Hong Kong and Singapore face a day without Indonesian domestic workers

Earlier this month, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, commonly referred to as Jokowi, started quite a stir, especially in the Middle East and East Asia, when he announced plans to limit and then stop the migration of live-in domestic workers. The President argued that much of the abuse of young Indonesian women stemmed from their working in informal, unregulated sectors, and that that has to stop. Indonesia wants those who work as domestic workers overseas to live in their own quarters, to work regular hours, and to enjoy one day off each week and public holidays. This is big news, on a scale of Los Angeles imagining a day without Mexicans.

Indonesia provides Singapore with most of its domestic workers. Currently 125,000 Indonesian women work as domestic workers in Singapore, the overwhelming majority as live-in. 50,000 Indonesian women work as domestic workers in Malaysia, and 150,000 work in Hong Kong. According to the Indonesian government, of the more than 7 million Indonesians working abroad, 60% are domestic workers. That’s over 4.2 million women, a lot of women and a lot of money.

Not surprisingly, employers in the receiving nations are `lukewarm’. Indonesian women workers’ groups argue that the solution to the problem of abuse of domestic workers overseas is for the State to actually protect them, rather than cut off their freedom of movement. While the President talks of national shame and dignity, women workers’ groups argue for decent work and more protections.

Where everyone is in agreement is that abuse of Indonesian, and other transnational, domestic workers is rampant. The case of Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, two years ago, sparked more than mass mobilizations. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih had gone to Hong Kong to work so as to be able to attend university. After eight months of torture, she was dumped at the airport and sent back to Indonesia. The sight of her damaged body sparked outrage. Two years later, she says, “I still have problems breathing. I cannot go swimming because I cannot get water into my ears. And I still have the scars. I need to see the doctor from time to time.”

The abuse of domestic workers is as old as domestic work itself, as is the work of organizing among domestic workers. What’s new is the transnational. That has meant, on one hand, that domestic workers, especially live-in domestic workers, are radically, viciously isolated, often with no place to go. In many countries, that lack of place is codified by labor and migration laws. These women are beaten by their bosses and trapped by State policy. Additionally, it takes money to travel, obtain visas and work permits, and to find employment. That means overseas domestic workers necessarily incur large debts. They are trapped in indebtedness. They are beaten by the bosses and trapped by international fiscal and monetary policy.

The domestic workers of this not-so-new neoliberal world order engage in domestic work largely because they want to use the money for the future, and the jobs available at home are too few and too low paying. For the past decades, this scam has been run to the fill the coffers of the sending nation-States, through remittances, and of the receiving nation-States, by subsidizing the entire care industry. People in Hong Kong are wondering who will pay for childcare, eldercare, home health care and so much more if the Indonesians really do vanish and, even more, if the Philippines national government follows suit? From Hong Kong to Singapore and beyond, people really are beginning to imagine a day without Indonesians.

Around the world, women domestic workers are organizing. They’re pushing for Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights in the United States and in Kuwait. They’re organizing domestic workers’ unions in Jordan and Lebanon. They’re mobilizing everywhere. Most South American countries have ratified the ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers. In South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania domestic workers’ unions are on the move. The time to end the super-exploitation of domestic workers occurred decades, centuries, ago, but now is the time to support their efforts to end the global household plantation system. This is the story of women breaking the chains, locally and globally, of bondage, old and new, and seizing and creating power for themselves, collectively, in the name of women’s dignity. My name is Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, and I am unafraid. Justice for all!

 

(Photo and Video Credit: You Tube)

Chikurubi = death. Tear it down!

