Haunts: The women of Namibia say, “Rape is not NAMIBIAN”

We mean business, and we really are serious. We are just tired of being disempowered, being talked to like little children.”

In Namibia last week, Police Inspector General Sebastian Ndeitunga issued a ban on miniskirts. He warned women that too short and revealing clothes are not African. He acknowledged that in Namibia there’s something called a Constitution, but then went on to explain that “culture” trumps constitutional rights. He then warned that wearing clothes that are too revealing would lead to arrest.

The Namibia Press Agency reports that 40 women were arrested, over the festive season, for wearing “hot-pants.” The women were held in custody overnight and then released to their parents, with lectures on public indecency. As the Police Inspector explained, “I don’t want to prescribe how people should wear, even if it’s new fashion style, it should be within our tradition.”

While women have been threatened with arrest for wearing miniskirts, it has been noted that no men have been threatened with arrest for wearing sagging pants. Apparently `culture’ and `tradition’ only `protect’ women.

Not surprisingly, the women rejected the ban, and even more its political context, vociferously and boisterously. Women’s organizations filed protests. Women, and men, wrote in opposition. Women and men organized public demonstrations. Finally, the Inspector General claimed, predictably, that he had been misquoted. The actual arrests of women in hot pants can’t be brushed away quite so conveniently.

Namibian women understand “culture” and “tradition” and know that assaults on their clothing are never what they seem. Banning the miniskirt, of course, is itself a long and often violent tradition. Edith Head banned the miniskirt from the Academy Awards. (Somewhere Seth MacFarlane is singing, “We saw your knees”, and it’s still not funny.) At various times, the governments of Swaziland, Russia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have outlawed or come close to outlawing miniskirts. In recent years, women wearing miniskirts have been attacked because of their attire in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa.

In each case, the women rose, organized, and attacked, because in each case, the women understood that the attack on their clothes was an attack on their bodies and themselves.

In the recent past, Namibian women have been organizing, working at the unfinished business of creating national and local democracy. Herero and Nama women have been organizing for the rights and realities of indigenous populations as they have organized to increase the presence and power and expand the rights of Herero and Nama women. Namibian women farmers have been organizing and developing sustainable agriculture political economies. And Namibian women, who were forcibly sterilized, without their consent, have been organizing, organizing, organizing, and gaining ground.

When Namibian women heard of the Inspector General’s remarks, they understood the context immediately: sexual violence. Namibian women know about the sexual harassment, violence and threats they often face, for example at taxi ranks, and they know it has nothing to do with their clothing. Namibian women know about rape and other forms of sexual assault, including what gets called “corrective punishment”. They know about the everydayness of date rape. They know about the often-limited access to sexual and reproductive health services, and the severe restrictions concerning abortion, and they know that lack of access and prohibition is part of a structure of violence against women. HIV-positive women know about the reproductive and sexual rights violations they suffer repeatedly, and in particular in doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals. Women know they are tired partly because all matters of contraception and family planning are left to them. They take the burden and the blame.

They know all that. They know the miniskirt is a diversion, on one hand, and serious, on the other.

And they said as much at the protest rally in Windhoek:

There is no excuse to rape a woman, no excuse, no matter what she wears.”

The women of Namibia refused to be limited to a discussion of clothing, of mini this and hot that. Instead, they put the issue forward directly and squarely. As one placard said, “Rape is not NAMIBIAN.”

Dan Moshenberg dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: America’s seclusion rooms form a landscape of atrocity

Recently, legislators in Oregon, Arizona, and Indiana began to address so-called seclusion rooms. Seclusion rooms are solitary confinement cells in schools. They’re also called `isolation booths’, `isolation boxes’, and `behavior support’. George Orwell is alive and well, and apparently in charge in the schoolhouses of the United States.

Jared Harrison is now 12 years old. He went to primary school in Eugene, Oregon. According to his testimony, for four years, starting in first grade, he was forced into a seclusion room pretty much every day, often for hours. Further, his parents were never informed. Ever. As his mother, Jennifer Harrison, explained, “”I was never notified. I didn’t know it was happening until I walked in and found him screaming facedown on the ground with two adults sitting on top of him.”

Parents have notified the State that they’re considering a lawsuit.

