Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women’s Day

By Tosin Oyekoya

International Women’s Day is a global day of celebration of women as well as a day of resistance to all forms of gendered violence, exploitation and oppression. Women living behind prison walls are denied many of the basic “rights and freedoms” that will be celebrated by women all over the world on this day. As if that is not enough, they are also forced to endure the violence that is throughout the prison system. For these women, International Women's Day should be a day to promote better treatment of women in prison worldwide and keep us ever mindful and vigilant in eliminating the injustices, violence and harm inflicted on women who pass through criminal justice systems.

Yesterday in Dallas, TX, groups representing criminal justice, civil liberties, policy, and faith organizations such as Texas Inmate Families Association and Human Rights and Grassroots Leadership, among others, gathered across the street from Dawson State Jail for a candlelight vigil to honor the women who have died while incarcerated at the jail.

“We were pleased with the turnout. It is not about how many people showed up,” said Kymberlie Charles, the national organizer of Grassroots Leadership.

Three women were honored at the vigil whose deaths could have been prevented had the correction officers at Dawson State Jail not ignored their pleas for help. Also honored at the vigil was a premature infant who lived only four days after being born in a toilet inside Dawson.  The baby’s mother requested a pregnancy test just three weeks before giving birth but was denied by prison staff.  The women, who died, along with the baby’s mother, were serving short-term sentences for non-violent offenses. When asked if this is going to be an annual event, Charles said “We hope not! Our point of this vigil is to get this place shut down.” Hopefully by next year this time, it will be closed.

In 2011, the 100th International Women’s Day was marked by a Palestinian university students’ rally in solidarity in Gaza City. The Palestinian prisoner rights group, Addameer, called for the release of all Palestinian female political prisoners, including Hana al-Shalabi, who was being held without charge or trial and was on a hunger strike for over a month. Women and men across Europe held vigils to remember 37 Palestinian female political prisoners incarcerated in Israeli jails. They condemned the cruel and discriminatory treatment that Palestinian female prisoners and detainees were subjected to during their arrest, interrogation and in prison, including sexual harassment, psychological and physical punishment and humiliation.

Addameer also called on men and women around the world to sign a petition demanding that the Israeli Government release all female political prisoners. By the end of Women’s Day nearly 1,000 signatures had been registered in the online petition.

On a different note, last year for International Woman’s Day i
nmates at a woman’s prison in Siberia held a beauty contest. There were a total of six female prisoners who had their hair and make-up done by professional stylists. They were judged on their catwalk, talent performances, cooking skills, and general look. It was the first beauty competition of its kind in Russia with both women and men in the audience.

Albeit questionable, beauty pageants seem to be the norm in prisons in honor of International Woman’s Day. In 2010, the Juarez Prison in Mexico held a similar pageant for women inmates organized by municipal authorities. Cecilia Juarez, 22, incarcerated for drug trafficking, was crowned Miss Captive Beauty.

The jury chose the ‘most beautiful’ inmate among 15 participants. Cecilia was won the title by unanimous decision. 

Welikada prison, located at Sri Lanka, also held a beauty queen contest in honor of International Women’s Day in 2012, but theirs was not so successful. Women inmates of Welikada Prison were subjected to sexual abuse during the process of the pageant.

For the experiences of these women and countless other told – and untold-- stories, International Women's Day
should include building greater awareness for the urgent need for better treatment of women in prison worldwide and ending the injustice, violence and harm they too often experience passing through criminal justice systems. Although the pageants were supposed to empower women in prisons, unfortunately it went wrong in Sri Lanka. There are many different forms of abuse in prison, let’s take today and have consideration for those who are incarcerated.

Tosin is the communications intern for JPI.

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