Women in Chikurubi Female Prison get the news

“In the endless moments that I spent in the cells at Highlands police station, I did not imagine that I could ever be in a worse place. That was before Chikurubi. As it turns out, hell is other people, especially when those other people are your fellow women prisoners and there has been no water for a week and flies are buzzing over the gamashura and the only ablution possible is to run a dry towel across your body, hoping that the dirt and smell will somehow be absorbed by as inadequate an object as a prison-issue towel with a visible thread count”
Petina Gappah, The Book of Memory: A Novel

This is the Republic of Chikurubi, aka Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe pardoned more than 2000 prisoners this week: “The amnesty has freed all convicted female prisoners … leaving Chikurubi Female Prison literally empty. Only two females serving life sentences have been left behind.” No one was freed, but they were released from prison, and the prison is not literally empty, both because there are still women prisoners inside and because we have been here before and we know Chikurubi is not empty until Chikurubi is torn down once and for all.

These prisoners were sent home ostensibly because the prisons are overcrowded, but the prisons in Zimbabwe have always been overcrowded and toxic. In 2013, the Deputy Commissioner of the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services reported that 100 or so prisoners had died that year due to lack of food and medication. They died slowly, starving and writhing in pain, and so in February 2014, Robert Mugabe “freed” thousands of prisoners. In 2009, Robert Mugabe “freed” 2,513 prisoners, due to overcrowding.

Meanwhile, Chikurubi still stands. Built by Rhodesia in 1970, the year that entity declared itself a republic, and maintained since by Zimbabwe, from the first day to today, Chikurubi has been “notorious for its filthy, freezing and overcrowded cells infested by maggots and rats.” It’s the one constant, and that’s why Zimbabwe is truly the Republic of Chikurubi. Half the population dies of starvation one year, and there’s barely a murmur. A two-year old child, Nigel Mutemagawo, is abducted and held in custody for 76 days. He was held in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison for close to two weeks: “Medical reports show that during his abduction and continued detention for charges of banditry and terrorism, two year-old Nigel was assaulted and denied food and medical attention by his captors.” He was two years old. Prominent human rights and women’s rights advocates, such as Jestina Mukoko, are tortured in Chikurubi. What of it? Women like Rebecca Mafukeni are denied access to necessary medication and die in Chikurubi. Too bad. Rosemary Margaret Khumalo, affectionately known as Makhumalo, died, waiting for the new Constitution to be followed. Bad luck.

While it’s a relief to the women and their families and friends and communities to no longer have to sit in the hellhole that is Chikurubi, the flies are still buzzing over the gamashura. Don’t call it freedom. There is no freedom in the Republic of Chikurubi until the Chikurubi prison is destroyed, first the buildings and then structures. Don’t fix it; be done with it. Chikurubi = death. #ChikurubiMustFall

(Photo Credit: Justin Mutenda / The Herald)

Jacinta Francisco Marcial, Alberta Alcántara Juan, Teresa González Cornelio demand justice!

Jacinta Francisco Marcial

Jacinta Francisco Marcial, Alberta Alcántara Juan, and Teresa González Cornelio are Otomí-speaking ñhäñhú women street vendors who have struggled for the past decade to force the Mexican government to do more than `stop oppressing’ indigenous women. Asserting their dignity as indigenous women, they have demanded justice. This week they may have moved a step closer to that goal.

Jacinta Francisco Marcial, Alberta Alcántara Juan, and Teresa González Cornelio were arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to decades in prison for a crime that never occurred. On March 26, 2006, members of the now-defunct Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) of the federal Attorney General’s Office showed up at the town plaza of Santiago Mexquititlán in the state of Querétaro. Never identifying themselves as police, they began to shake down the local street vendors, the vast majority of whom were ñhäñhú women. The women massed around the agents and demanded they stop their extortion. The agents’ superiors arrived and offered to pay for damages, and that should have been that.

Four months later, Jacinta Francisco Marcial, Alberta Alcántara Juan, and Teresa González Cornelio were arrested and charged with having kidnapped six agents. The evidence was allegedly a newspaper photograph that showed the three women somewhere in the vicinity of the crowd of indigenous women. The trial dragged on for two years. Not a single federal agent ever showed up or gave testimony, and yet all three women were sentenced to 21 years in prison. That’s justice in Querétaro for the crime of being a working poor, indigenous woman.