Parents in Arizona are also suing the State for having put their child in seclusion for hours on end. When the child asked, begged, to go to the bathroom, he was refused. And so finally, he urinated in the cell. The boy’s mother, Leslie Noyes is quite clear on at least one point: ““It’s like five by six, padded walls, no windows.  It is definitely like a cell.” Don’t call those rooms `seclusion rooms’, don’t call them `cool-down’ spaces, and certainly don’t call them `open air rooms’. Call them prison cells.

In Indiana, parents and advocates are also saying those prison cells are not “quiet rooms” or “safe rooms.” They’re specifically not safe because no one monitors the child while she or he is in the cell. They’re simply left there, absolutely alone. That’s not quiet, that’s not safe, and that’s not education. That’s violence.

Repeatedly, the story of violence is at least twofold, and each fold intensifies the other. First, there is the forced seizure and abandonment of a child into a cell for an extended period of time. Second, there is the discovery by the parents of what has been going on. The parents and the children share in the tragedy. When the children testify, the mothers, such as Jennifer Harrison, listen by their side and weep. The violence doesn’t stop once the door to the `seclusion room’ has been opened.

This is a tale of atrocity: “[M]ore often than not, [contemporary psychiatric]‘medicine’ is a complete atrocity-comparable only to the history out of which it grew: is four-point restraint-being tied down at the wrists and ankles-an improvement over being bound with chains? Is the cage inhumane whereas the seclusion room is not?”

Speak the truth fearlessly. Solitary confinement in our prisons is torture. Seclusion rooms in our schools are an atrocity. The solitary confinement of seclusion rooms comprises the social human landscape of the United States today. Close the seclusion rooms. Do it now.

Dan Moshenberg dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Resistances: Plenty of reasons to be outraged

Jessica Valenti started a recent address with a question that she said a young man asked her: “Why are you so angry?” She immediately said that she was not angry but sad and exhausted. Then after enumerating a series of laws and actions against women and reminding the audience that the Hyde Amendment has nullified the Roe decision for many financially vulnerable women, she finally admitted that she is angry: “I am angry that forty years after Roe, women are still fighting for recognition of our basic humanity.”

The fact is that there are plenty of reasons to be outraged.

A recent study demonstrates that, in the United States, many actors are eager to deny women their basic humanity and access to care and are already doing great harm to pregnant women thanks to recent legislation that put a pregnant woman in a lower rank than a fetus.

The feticide laws have encouraged and required health providers to inform police of pregnant patients who had problems with drugs. Many providers comply with these demands quite easily, especially when their patients are African Americans and/or poor. In many instances, for women patients, and especially for African American women patients, there is no medical confidentiality.

Why are so many American doctors ready to relinquish their medical ethical responsibility toward their women patients? A court can put a fetus in protective custody with a guardian to the fetus being appointed by a court decision requiring “the fetus to be detained…and transported” to the local hospital for “in patient treatment and protection.” The care of the mother is not considered, whether by health care providers of the pregnant woman or whether by the court.

Where are medical ethical rules for women like Laura Pemberton who wanted to have a vaginal delivery after having had a C-section? Her doctor used a court order to perform the surgical procedure. Pemberton was strapped and hauled off to a judge who decided her fate. Neither she nor her husband was allowed legal assistance.

In case after case, pregnant women who have sought help for reasons ranging from problems with drugs to requesting vaginal birth as the first option have been threatened and persecuted instead of being helped, and all of this with the approval of their own health care provider.

Where are the social workers and social programs to support women with the problem of drug addiction? Instead, their lives are torn apart even more?

Astonishingly, already inadequate access to health care is threatened during pregnancy, especially, but not only, for women who live in precarious conditions. They need to be listened to in order to receive the most appropriate care. Instead of receiving health care, they get prison.

Absurd situations have been created to intimidate and even terrorize pregnant women.  Sometimes the State goes to unbelievable lengths. For example, one woman was imprisoned because she “did willfully and unlawfully give birth to a male infant”.   In its absurdity, the wording of the official court document shows the profound disdain for the life of the pregnant woman

Sending pregnant women to prison in the name of protection of the personhood of the fetus while prenatal care provided by the state to incarcerated women is notoriously inadequate, if not absent, is absurd … and criminal.

There is an alternative.

