Women here have neither control nor voice

This week BIHR attended the launch of ‘State of the Estate’ Women in Prison’s report on the women’s custodial estate. The report is significant because it offers the first examination of the UK government’s progress on meeting international human rights standards on the treatment of women offenders, commonly known as the Bangkok rules. The UK, along with other UN member states, voted for the Bangkok rules in December 2010. In doing so ‘all UN member states acknowledged the gender specific characteristics of women in the criminal justice system and agreed to respect and meet the particular needs arising from these characteristics.’ Put simply, women have different needs, their experience of the criminal justice system is different, and if we are to treat our women prisoners fairly and humanely we must develop a system that works for them.

So what kind of differences are we talking about? There are many factors that make women’s experience of the criminal justice system distinct from that of male offenders. Pregnancy, maternity, and the fact that the majority of women prisoners are primary carers for children are some of the most obvious differences. However there are a multitude of other complex issues to address when looking at the needs of women prisoners. High levels of mental health problems, substance misuse, self-harm, and experiences of violence against women are just some of the challenges facing our female prison population.

Rachel Brett from the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva gave an interesting insight into the negotiations behind the Bangkok Rules. She told us how many European countries came to the discussions expecting their standards for the treatment of women prisoners to be better than those in poorer countries. In reality this wasn’t always the case. There were many poorer countries who are treating incarcerated women much better than western counterparts, showing that the treatment of prisoners is not simply a resource issue. The case has been made time and time again, in the Corston Report and elsewhere, that reforming the way we treat women In the criminal justice system doesn’t actually need to cost anything, and if some of the more bold reforms were implemented, they may actually be cost saving.

Leah Thorn, a poet and writer with a wealth of experience of running creative workshops in women’s prisons in the UK, told us about her recent experience of travelling to a number of correctional institutions in the USA. There practices such as shackling women in labour, and the strip searching of women prisoners by male guards still occur. She spoke eloquently about some of the experiences of degrading treatment women had shared with her, both in the US and the UK, and the need to push for these practices to be stopped using human rights standards.

That is what State of the Estate highlights so brilliantly, the links between individual women’s experiences and international human rights standards. We know from our work at BIHR that it can be difficult to make this link, to understand how rules and regulations made at a UN level actually have relevance to our lives. State of the Estate illustrates that this doesn’t need to be the case. It shows how international human rights standards can help us identify practical changes in policy and practice that can make a real, tangible difference to the lives of vulnerable and marginalised people in institutional settings such as prisons. How human rights standards can make a difference in places where rights are often most at risk.

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The Courage to Care and to Build Bridges: Holocaust Memorial Day 2013

January 27th – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – marks the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust. It is a day to reflect on one of the greatest systematic violations of human rights in our history. This year’s theme, “Rescue during the Holocaust: The Courage to Care”, honours those who risked their own lives to save thousands of people from near certain death under the Nazi regime. Telling these stories of courage serves to inspire people everywhere to reflect on their own capacity for compassion for others and to turn this into action.

Britain’s role in the Second World War is well-known, but less renowned are the stories of those Britons who faced personal risk in order to help save thousands of the persecuted. Twenty six of these people, such as Sir Nicholas Winton and Major Frank Foley, were honoured in 2010 for their incredible bravery (most posthumously as only 2 were alive to receive the honour). Most of those helped by them never knew their names, but these Britons and many others, did what was right to protect those who would otherwise have faced certain death.

The horror provoked by these gross abuses and dehumanization accelerated the development of human rights set down in international, regional and domestic laws. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, made it clear that all people are born in equal dignity and rights. It began the journey of setting down basic minimum protections that all people everywhere have simply because they are human.

In Europe, where the effects of the Holocaust and World War II were keenly felt, countries came together to ensure human rights had a legal footing to help set the foundations for the future. Leaders from across the political spectrum and state boarders, including Winston Churchill, agreed the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in 1950. This was a guarantee of the standards which would protect all people equally and meant that state power could not be wielded without checks again.

In 1998 the UK passed the Human Rights Act to make the rights in the European Convention accessible here at home. For the first time public bodies, such as the Government, the police, the NHS and others, had a specific legal duty not to act in ways that are incompatible with our rights. Now, when the line is crossed by powerful officials’ people can hold them to account, and if necessary take action in our domestic courts.

In the UK the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust co-ordinates commemorations of the day and this year’s theme is particularly poignant in today’s society: “Communities Together: Build a Bridge.” In times where people all over the country are struggling and when people are experiencing disadvantage and discrimination, and made vulnerable by abuse, neglect and indifference, it is important to remember the foundations set in the UDHR: equal dignity and respect. Sadly many in power seem to have forgotten the legacy of our human rights laws. We should remember that our human rights have been hard-won, they belong to us all, they unite us in our common humanity. Now is the time to be standing together.

Don’t teach me what to wear, tell your sons not to rape

This week the London School of Economics Gender Institute  in collaboration with Imkaan and the South Asia Solidarity Group organised an open meeting in solidarity with India’s anti-rape protests and to confront gender violence in Britain.

The highlight of the meeting, attended by women’s organisations, academics, activists and interested individuals, was the input from Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. Kavita joined the meeting from India via Skype and spoke eloquently about the situation in India and how the brutal gang rape of a 23 year old woman on a bus in Delhi has led to protests on an unprecedented scale, and prompted a rare opportunity for debate and discussion about violence against women and girls (VAWG) in India, and all over the world.