At the time of her imprisonment, Jacinta Francisco Marcial was 43 years old. She was married and the mother of six children. She sold juices and ice cream in the town square. Jacinta Francisco Marcial was guilty of the crime of survival with a modicum of dignity.

When she was sent to jail, the Centro Prodh took up her case. Soon after, Amnesty began investigating and campaigning as well. In September 2009, Jacinta Francisco Marcial was released from prison. The Attorney General’s Office had dropped the charges, but never declared her innocent. In April 2010, Alberta Alcántara Juan and Teresa González Cornelio were also released. At the time of their release Alberta Alcántara Juan was 31, and Teresa González Cornelio 25 years old. Teresa González Cornelio gave birth to a baby girl while in prison.

The three women had been released, but Jacinta Francisco Marcial had not been exonerated, and so she sued the State for damages and demanded an apology. In May 2014, in a groundbreaking case, Jacinta Francisco Marcial won, the first time a Mexican citizen sued the State for wrongful incarceration and was awarded reparations and a public apology.

The State refused to pay up or apologize. This week, the earlier judgment was confirmed, and there’s no chance for the State to appeal the decision. The State must compensate and formally apologize, and it must do so by September 2016.

Mexico currently holds over 9000 indigenous people in its prisons. The prisons are hellholes generally, and for indigenous people, even more so. There are little to no language services either in the courts or in the prisons, and so many indigenous people are left to fend for themselves, which is to say disappear. As Jacinta Francisco Marcial has explained on more than one occasion, she didn’t know what kidnapping was when she was charged with that crime.

According to the Mexican National Commission on Human Rights, the conditions of women’s prisons are deplorable. Querétaro’s Centro de Reinserción Social Femenil San José El Alto offers threats, humiliation, discrimination; toxic maintenance conditions; unregulated and irregular application of solitary confinement; overcrowding; and more. According to the Commission, Querétaro’s Centro de Reinserción Social Femenil San José El Alto is not one of the worst women’s prisons in Mexico, not by a long shot.

The State tried to crush Jacinta Francisco Marcial, Alberta Alcántara Juan, and Teresa González Cornelio, because it considered three working poor indigenous women as so much dust. From the streets to the courts to the prisons to the highest offices in the land, State agents thought they could abuse such women with impunity. But when they struck Jacinta Francisco Marcial, Alberta Alcántara Juan, and Teresa González Cornelio, they hit and dislodged a boulder that will continue to roll and pound until the State of impunity is crushed. There are many Jacintas in Mexico and beyond.

 

(Photo Credit: Centro Prodh) (Video Credit: Amnesty / YouTube)

This story is about Jessica Williams. #SayHerName

 

On Thursday, May 19, activists from various national movements – including Black Youth Project 100, Project South, Ferguson Action and Black Lives Matter – joined with local activists around the country for a day of action to protest and do something about State brutality against Black women. The banner and hashtag for the day were #SayHerName. On Thursday, May 19, Jessica Williams, 29 years old, Black, was killed by a white San Francisco police sergeant. Jessica Williams was unarmed. The reports on Jessica Williams’ death have barely said her name. Until late Friday night early Saturday, Jessica Williams was “an unarmed Black woman.” More to the point, the story line has been about the Police Chief being removed, about the new Police Chief, and about racism in the San Francisco Police Department. While all of those count, the story should be about Jessica Williams. Even in her own death, even now, Jessica Williams suffers the indignity of being removed from the center of her own life and death story. Jessica Williams. Say her name. #SayHerName

The story of Jessica Williams’ death is a common one, both for San Francisco and beyond. Williams was in a car identified as having been stolen. She refused to leave the car and allegedly tried to drive away. That’s when a police officer shot and killed her. According to all reports, Jessica Williams was not driving towards the officer. In fact, she wasn’t driving at all. According to police, “Williams drove away after officers tried to talk to her, officials said, but crashed into a parked utility truck about 100 feet away. She continued to disobey police instructions, and the sergeant then fired one shot and killed her as she sat in the car, said police, who added that no weapon was found on Williams.”