Under the Nazi occupation of France, authorities commanded French doctors to report any wounded person. The board of the newly formed French Medical Association responded immediately:

“The President of the French Medical Association takes this occasion to remind every colleague that when called to assist the sick or the wounded, there is only one mission to fulfill and that is to deliver care. Respect for professional confidentiality is a necessary condition for the trust those who are ill have in their physicians. No administrative reason whatsoever exists that allows you to free yourself from this obligation.”

This declaration was sent to every doctor in the country. It became the nonnegotiable rule of ethics. It still is. This declaration is engraved on marble and is visible in the hall of the French Medical Association building in Paris. It is also taught in medical school to future doctors who would have eventually to fight for their patients’ protection. To this day, medical confidentiality is key and protects patients, even in court.

Doctors, nurses and other medical and social workers should be protecting women, who deserve the care they need. Instead, they have become `providers’, removing their human responsibility that the French doctors once understood to be their unbreakable ethical duty. Alternatives to state brutality already exist. Being ethical sometimes demands resistance to inhuman laws.

Brigitte Marti bridgemarti@gmail.com

Man to man

Man to man

Do not Rape in my name as a man!
A woman’s body, a lesbian’s body, a girl’s body is sacred, it is her sacred
temple.
Revere it in my name as a man!

Do not make mother-in-law
Jokes in my name as a man
Your mother-in-law gave birth to
Your wife, she is the grandparent of your children
Honour  her as a woman
In my name as a man!

Do not ridicule your wife in my name as a man!
Respect the woman you chose to marry, to be mother to your children, to be
your partner, your friend.
Respect, cherish and honour  her on bended knee in my name as a man!

Do not demean your female co-workers in my name as a man!
Recognize their abilities to think, to be productive, their contribution,
Accept their intelligence, their equal standing in my name as a man!

Do not disrespect, diminish your girl-child’s capabilities in my name as a
man.
Encourage her, love her unconditionally,  nurture her ambitions, her
passions and sing her praises,  so that she may be grow to be a woman of
substance, a woman of worth in my name as a man!

Do not disrespect humanity with violence and sexism and oppression in my
name as a man!
In my name as a man let ALL of humankind live, work, love and play in
freedom from oppression and violence and hatred.

Lavona George lavonageorge@gmail.com

Haunts: Canada’s Highway, Prisons, Foster Homes, and Schools of Tears

The Ashley Smith inquest continues. Ashley Smith was a 19-year-old woman prisoner who troubled the government of Canada too much with her constant acting out and suicide attempts, and so, finally, was allowed to commit suicide while seven guards stood and watched.

The guards, four women and three men, have now testified. They all say their hands were tied; they were only following orders. They’re very sorry, even anguished, for how Ashley Smith died. They know they failed her, they know the State failed her. They were misinformed. They were told Ashley’s problems were “behavioral not mental.” Behavioral not mental is code for in control of one’s actions. When the madwoman in the attic is a 19-year-old in solitary confinement, somehow she becomes `sane.’ The guards say they knew something was wrong, but the doctors had told them otherwise. It was a victory of military discipline over human and common sense.

Some ask, “How does an 18-year-old end up doing serious time in a federal prison for throwing crab apples at a postman?” Others wonder if Ashley Smith’s death was suicide or murder. Did Ashley Smith die or was she killed?

The Ashley Smith inquest continues, and Ashley Smith is still dead.

Here’s another question. Is Ashley Smith’s experience an isolated one? How does Canada treat its troublesome children? Three current reports suggest that the treatment of Ashley Smith is more common public policy than exceptional horror.

One study documents “ongoing police failures to protect indigenous women and girls” in Northern British Columbia. This “failure to protect” includes gang rape, torture, abduction, and a whole menu of violence. This “failure to protect” has contributed to the construction of what many call the Highway of Tears, as has the national government’s `failure’ to care about the lives of indigenous women and girls. That’s not failure. That’s refusal, and it’s an aggressive public policy, not an omission or lack of action.

A second study follows a 13-year-old Aboriginal child from cradle to cage. Taken from his parents at an early age, he was tossed from one foster home to another. Most of them were abusive environments. The one foster parent who actually cared and tried to take care of the boy couldn’t get help from the State, and so had to give the child up. When the boy turned eight, and was in a residential facility, the staff started disciplining him by calling in the police. And so began his life of being Tasered, followed by time in prison.

His story is a common one. In British Columbia, of children and youth `in care’ more enter into the juvenile criminal justice system than graduate from high school. One in six youth in care have been in youth custody. Close to one-third of the youth in the juvenile justice system is Aboriginal, which pretty much accords with the adult prisons. As above, so below. That’s equality in a prison State; that’s public policy.

