October about appalling conditions for women with children in prison.

 The 27-year-old inmate at Liberty Hall prison, Amber Redden, was serving an 18-month sentence for theft when she died suddenly. Her mother has since been very vocal about the need for an investigation into her daughter’s death, saying she never had a seizure before, and that she wasn’t taken care of when she became ill.

Whatever faults may or may not be found in this case, unlike many women, Redden was lucky enough to be in a jail intended for incarcerating mothers and pregnant women – a much better place to be than most American prisons, which have no policy or plan for dealing with pregnant women in prison. Most women with children in prison are non-violent, first time offenders, and in a recent “grading” of prisons, 21 states in America received failing grades for their treatment of incarcerated mothers.

And what of the children? This six-year-old child has a mother and a grandmother in prison – sentenced to nine years – for trying to steal a purse. So many cases are like this, where the women are not violent repeat offenders. In north America this Christmas, a new high was set for children with parents in prison – and African Americans are more affected than any other group. In taking the mothers away – who are in most cases single mothers and the sole carer of the child – the child is placed in an equally vulnerable position and without family support. The conditions are set for the cycle to continue.

This minimum security prison allows women to keep their children with them – and amazingly, has a re-offending rate of zero. The state average is more than 50%. Can there be a more compelling argument for changing and improving the system?

The best way to tackle women in prison is to target the root causes – poverty, vulnerability, mental illness. Instead, help with housing, employment, getting women back on their feet can improve more lives than just hers, can reduce pressure on the prison system, and can avoid tragedies like this, where lives end up being lost over minor offences.

Mexican women climb from violence, poverty and corruption

January 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Video of two women scaling a fence built by the US along the Mexican/American border are supposed to demonstrate how easy it is to to escape into America. And although there are many illegal immigrants from Mexico living in the US, it’s hardly likely to be as easy as this video makes it appear – and it’s not surprising that so many are forced into living outside the law once they get there.

Although separated by as little as a border line, the two countries are worlds away.

In Mexico, one in four women has suffered abuse at the hands of their partner, according to Amnesty International. Female tourists are warned to be alert to high potential of violence – look at this case of a Canadian women pursuing a case of gang rape by the Mexican police, or a woman murdered potentially because of her outspoken criticism of the country’s treatment of women. “Femicide” has reached terrifyingly high levels in Mexican cities.

And there are articles on this very blog detailing women forced into the drugs trade, a mother killed while protesting on behalf of her murdered daughter, and the need for “women only cabs” because violence against women is so high.

 In the face of these problems, living illegally in America for a short while can seem a small price to pay. After all, 56% of the 11m (at least) illegal immigrants in the USA are estimated to be from Mexico, so it’s almost a home from home. And although conditions can be horrendous, some migrant workers will earn far more than at home in Mexico, where demand for work, particularly agricultural or labour work, is dropping, and where corruption costs the economy about $60m a year.

 And children born in the States, even if their parents are illegal immigrants, are considered “birthright citizens”.

 I’m not advocating illegal residency in the States, and I fear for anyone who takes the risks these two young girls in the video demonstrate must be desperate to climb a wall like that in broad daylight. Potentially easy to climb a fence, but not so easy to run once on the other side, with no family, money, identification, safety. That’s a risk only take if you truly believe better awaits on the other side of the fence, particularly with reports of teenagers shot at the fence by American soldiers and President Obama signing a bill worth $600m to fund 1,500 new border patrol agents.

Until Mexico can work to improve the situation for its citizens and women in particular, and American can gain a little more flexibility in its stringent immigration legislation, the two countries sit next to each other as a grim reminder of how unfair life can be.

A year on: Four year old girls raped in Haiti

January 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s hard to believe. As if there wasn’t enough heartache already in the country following the earthquake a year ago which is believed to have left more than 300,000 people dead, there are still a million people displaced, homeless, and relying on  NGOs to support them as they live under tents and tarpaulins. According to those in the country, reconstruction has barely begun.

 And then the cholera outbreak began. Followed by a disputed presidential election. And scenes of political unrest.

 But the reports of rape in the country break the heart. This morning there were stories on the radio of raped women, and girls as young as four and five being raped in the chaos, and the stories brought me to tears amid descriptions of normal structures breaking down in communities.