From 2000 to today, San Francisco police officers have been in 95 shootings. Forty have been fatal. Twenty-three of the shootings involved people “in moving or stopped vehicles.”

Jessica Williams was killed in the Bayview District, a hotbed of `revitalization.’ Bayview is the epicenter of San Francisco’s “shrinking African American population”. In early December last year, Mario Woods, 26 years old, Black, was shot 20 times by police officers in Bayview.

The San Francisco Police Department has already been under investigation for racist and homophobic practices, both formal and informal. Police Chiefs will come and go, as will police sergeants and other police. It’s important to address the police, as a group of people, a culture, a public agency, and a body of practices. But first and last, we must learn to move the police off center in the narratives of those killed by police. Jessica Williams is the story, not this sergeant or that chief.

Her name is Jessica Williams, and she did not deserve the fate that was dealt her by the State. No one deserves that fate, and no one deserves that treatment. Jessica Williams is the name of `urban redevelopment’ and skyrocketing real estate markets. Jessica Williams is the name of militarized and uncontrolled policing, witch-hunting, all in the name of zero tolerance and urban revitalization. Jessica Williams, 29 years old, Black, female, was sitting in a stationary car when she was killed. This story is about Jessica Williams. Say her name. #SayHerName

 

(Photo Credit: Twitter / @SisterSong_WOC) (Image Credit: Ferguson National Response Network)

Senator Cotton Wants More Women of Color Behind Bars, and For Longer

On May 19th, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas stood before an audience gathered for the Hudson Institute’s event on Crime and Justice in America and argued that the United States of America is currently suffering from an under-incarceration problem. Yes, Senator Cotton believes that the country with 25% of the world’s prison population has an under-incarceration problem.

The gist of Senator Cotton’s argument, and overly simplified linear logic, is how could we have a mass incarceration problem when so many “criminals” are getting away. Well, Senator Cotton, allow me to explain. The problem with mass incarceration is not simply how many people we have incarcerated (though that is a big part of it) but who this country is incarcerating by the millions. The simple answer is low-income men and women of color for predominately low-level drug offenses.

To better understand the fallacy of the ‘Gentleman’ from Arkansas’ logic, we can turn to the fastest growing prison population: women. Since the introduction of federal and state level policies like broken-window policing, 3-strike laws, mandatory minimums (policies Cotton credits with turning around our society), the number of women in prison has risen 700%. Of the 215, 332 women who have entered prison, nearly half have entered for drug-related offenses. In the world Tom Cotton lives in, a longer prison sentence will help these women beat drug addiction and rehabilitate them into law-abiding citizens. In reality, these women will sit in prisons where only 10% will receive any form of substance abuse treatment. For those that do receive treatment, the treatment they receive is based on the substance abuse history of men and has been found to be largely ineffective.

Prisons do not just serve as makeshift substance abuse treatment centers, in which the majority of incarcerated women have substance abuse histories and barely any women actually receive substance abuse treatment. Prisons also serve as mismanaged, ill-equipped, and overcrowded places to house women with mental health concerns. While 12% of women in the general population have mental health concerns, 73% of women in state prisons, 61% of women in federal prisons, and 75% of women in jails have mental health disorders. Again, these women are largely low-income women of color. For these women, “treatment” often comes in the form of restrictive housing (solitary confinement), a form of punishment that has been shown to cause psychotic episodes, hallucinations, and suicidal tendencies.

Cotton also gives credit to the “thankless” work of Correction Officers who work tirelessly to rehabilitate individuals in prison and keep them safe. In reality, women are perhaps in more danger inside cell walls. Kim Shayo Buchanan describes prisons as if “the clock has been turned back to the nineteenth century. Women, especially women of color, are exposed to institutionalized sexual abuse, while a network of legal rules prevents them from seeking protection or redress in courts. Guards know they can sexually exploit women without fear of institutional sanction or civil liability”. Despite making up only 10% of the prison population, women make up nearly half of all survivors of sexual assault in American prisons.