An unpublished study reports that more than 3000 Aboriginal children died in Indian residential schools. Children died of disease, malnutrition, and accidents. Children froze to death. From the 1870s to the 1990s, 150,000 First Nations children were forced through the meat grinder of “civilizing” instruction, and at least 2% of them died in house. The names of 500 of the 3000 dead are still unknown. What is known is that in 1917, the Department of Indian Affairs stopped reporting the deaths and death rates of Aboriginal students in residential `care’: “It was obviously a policy not to report them.”

In each instance, from the 3000 Aboriginal children to the one Aboriginal child to hundreds of missing Aboriginal women and girls to Ashley Smith, the State responded with silence, followed by denial.

The Highway of Tears is not a road to nowhere. It leads to the Prisons of Tears, to the Foster Homes of Tears, to the Schools of Tears. Ashley Smith’s suffering is part of the brutal disposal of children in a world in which care is forced to surrender to the business of security as usual.

Dan Moshenberg dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Journey: Schools developing best practices in Gauteng

As I go from province to province, I have become very familiar with being guided to a school step by step. “Take the exit, turn right and then call me.” And after the next phone call, “Go straight, turn at the t-junction, and when you see a primary school on your right, call me.” Then a third set of instructions.  A couple of weeks ago, in Katlehong, outside of Johannesburg, I missed a turn and the principal had to come get me and guide me to the school.

Some schools simply exist in a place, but for others, their space has meaning. I had read only a little about Katlehong, but this school’s founding, its history and its present are grounded in its space.

Phumlani Secondary School opened in 1993. “It was the last school formed in the area by the previous government,” Principal Shumi Shongowe told me. “There was a fight, a war between the IFP and the ANC, the soldiers that were deployed by the previous government… People were killing each other. There was blood all over. And there was no time even to bury those that were dead.”

Then he paused, looked up and calmly said, “And it is then that this school was started.”

It was a reminder to me of the painful history of this country and the trauma and chaos out of which so much, including this school, has been born.

Many people who work in schools say that uniforms help with discipline and focus, but I rarely hear that the blues and yellows and greens and maroons have any meaning. Surrounded by brutal violence in 1993, Shongowe consciously chose the school colors. Red for the blood that was spilled. White for the hope that remained. “To say,” he told me, “after some time, all this shall be over and life shall go back to normal.”

In 1994, that was a new normal.

The school has grown from 200 students and a 5 percent pass rate in 1993 to 1,783 students and a 94 percent pass rate in 2012.

These 1,783 learners also find meaning in the uniform. “I call it a uniform of success,” one learner told me. “People who are in jail, not that I’m criticizing, but people who are in jail, they are wearing a uniform of regret. So this is a uniform of success.” The nuance and generosity he extended to prisoners with the use of the word regret struck me. Not violence, evil or wrong, but regret.

My mandate here is to identify keys to success. I often find that while those keys are unique, they should be commonplace.  One principal only hires teachers who studied that subject in college or university. That seems fairly basic, right? How can a history teacher teach biology? How can an Afrikaans teacher switch to technology, as I saw happen at one school? This too often happens as teachers are moved from subject to subject to fill gaps, despite a lack of training.

In another example, at Tetelo Secondary School in Soweto, Principal Linda Molefe and his staff end the year with a two-day meeting where they create a comprehensive plan for the following year. Acknowledging that plans constantly shift and change once the year begins, he said, “We can start right away because we know where we’re going.”

I always ask about parent involvement because it’s a critical factor but often difficult to achieve. Both principals emphasized that getting the parents to show up wasn’t enough. It was their obligation to teach parents how to be involved, to be clear about what is expected of them.

One principal has created an easy way for parents or grandparents, regardless of their education, to check their children’s progress. It involves simple numeric indicators. “Some of these grannies, they have never been at school… it is your responsibility to try and school them. To say what role are you expecting them to play. And these grannies with the issue of indicators, they also become excited because they can now get involved and give support to their granddaughters and grandsons.”

*************

 I have a new word for moments in these journeys that surprise me. I now call them “a capella moments.” At Phumlani Secondary, a group of boys approached me and asked if I would film their singing group. I was blown over when I heard their harmony, the noises they created through snapping and percussive beats.  It was like nothing I had heard before at a school in South Africa. The Soul Singers (as you may have guessed) are an a capella group.

