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.


Sexism thrives in the Chinese workplace

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Female workers in China are sexually discriminated against in the workplace, according to the country’s Women’s Commission. The commission has called for part-time workers to receive paternity rights to help counter discrimination against women who had to take pregnancy leave, and better rights for men to take time of to be with children.

Sharing the burden of childcare is something that’s been covered on this blog before  – but China is a particularly interesting country to look at. I heard a very plausible theory that China has flourished economically because of its commitment to getting women in the workplace – compare this with somewhere like India for example, where cultural and religious factors have traditionally excluded most women from the world of work.  If half of the population are kept in their homes, it can only hold back the economy and the state’s development.

Although historically women in China have been clearly placed as second class citizens – think bound feet, concubines, polygamy – the Communist Party brought with them a raft of rights for women, including the right to divorce and work. These principals have evolved over the last sixty years into a position where women traditionally control the household finances in the rapidly developing country. Men also vastly outnumber women due to the one-child policy and the status associated with having a boy, so when it comes to marriage and relationships, women are in a fairly strong position where they can afford to be picky.  

In the workplace however, two-thirds of women think they are discriminated against, and more than 70% of respondents thought men stood a better chance of promotion than women of similar age and abilities. This interesting post on the China Law Blog discusses how many women are keen to work in US or international companies based in China, because they are less likely to discriminate. A quarter of women even admitted they hold back at work and try not to be too successful because they know it might will cause trouble with their partners.

Almost half of men in a recent census said that they believed it was solely the man’s job to earn money, while the woman should remain at home and tend to the family.

Some attitudes are slow to change, but bringing in some of the laws proposed by China’s Women’s Commission would send a very clear message that family life is something that both men and women are responsible for, and a note of optimism for the masses of women who work in China and are struggling to choose between career or children.

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.

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

Two-thirds of women in US prisons have at least one child…

October 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

… Can that really be true? According to this post from Feministing , it is, and this is only one distressing fact in what is a fairly gloomy read from a new report from National Women’s Law Center and the Rebecca Project for Human Rights. Other highlights – although admittedly that isn’t the right word – are that most women with children in prison are non-violent, first time offenders, and that 21 states in America received failing grades for their treatment of mothers in prisons.

Let’s be clear: most women in America in prison are not violent, dangerous criminals who need to be restrained for their own good and that of society. And yet, according to Mothers Behind Bars:

  • Twenty-two states either have no policy at all addressing when restraints can be used on pregnant women or have a policy which allows for the use of dangerous leg irons or waist chains.
  • Forty-nine states fail to report all incarcerated women’s pregnancies and their outcomes.
  • Forty-four states do not make advance arrangements for deliveries
  •  The percentage of females incarcerated for drug offenses now surpasses that of males – most of these women are non-violent, first-time offenders.

This paragraph from the report, presuming it is widely accurate and we have no reason to presume otherwise. is depressing, and seems to strike to the heart of the matter.

“This relatively recent phenomenon of criminalizing mothers for trauma and addiction, precipitated by the war on drugs and mandatory minimums, as well as the dearth of programs for pregnant and parenting mothers, have wreaked havoc on family stability and children’s well-being. Most incarcerated mothers have minor children and were, before their incarceration, the primary caretakers of their children.  Maternal incarceration wrongly leaves the child behind, without recognition of a child’s fundamental need for his or her mother.”

Russian mothers’ committee reminds of the importance of never giving up

October 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers was a group forged in war time, started by 300 women who began campaigning to bring sons home from the army to finish their studies.

In peace time, the organisation has only grown in support, being awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize  in 1996 and gaining international recognition. Its scope has grown and its name has changed to become the Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, and it works now as a civil society group to monitor mandatory military service.

The female organisation describes itself as “maternal” rather than a “women’s” group, an interesting terminology – it has deliberately tried to distance itself from feminist groups and campaign along the parental lines. Yet the fact that they are “mothers” and not “parents” is what has drawn them international attention. While trying not to be a “women’s group” they are by definition playing on their role as women – placing themselves as the peacemakers .

An archived feature from news organisation TOL published again this week outlines some of the amazing achievements of this organisation in improving conditions for soldiers in Russia through the years. This year for the first time parents will be allowed to accompany their sons throughout the military recruitment process

Read this article. These women are so inspiring and this article is definitely worth reading to remind us what people, ordinary people, can achieve in the face of oppression.

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