Senator Cotton, the prisons you imagine, places where bad people go to repent for their wrong doings, do not exist. The US penal system currently operates as a place to control, abuse, and neglect our nation’s poor and mentally ill. The answer to the issues Senator Cotton worries about is not an increase of punishment but an increase in attention and investment to the communities that are being effected by our MASS incarceration.

 

(Image Credit: Bitch Media) (Photo Credit: LA Progressive / Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle)

Solidarity with the women prisoners of Fleury-Mérogis!

In Fleury-Mérogis, France’s biggest prison and one of its worst, women detainees have been organizing against new conditions of detention arranged by the new software GENESIS (Gestion nationale des personnes écrouées pour le suivi individualisé et la sécurité, National management of imprisoned people for individualized monitoring and security), an acronym that blurs its material reality for women incarcerated in Fleury-Mérogis. The software was sold under the aegis of efficiency and harmonization between the men’s quarters and the women’s quarters. In practice, this harmonization meant worsening the conditions of detention: reduction of the number of promenades, limitation of access to the gym and cultural activities, and reduction of visiting room sessions.

In December 2002, France ratified the United Nations’ resolution, Optional Protocol to the Convention Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). As a result of that ratification, in 2007 the French parliament passed a law creating an independent public body “contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté” in charge of monitoring all places and institutions where people are locked up.

This independent body released a report in January 2016 concerning the conditions of detention of women, which includes women in jails, prisons, administrative (immigration) detention, and psychiatric detention.

Women prisoners represent 3.2% of the prisoners in France with 5 to 6% of women prisoners in administrative detention. Juvenile delinquents may be locked up in educational centers, which resemble a prison anyway. Girls make up 6 % of incarcerated minors. Proportionately, women in psychiatric hospital are in greater number; 38.21% of those committed to psychiatric detention are women. Historically, women have been the targets of psychiatric control.

The report points out that women are more susceptible to suffer from separation from family circles, and especially from their children, than men. Although by law women are entitled to the same rights as men, the gap between them is even wider in prisons and jails.

With the consolidation of detention centers, women have been sent further away from home. This situation is well known in the United States but is relatively new in France. The report insists on the inherent injustice of this situation since about 75% of the incarcerated women are mothers. The law demands that women’s incarceration respects their familial responsibilities. Further, most of the women are incarcerated for minor offenses. Among the 188 detention centers and prisons in France only 43 may receive women. Often the women’s side in a prison is simply very basic compared to the men’s side.

The report stresses the lack of services for women detainees and disparities among the various prisons and jails receiving women; these services go from health services to judicial services such as parole and day parole. The carceral administration justifies the inequality by claiming that there are too few women to merit more equipments or services.

The report recommends adding services, improving the conditions of detention, implementing the required access to school and other activities, all in the respect of the principle of equality.

Despite this detailed and clear report that demanded actions for revising the conditions of incarceration for women, Fleury-Mérogis’s administration launched GENESIS March 3d.

Immediately, the Basque women political prisoners incarcerated in Fleury-Mérogis organized women prisoners against this injustice. A support group has also been organized. Citizens outside the prison have written letters to the prison administration. Signs of solidarity with the women inside are key when women are locked up and may feel isolated. So each rally outside has to be heard inside.

The women prisoners’ demand is simple: “We call for dignified living conditions, they talk about rules. We talk about mutual assistance and sharing, they talk about logistics and “traffic.” We talk about humanity, they talk about laws. We talk about communicating and coming together, they answer with security and solitary confinement.” The response of the prison’s management has been harsh, 4 women have been sent to solitary confinement. Since May 10th, 5 men and 2 women have been on hunger strike in solidarity with the women in isolation.