The a capella moment at Tetelo Secondary came at the very end of the day, during mandatory study time for grade 12 learners. Because of the heat, many brought desks and chairs outside. We found one group of about 10 learners sitting under a tree, intently studying physics, debating and teaching one another. They traded off being the teacher, chalk in hand, using the side of a Cell C container to write on.

The irony was not lost on me that these kids were choosing to learn under a tree in a country where for years children like them had been forced to learn under trees. I shouldn’t speak of it in the past tense, since this still happens in some rural schools.

When I flew back to Cape Town on Friday morning, there was an article in the newspaper about an Education Charter that was recently put forward by the South African Human Rights Commission. The charter offers rules and recommendations to the government on giving quality education to all children. It addresses issues like crowded classrooms, suggesting that pupil teacher ratios not exceed 1 to 40 for grades 1 to 12. It proposes ambitious deadlines to meet aims for everything from reduced class size to electricity and running water for all schools, to making sure schools have other basic and essential services needed to teach and learn properly.

The Charter is filled with incredible goals to improve education across the country.  I don’t understand how they are going to fix so much so quickly. At Phumlani, the 1738 students are based in an old primary school building. The principal says he is basically running two schools. At Tetelo, I saw students mopping out their container classrooms in the morning because it had rained the night before and the classrooms leak. In the midst of cleaning and mopping, some were polishing shoes and straightening ties.

How will the government build enough classrooms and buildings so these students aren’t packed 65 in a class and don’t have rain dripping on their books? To have actual libraries and labs rather than a lab on a cart that is pushed from class to class.

I remain somewhat doubtful, but hopeful and will wait and see. In the meantime, maybe the government should bring some of these principals to other schools to share their best practices. “There is no recipe for success,” Principal Molefe told me. But I think sharing ingredients would be a good start.

Molly Blank. This piece originally appeared, in slightly different form, here: http://mollydispatches.blogspot.com/2013/02/part-2-journey-to-johannesburg.html

Letter To The Decent Guy

Dear Mr. Decent Normal Guy,

For a long time, I’ve been longing to have this talk with you, but was at a loss for the right words. I wanted to ask you stuff in a respectful and cordial manner, a manner that encourages dialogue and open answers. I wanted to be able to trust in the safety of your goodness, to bare my soul and be vulnerable with you without my twitter account being hacked or overwhelmed with cyber aggression. The last thing I want is to attack you, for I need your strength and solidarity more than ever.

Let’s talk about the issue of violence and abuse towards women. I need to ask you certain questions, I need to know where you stand on this.

You are the good husbands, sons and fathers. The men we love, who make us proud. The men we dream of marrying, the heroes we hope our sons will become. You are the breadwinner and the job holder; the decent guy who supports, respects and honors women. The man who pulls his weight at home.

Still my question is about a problem that also concerns you. It concerns the plethoric display of violence, abuse and undiluted misogyny which the “bad guy”,  your fellow specimen of the male species, (let’s call him) your evil twin, has been dishing out to women worldwide.

You know, for a long time, I was convinced that you and your brother are not identical at all. It seemed easy enough to tell you both apart. You were as different as night and day.

But today I am not so sure I know who you are. I can no longer blindly vouch for the honor of your convictions. Today, in this age of internet anonymity, the situation has changed. Thanks to the wonders of internet your brother and you now deploy the same avatar. One can no longer tell you apart.

It is hard to say where one brother ends and the other begins. I thought I knew you so well; that I would always recognize you inspite of any given circumstances.

Today I have come to realize that I don’t know you at all. I can’t in all certainty identify what you stand for, it seems you and your brother have morphed into a bizarre siamese entity.

Recently, I saw the Tedxwomen video of Anita Sarkeesian. It was about cyber harassment and misogynism. The magnitude of rape threats, murder threats and other acts of cyber aggression channelled to this woman was staggering. The lengths to which hundreds of men went, to try to make her life hell makes one speechless.

I wonder at the identity of the guys who did this.  Are they the same guys as the rapists in the Congo, South Africa and Srebrenica? Of course not. Those are the “bad” guys. Those are the savages. The monstrous, kingless, uninitiated creatures who have never learned that the quality of a true warrior lies in the fact that he is a protector of boundaries and is in service to a purpose greater than himself. These gruesome and pathetic manimals, these wretched creatures enslaved by testosterone and madness. These underachievers, losers who evolution left behind. Surely, these blights on humanity can’t be “our” men, right?