 There are reports of women fleeing into the countryside. Raped in the earthquake ruins. Taken away as “servants” for “work” (inverted commas due to the lack of payment involved – “slaves” might be a better word) Children as young as four and five being raped.

The situation was not great for women before the disaster. Rape was only officially recognised as a crime in 2005, and domestic violence was a long-standing problem. The earthquake fallout is running the risk of reversing progress that had been made.

 As the New York Times reports: “Marie Cluade Pierre was sad even before the earthquake. She is sadder now.”

 After a year of horrors, there is little to celebrate. The country is on a knife-edge – the only real question really is whether the balance has already tipped over. After all, many people will be wondering just how it can get worse.

Fabienne Jean in Haiti : Damon Winter/The New York Times

 But there are stories out there to inspire. One example to celebrate is the story of Fabienne Jean, a young dancer who lost her leg in the earthquake. Now walking on a prosthetic leg, she is starting to dance – only a little, and she is realistic about the fact that she will never be a professional performer again. But plans must be re-dreamed, and she is hoping to open a dance school, or a fashion boutique.

Equally, the work of “Eternal Optimist” Cameron Sinclair and his Architecture for Humanity,  planning the rebuilding of the country – to name but one of hundreds of devoted individuals working to help stabilise the situation and provide a safer future. After all, solid bricks and mortar are the first practical protection for women at risk.

 And read the story of Rea, one incredible woman who rebuilt her school literally from the ruins, and even started a micro-credit facility for women  

It’s a sobering fact, but natural disasters are almost always worst for women. As the Haitian example proves, women are not safe in refugee camps, or living without protection. Their children are not safe. Medical care for pregnant women is very limited. There are scores of women who are forced into the Dominican Republic and trafficked into the sex trade.

Everyone can help and make some difference. Everyone, whoever or wherever you are. Let’s do our best to make this year the year of reconstruction that should have begun in 2010.

Lack of coverage on “honour killings” shames us all

December 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Having the word “honour” associated with any type of crime is a contradition in terms, and honour killings have to be one of the least spoken about crimes against women, in my opinon.

A report from the UN finds today that Afghan women are still at massive risk of violence and “honour” crimes. The government is simply not doing enough to protect women – probably because they are not really adressing issues like education or financial independence, which have the power to place women in a much stronger position than simply bringing in a new law – which they have done. Laws are easy to bring in, but not to enforce, particularly in a difficult scenario like this which delves into the heart of private communities.

Women in Afganistan

The other day I was on the Stop Honour Killings site, and with less than five minutes on it you can see examples of recent honour crimes in Iraq, the UK, India, Kurdistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Ecuador, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, Sweden, Turkey and Uganda  – and it really hammers home that this is a worldwide  issue. This site has a gallery of victims on its homepage of honour killings, and it makes chilling viewing to see so many women assualted or killed in the most gruesome of circumstances, in cases that never made it into the papers.

Perhaps because it goes on typically within smaller or more private communities, or perhaps because they frequently take place in Islamic communities where the press is wary to probe, these crimes just don’t seem to get the press coverage you’d think they would.

Our real shame in these crimes is that we just don’t hear enough about them – shocking when the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that as many as 5,000 women and girls a year are murdered by members of their own families. Many women’s groups in the Middle East and Southwest Asia suspect the victims are at least four times more. So, as many potentially as 20,000 women and girls are directly affected – and many reports suggest that incidents are increasing in the last 20 years. The victim’s family members – male and female, guilty or innocent – are affected. Their communities are affected, by implication their economies are affected, and the country is affected.  

How many more people have to be affected before this stops being a “women’s issue?”

Canadian court hears of the misery of polygamy

December 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

A very interesting and important court case is ongoing in Canada at the moment, after the north American country began hearings to test the anti-polygamy law.

In a case to determine whether such a ban is constitutional, a professor testified yesterday that the supply-and-demand principles of polygamy leave women worse off. Shoshana Grossbard said that allowing men to have multiple wives leads to a reduced supply of women.

She said: “In the cultures and societies worldwide that have embraced it, polygamy is associated with undesirable economic, societal, physical, psychological and emotional factors related especially to women’s well-being.” Her evidence was firmly concluding that polygamy is a firmly bad aspect of society, associated with forced marriages, teenage brides, and poor access to education to reduce the ability of women to choose who they marry.