This is a struggle against the logics of over incarceration producing a carceral and societal aberration that started in early 2000. It is a fight against a higher degree of materialistic dehumanization of prison conditions, another step toward a harmonization with the United States’ penitentiary hell. Solidarity with women prisoners is required, today in Fleury-Mérogis, tomorrow …

 

 

(Photo Credit: L’Envolée) (Image credit: Paris-Luttes.info)

For the silicosis widows of India, the struggle continues

Silicosis widows meet

On May 4, India’s Supreme Court directed the Gujarat government to compensate the families of 238 workers who died of silicosis while working in unregulated quartz crushing factories. Within the month Gujarat is supposed to pay each family 300,000 rupees, or around $4,500. The Court also directed the Madhya Pradesh government to take care of an additional 304 workers currently suffering from silicosis. As in South Africa, the story of industrial silicosis is a widows’ tale, from horrible start through brutal inner chapters to whatever the end will be.

According to a 1999 Indian Council of Medical Research report, in India about 3 million are at risk of silica exposure. Since that report, the numbers of workers in the various fields – mining and quarries, manufacture of non-metallic products, manufacture of basic metals and alloys, and construction – has only increased, and since that time pretty much nothing has improved in the conditions of labor, and so one assumes that the 3 million mark has been exceeded by quite a bit.

Across Madhya Pradesh, this “occupational trend” has produced an archipelago of widow villages, and that’s the point. The villages are not new and are not unknown. Women’s organizations have long lobbied for compensation. For ten years, the National Human Rights Commission has documented and organized to improve the situation of the workers and their families. At every step of the way, the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh governments have refused any sort of assistance.

It’s a common enough story. Small hold farmers from tribal communities were forced off their lands by market forces, weather, and the poverty of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which, in Madhya Pradesh, guarantees stay-at-home-and-die. And so populations of mostly male workers went off to work in the factories of Gujarat. When they returned home, usually earlier than expected, they were frail, coughing, bleeding versions of the men who had left. And women were left to tend to the dying, the dead, and the debts. Then the women started going to Gujarat to work crushing stones.

Madhavi comes from a village in Madhya Pradesh. She joined four family members who went to work in Gujarat. Six months later, sick, they all returned home. To pay for medical treatment, they sold off their livestock and mortgaged their land. Then Madhavi’s mother, two brothers and sister-in-law died of silicosis. Now, sick with silicosis, Madhavi cares for her father and struggles with debt: “With my brothers gone, I am not sure when I‘ll be able to pay off all the loans. I have received no support from the government. My father does not receive any pension. It is very difficult to get by as I am always tired and run out of breath while working.”

Meanwhile, across Rajasthan, mineworkers’ widows tell the same story of death, debt, and desperation. Prembai explains, “[My husband] could not work for the last six years of his life, so I would work to keep things going. Women earn just Rs100 a day in the mines, while men are paid about Rs250.” The bodies and debts pile up; the State looks away. In Rajasthan as elsewhere, entire villages are called “the land of widows”.

The story of silicosis in India is the same as that in South Africa. For those who work the mines and factories, there is no dignity in labor. For the widows, there is no dignity in death. The bodies come home, the debts and demands mount, the extraction continues.

 

(Photo Credit: The Hindu / Rohit Jain Paras)

Why do women in every corner of the world experience shortages of sanitary pads in prison?

As of 2013, approximately 74% of incarcerated women in the United States are between the ages of 18 and 44. After adding the number of incarcerated juvenile women of menstruating age to this number, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of incarcerated women in the United States experiences menstruation while in prison.

Menstruation in prison can often be unpredictable, making it difficult for incarcerated women to prepare for their periods by purchasing or saving sanitary products in advance. The stress of incarceration on newly imprisoned women was found to have severe effects on many of their menstrual cycles, causing irregularity. After an extended period of time spent in close quarters with other incarcerated women, menstrual cycles among many women can synchronize, leading to a high demand for sanitary products within a short period. Despite this high demand, many prisons in the US do not provide their inmates with adequate amounts of sanitary products. As the majority of incarcerated women are indigent, many cannot afford to buy extra sanitary pads from the prison commissary. This leaves them with few options other than to reuse old pads or wear a dirty uniform.