Uhm…. wrong.

I wish the answer was all that easy and concise.

You, the normal men, are the guys who did all that stuff to Ms.Sarkeesian. You, the very same decent guys we are married to, the same guys who call us mom and grandma, the very ones who work in offices beside us and raise our kids together with us. You, the guys we make love to at night, the guys who take out the trash in the morning. You, the normal, decent, savage, good, bad guy. Of course there is no evil twin. You are all of it; he’s all contained in You.

For as far back as history goes, women have been struggling with issues of gender equality. We have fought to obtain every right, every privilege, every square inch of equality that we possess today. It was never handed over freely, it has been an eternal struggle with you.

Granted, you have supported us along the way and without you, the struggle would have been futile. It was you, the decent man, who convinced the other men to open their eyes, to expand their intellect, to hasten their evolution so as to comprehend the urgency of our plight.

Today females all over the world are still victims of grand scale violence and abuse. Today women all over the world are regrouping and fighting back by educating themselves; by empowering one another and externalizing these issues. Women have made this problem a women’s issue and men like you have supported us from the sidelines.

But you know what?

What I miss the most in this whole violence-from-men-against-women-issue; what profoundly breaks my heart, is the absence of the avalanche of outrage from normal men like you. How come this male perpetrated problem is perceived by all as a women’s issue? Why aren’t men rising up in masses, hitting the streets and taking a stand against this horrific misrepresentation of their gender?

Why are decent normal men like you not publicly rising up in multitudes and redefining manhood and saying: “We don’t want to be associated with these monsters!” Why aren’t men teaching their sons, brothers and peers what real manhood is all about?

Why aren’t men volunteering their time en masse, in service to their communities to intensely re-educate and initiate boys into what real, hate-free manhood is all about? Why aren’t the decent men voluntarily spreading the gospel, going to- and speaking up in prisons, educational centers, sport clubs and offices?  Where are the male evangelists preaching love and respect of women to their fellow men?

Why do female crisis- and domestic violence centers exist worldwide and not one male-initiated prevention center? Why on earth is this male generated problem still a women’s problem?

We are your mothers and your sisters. Your daughters; for crying out loud! We are in this together, as your only partners on the planet. According to an ancient african proverb, “When the eyes weep, the nose cannot fail to join”. We need you as much as you need us. How can you claim to love us and yet stand at the sidelines, watching your brothers maim and destroy us? Don’t you care about us at all?

Aren’t we worth fighting for?

Until men make this a MALE problem, until you, the decent guy, stops being an accidental tourist, until you step out of the secondary supportive role, into the primary protagonists’ role; unless you take the full responsibility for this culture of violence towards women,  I am afraid that all the efforts we women have been making will never be more than that and misogynist inspired violence will never end.

It is alright to try to cure the “symptoms” of an illness: making women self aware and empowered: battered women’s shelters and assertivity classes, pepper spray and self defence lessons; blah, blah, blah.  But the crux of the problem, the missing link in this issue sadly remains the absence of primary male involvement and the fact that enough men do not feel enough outrage, shame and compassion to own and prioritize this issue.

Yes I know that even women are violent too, that there are enough cases of women battering men. This too is very wrong. Nevertheless, compared to the magnitude of the atrocities that men have and are perpetrating, these cases are practically non-existent.

I believe that until men wake up with the burning conviction that these acts are an insult to manhood and everything humanity stands for; until most men evolve to a level of compassion where the wellbeing of humanity becomes priority number one; until the unlikely hero, the unobtrusive decent guy, steps into the gaping vacancy and assumes his cataclysmic role in the process, there will never be an end to rape and violence towards women.

Chinello Ifebigh

Virginia’s war on women of color

Earlier this week the Virginia House of Delegates refused to restore the rights of nonviolent felons who have paid their debt to society … again. Governor Robert F. McDonnell had made re-enfranchisement a priority of his final year in office. The Governor spoke compellingly of “a nation that believes in redemption and second chances.” His Republican confreres in Richmond were not impressed.