If this law is overturned, Canada will become the sole Western country to allow polygamy.

Polygamy can surely not be a woman’s first choice. No wife is likely to relish the idea of sharing a partner, being compared with other “wives” who might consider themselves inferior or superior. Professor Grossbard agreed, saying that polygamy was associated with psychological or health problems. In the case of Canada, this ruling is focussing on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) a breakaway of the Mormon church. The church has said that the constituional charter allows them to practise plural marriages, and civil liberty lawyers have warned that the ruling is again the right of consenting adults to form their families in the ways they want.

It’s hard to be in favour of polygamy when it so firmly takes power from the women involved. The phrase “consenting adults” is the key of the matter, and it’s difficult to know how you could gauge the level of consent in a potentially unequal relationship. The man has complete control to choose his partners without having to take into account the wishes of the existing wives. In cases like this perhaps a constitutional infringement is worthwhile if it helps to prevent institutional suffering and misery for Canadian women.

Click here for some of the video testimonials presented in court, so you can hear the testimonials of those who really know what it is like to live in a polygmous relationship.

This book changed my life

December 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

Half the Sky: How to Change the World

I’ve never written a book review before – and I don’t intend to do one now. All I will say is simply that if you are interested in politics, international development and any issues relating to women’s rights should read the book Half The Sky: How to Change the World by two American journalists, Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn. I’ve just finished it, and I genuinely think it’s fair to say it changed the way I think about issues relating to women forever.

To quote from the opening chapter: “We hope to recruit you to join an incipient movement to emancipate women and fight global poverty by unlocking women’s power as economic catalysts. That is the process under way – not a drama of victimization but of empowerment, the kind that transforms bubbly teenage girls from brothel slaves into successful businesswomen.”

The phrase “half the sky” is from a quote from Mao Zedong, who for all his (massive) faults did mange to bring in some measures which benefitted women enormously. In fact the organisation Half the Sky  targets Chinese orphans in reference to this famous quote. This book looks at issues relating to the sex trade, war, maternal mortality, women’s involvement in politics, education – in short, all the things this blog writes about. It details real examples and individual cases, but counters it with how they fit into the worldwide scheme of poverty and development. The main thrust of the book is that if only half of the population of any country are being educated, working and contributing to the economy, then the country can only ever reach half of it’s potential. Some parts of this book are easier to swallow than others, inevitably, and some parts will make you cry and stay with you indefinitely. But what is so brilliant about it is the way that it takes a real hands-on, grass roots approach. The final chapter is entitled Four Steps you can take in the next ten minutes and the back is a full index of charities, NGOs and women’s groups worldwide that you can get involved with, and how to contact them. It is the bible of women’s rights and I know I will be referring to it again and again. Let me know what you think.

“Sensationally interesting – I think this is one of the most important books I have ever reviewed” – Washington Post
 

Top stories of the last week…

December 6, 2010 § 1 Comment

After arriving back into a very cold and snowy Gatwick airport in the small hours of this morning, I have spent today catching up on the week’s latest through slightly bleary eyes.. I promise not to do round ups too often, but here’s a list of what I missed so you don’t have to!

An Iranian woman was hanged in Tehran for stabbing the wife of a famous footballer – she herself was a “temporary wife” of his at the time. Amnesty International protested on the grounds that she is not believed to have had a fair trial, and may have been forced into a confession.

A really interesting piece here about female sexworkers in Kenya being given microloans to help them out of prostitution and poverty .

A report from WOMANKIND Worldwide and the Institute of Education concludes that schools are still failing women with one in three reporting sexual bullying on a daily basis.

The Guardian reported that Mexico drug cartels are increasingly targetting women :

And a Pakistani cleric reportedly offers a bounty reward fee of $6,000 to anyone who kills a Christian mother convicted of blasphemy against Islam.

…After that list of rather gloomy news, a more lighthearted piece to cheer you up (because everyone needs a little light relief on a Monday!) Actor George Clooney visited Sudan to help raise awareness of the war-torn country’s needs, and in a local tradition is spat on by a village elder for good luck. “I’ve had people spit at me before – but it wasn’t a blessing”, Clooney said.

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