The United States is not alone in this violation of human dignity. Incarcerated women across the world experience similar shortages. For example, due to lack of access to sanitary pads, female prisoners in South Sudan often use dirty rags during their menstrual cycle and sometimes insert clay into their vaginas to stop the bleeding. These practices can leave women vulnerable to infection, and often prevent them from working or leaving their cell during their period.

Why do women in every corner of the world experience shortages of sanitary pads in prison?

The short answer is capitalism, as it often is when examining injustice in the modern world; the long answer is a little more complicated.

The spread of capitalism through colonial expansion is essential to understanding why women experience similar indignities while incarcerated. Long after Europeans relinquished their territorial hold on nations across the globe, capitalist ideals remained, dividing the proletariat (and men and women) with constant competition for capital. In the past four decades, capitalism has utilized a new weapon: neoliberalism. Neoliberal rhetoric is integral in the response of the prison system to the health needs of women—with their inaction and inadequate provision of products, the state’s implication is that each woman should look after herself and provide her own sanitary pads while incarcerated. This narrative ignores the economic, social, and political circumstances of her incarceration: the state does not consider whether or not she was able to afford sanitary pads outside of prison (which is unlikely, as the majority of incarcerated women are indigent), and ignores the racist and classist sentencing practices that likely led to her imprisonment. Neoliberalism demonizes poverty and blames inadequate health care on the individual’s lack of motivation, and this dangerous narrative is accepted by the majority of the public.

When neoliberal ideology has entrenched itself so deeply into the global economic, political, and social spheres, how can one change the conversation to hold institutions accountable for their neglect of marginalized populations?

The answer is through grassroots organizing and supporting projects that focus on restoring incarcerated women’s dignity. Donate to organizations like A Woman’s Worth, Inc., which is a non-profit organization based in Oregon that works on several projects regarding feminine hygiene product access worldwide. They have a prison project called “Dignity Behind Bars,” and they suggest that activists donate maxi pads to be distributed in US prisons and reusable cloth pads to be distributed in prisons abroad. They also ask activists to contact women’s prisons in the US to inquire about the commissary stock and hygiene product distribution.

Through donations to organizations such as this and attempts to hold the prison system accountable for neglecting the needs of incarcerated women, we may be able to work towards restoring some dignity into the lives of incarcerated women.

 

(Image Credits: A Woman’s Worth, Inc)

And that, right there, is what hope looks like.

I became an aunt during high school, when my sister began to foster my nephews, who are biological brothers now ages 10 and 11. She adopted them a few years later, and began fostering my niece last year. Although it hasn’t always been easy to cope with the aftermath of the kids’ trauma, as a family, we always make it work—at the risk of sounding sappy, love is one of those things that holds people together.

Recently, I’ve started to think more about the origins and consequences of this love. It makes me uneasy when I think about the role classism and racism has played in child welfare from the Children’s Aid Societies of the 1800’s. It makes me uneasy because in order for me to be able to love these children, something had to go horribly wrong. Was that love stolen? And if it was, does it make me complicit in someone else’s suffering?

It’s a conversation that makes a lot of us uneasy. Child abuse rarely, if ever, comes up in conversations on abolition or restorative justice. It’s easy to say we don’t want to punish crimes that we don’t believe are wrong to begin with. It’s possible, even, to talk about mediation for something like intimate partner violence. But for many, children is where restorative justice reaches its limit. We find ourselves wondering how we can trust, let alone forgive, a mother who hurts her child.

Someone recently asked, “What happens when abusers walk free?”

I’m not sure if that’s asking the right question. The word “abuser” is complicated. Trauma rarely occurs in isolation, especially in communities experiencing poverty, which is linked to elevated levels of stress and mental illness. It’s a cycle: more often than not, mothers who abuse their children were themselves abused, and witnessed their mothers abused, and on and on.