Much of the meeting focused on how we challenge a culture of acceptance towards VAWG, both in India and the UK. Kavita told us about the victim blaming attitudes that plagued the commentary in India immediately after the attack, calling for further restrictions on women in the name of their safety, and in the process subliminally blaming women for the violence that happens to them.

Blaming women for the violence they experience is not a problem unique to India. Marai Larasi, director of Imkaan, spoke of the recent revelations involving Jimmy Savile, and the culture of acceptance that allowed Savile to perpetrate abuse, unimpeded, for so long. Marai also highlighted the need to not ‘other’ VAWG by exoticising it; it isn’t a problem unique to other countries or other cultures, it is prevalent here in the UK, and many of the root causes are the same.

Internationally, violence against women is widely recognised as a human rights issue. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon identified VAWG as one of the most ‘heinous, systematic and prevalent human rights abuses in the world.’ The European Court of Human Rights has made a number of recent rulings against countries that fail to protect women from violence.

The UK Government has been outspoken about VAWG as a human rights issue in the developing world, however when it comes to recognising VAWG here in the UK as a human rights abuse that urgently needs addressing, Government ministers tend to be less vocal.

The Savile case is a prime example of the state failing in it’s duty to protect women from violence. Various public authorities, including the Crown Prosecution Service, the Police, and the BBC were all in the firing line when news of the scandal broke and details emerged, however what has been largely absent from the commentary is any recognition that violence against women perpetrated on this scale is a serious human rights abuse.

The Savile case, and others before it, have shown time and time again that there are problems with the ‘systems’ responsible for dealing with violence against women in the UK, and coupled with a culture that normalises violence towards women, we are left living in a society where violence against women is not challenged. Human rights, and the Human Rights Act in particular, have a key role in helping to fix this broken system, however the first step is to recognise VAWG as a human rights abuse that urgently needs addressing in the first place.

Report of UK Bill of Rights Commission in 4 pages!

At the end of 2012 the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights delivered its final report “A UK Bill of Rights: The Choice Before Us”.
The report, in two volumes of several hundred pages, was not unified. A majority of members suggested there should be a new Bill of Rights, with a minority stating that now is not the time, and there was no evidence for the majority view that a Bill of Rights is needed. Additionally, there are actually further differences of opinion within the majority view, between those who want to build on the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights, and those who make other suggestions. The main report is supplemented by eight individual papers from members, setting out their different views. (There is also a second volume with annexes including lists of those who responded to the consultations.)

At the end of 2012 the Commission on a UK Bill of Rights delivered its final report “A UK Bill of Rights: The Choice Before Us”.
The report, in two volumes of several hundred pages, was not unified. A majority of members suggested there should be a new Bill of Rights, with a minority stating that now is not the time, and there was no evidence for the majority view that a Bill of Rights is needed. Additionally, there are actually further differences of opinion within the majority view, between those who want to build on the Human Rights Act and European Convention on Human Rights, and those who make other suggestions. The main report is supplemented by eight individual papers from members, setting out their different views. (There is also a second volume with annexes including lists of those who responded to the consultations.)

BIHR has produced a short 4 page summary to help people get to grips with what the Commission’s report(s) have found after almost two years of investigations.You can download BIHR’s summary as a PDF or a Word document here:http://www.bihr.org.uk/news/bihr-summary-of-bill-of-rights-report

New Equalities Ministers talks priorities

 

This week Helen Grant MP, appointed Equalities Minister in the last re-shuffle, came to set her stall out at the year’s first meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Equalities, jointly held with the APPG’s on Disability, Race and Community, Sex Equality.

The Minister focused on the notion of fairness, and what equality means to her personally. She spoke about an individuals’ ability to achieve, progress and achieve full potential, regardless of the circumstances of birth. She praised Coalition policies on flexible working, getting more women on corporate boards, salaried part-time working practices, and voluntary gender equality reporting in employment.

The radical reforms of the Equality and Human Rights Commission were immediately flagged up in conversation with those in attendance. Responding to these the Minister spoke of her on-going dialogue with the newly-appointed Chair of the EHRC, Baroness O’Neill, and that the recent cuts were “not because we want to cut [the EHRC] down, but because it is to do with the overriding necessity: to deal with the deficit.”  As the recent changes in the EHRC’s board and staffing begin to take root, it remains to be seen what the impact of this will be, and if Helen Grant will have more to say.

The main focus for discussion was the much-anticipated legislation on same-sex-marriage.  Grant acknowledged the controversial nature of the issue and emphasised that it has been the largest ever government consultation. She also talked about the need for the protection for religious institutions.

Amber Rudd MP, Chair of the APPG on Sex Equality, sought reassurance that women’s views would be heard in Government policy making and David Lammy MP, Chair of the APPG on Race and Community reiterated that race equality, especially in terms of unemployment  and discrimination, needs to be at the top of the agenda.  Baroness Greengross, chairing the event (and the Equalities APPG) noted the Minister will need to keep a ‘roving eye’ on implementation of policy across all parties, and the minister emphasised that the equality ministers are working hard to review what their focus is going to be.  Comments were put to her regarding the various priorities of different groups often affected by inequality, and the minister emphasised both her and her party’s past actions (including having recently visited women’s community facilities developed following the Corston report) and her future intentions, on the same sex marriage legislation and one-to-one meetings with the other ministers to further discuss their priorities.

Although only an hour long, the general feeling was one of a ‘long way to go’, and discussions could quite likely have gone well on into the evening. After lively discussions on women, same sex marriage, the EHRC and race issues facing the current Coalition Government, it was clear that Helen Grant has her work cut out.