In neoliberal capitalism, we have this proclivity towards punishment in these kinds of cases, but what’s the point? Is it supposed to bring justice? Is it supposed it to bring retribution? Is it supposed to fix what’s broken, to soothe what harm has been done and prevent more violence from occurring? If the last one were true (and I wish it were), the state could solve the problem by providing funding for a social safety net and mental health services, rather than actively cutting budgets.

The state does not put a mother in prison because they hope to repair the harm of abuse or neglect. She is put there because she has offended sensibilities as an outward manifestation and reminder of the violence inherent in austerity. She is put there because there is no other option—and besides, she had her chance and she blew it. She is there because her body is expendable, and because she is worth more as a prisoner than a person.

So here we are, in this material reality where there are mothers who hurt their children, sometimes badly—and whatever the state’s role in bringing that trauma about, we nonetheless cannot in good conscience while away our days debating principles and absolutes without acknowledging that materiality is messy.

As people compelled and troubled by human suffering, how do we reconcile our theoretical understanding of systemic violence rooted in racism and classism with the very material reality of intergenerational cycles of abuse and trauma? What do we do when we as abolitionists must step out and live in the global neoliberal framework; when our only choices are to allow children to be physically and sexually abused, or to throw their mothers (who are likely themselves survivors) in prison? Do we try to stay above it all, speaking of revolution in words too complex for the people whose plights we discuss—or is inaction in and of itself another form of violence? This is the choice we must make in the carceral state, and it is an uneasy one.

The choice is even more uneasy for those of us with a vested interest. Perhaps the thing that makes me feel most guilty is that, if given a third option, I’m not sure that I would take it. For all we talk about our innate instinct to protect our own offspring, humans have an insane capacity to blindly love children with whom we share no genetic link. And once we accept someone as family, there’s nothing more painful or difficult than saying goodbye.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that it isn’t the answer to this dilemma that’s important, but rather the process of puzzling it out to begin with. Regret isn’t a time machine. We should never apologize for loving a child—but we should allow ourselves to feel conflicted if it pushes us to become conscious of the world around us in all its complexity and ambiguity. I’ve witnessed how, even within a system that is unforgivable, there are moments of healing and humanity that manage to seep between the bars. I’ve seen a child who a psychiatrist said may never be able to feel empathy wipe tears off her adoptive mother’s cheeks; sing “You Are My Sunshine” (our favorite lullaby) to her baby sister as they play. Stubborn, blind love is not something that’s stolen. It’s something that we already have, and god willing will never lose.

And that, right there, is what hope looks like.

 

(Image Credit: You Tube)

The Kanga was in the room

This day in 2006, Willem van der Merwe handed down a prison sentence to a rape survivor. It wasn’t just a prison sentence, it was an ex-excommunication. An exiling. A sacrificing at the altar of hetero-patriarchal politics. A public lynching. An annihilation. An erasure. A powerful exhibit the criminal justice system as it is, is an instrument of power and the powerful. A tool of racist, classist misogyny. Designed for aiding, abetting, cementing the citadel of the hetero-patriarchal system.

The trial showed us things about ourselves, the people who govern us today, our society that explain why navigating life is a “nightmare” experience for the people who live in bodies called “women”.

Yesterday we celebrated with tears of grief and joy, One in Nine Campaign’s 10th birthday. The Kanga was in the room. She spoke of how she has been rising since that day. How she has been leaving and fighting to live, in search of a home since then. How she has been building her nest in the place inside that they couldn’t annihilate. How that beautiful mother became sword and shield. How feminist friendship and solidarity is our ultimate hope for survival and triumph against the system whose tentacles are forever multiplying.

It was a sad day. It was a happy and beautiful day. It was a celebration of feminist courage. It was a séance to the many bodies of courage, to young women at universities and the streets who are saying to the system ‪#‎timeisup‬! It was a bold confrontation to the rest of us: what else are you still afraid of? What else can they do to you? What else is there to lose?

 

(Photo Credit: Siphokazi Mthathi)