Virginia is one of four states that permanently bars felony offenders from voting or running for office. At present, only the Governor can restore those rights, and that takes a long time, a great deal of work, and, not insignificantly, the commitment of a Governor who thinks it’s worth the time and effort. Most don’t.

In Virginia, as elsewhere, the disenfranchisement of former felons stems from, and adds to, centuries-old histories of racial and ethnic exclusion, oppression, and State violence. Approximately 378,000 Virginians, or 6.8 percent of the Commonwealth, fall under the `felony’ ban. This lifelong ban affects one of every five African Americans in Virginia. That’s no accident. That’s public policy.

These numbers are particularly noxious when one recalls that sixty percent of Virginia felony convictions do not merit jail time, and many are for nonviolent offences.

The lifelong voting ban in Virginia has always been an assault on African Americans immediately, and on communities of color, more generally. In recent years, however, it has also been a weapon in a war against women of color.

The so-called war on drugs has targeted women of color, in particular through conspiracy laws. These laws basically catch women for the crime of intimate relationships with someone involved in the drug trade. The women often, perhaps usually, receive extraordinarily harsh sentences. In Virginia, the case of Santra Lavonne Rucker is illustrative. Her boyfriend was thought to be a major dealer, in Virginia and New York. Rucker was charged with him, as an accomplice, and convicted, despite what many think was flimsy evidence of her actual involvement. But here’s the kicker. Rucker was sentenced to life, lives actually, in prison. Despite overwhelming evidence that, at most, she was a bystander, she was sentenced as a major kingpin in a statewide conspiracy. Santra Lavonne Rucker is still waiting to see the light of day.

Malinda Jenkins, of Lynchburg, Virginia, discovered that, thanks to drug conspiracy laws, absolutely ordinary everyday interactions between intimate partners can result in a narcotics prosecution. Jenkins was brought in with her boyfriend and others. Despite the agents’ testimony that they had never witnessed her or knew of her having any relationship to any drug deals, Jenkins was convicted with the whole crew. On appeal, her conviction was reversed because there was no evidence. It wasn’t insufficient evidence. It was nonexistent evidence.

These are just two cases, but they speak to the last thirty years of the war on drugs and its impact, nationally and in Virginia. In Virginia, being convicted of a drug offense can mean a lifelong ban on welfare benefits as well as a lifelong ban on voting. For women and their children, the ban on welfare has meant an impossible life. This has particularly affected Virginian women of color. That’s no accident. That’s public policy.

Since 1990, Virginia has had one of the highest increases in time served by prisoners and keeps people in prison for longer than most states. This is true for those convicted of nonviolent as well as violent offenses. Only recently has the State, with the establishment of the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission, begun to address the possibility of diversion and alternative sentencing. As is so often the case, the Commission was a result of prison overcrowding in the Commonwealth. Nationally, prison overcrowding has often resulted in men being released much earlier than women for exactly the same offense. The State simply needed the men’s beds more than the women’s.

The Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission applies a point system to each prisoner to establish `risk’ of recidivism. For drug and fraud offenses, women are deemed a much, much better `risk’ than men, nine times better. For larceny, men are a somewhat better risk, about 1.5 times better. In December 2012, these numbers translated as follows: 635 drug cases for review; 951 fraud cases; 185 larceny cases. In the overwhelming number of cases, then, women are a much better prospect for anywhere but behind bars. That’s according to the Commonwealth of Virginia.

It’s time to return the right to vote to those who have paid their debt, especially when much of that debt is the result of legerdemain. It’s time to stop the war on communities of color. It’s time to stop the war on women of color. Do it now, Virginia.

Dan Moshenberg dmoshenberg@gmail.com

In the camps, the women sigh, “O brave new world”

A key plank of Australia’s asylum policy is deterrence. What happened to asylum being the key plank of asylum policy? Deterrence in this instance means “offshore camps”, particularly on the islands of Manus and Nauru Islands. Manus Island is part of Papua New Guinea, where a trial opened today to challenge the legality of the “processing camps”. The charge is that the Papua New Guinean law does not allow for detention without any charge. Detention camps. Processing camps. Or, as Marianne Evers said of the camp on Nauru, “I actually liken it to a concentration camp.” Not surprisingly, the Australian government takes offense at the likening, “I think invoking concentration camp is a disgrace.” Calling the camps on Manus Island and Nauru Island “concentration camps” is a disgrace, but the camps themselves … are fine?

No.

Last week, New Matilda published three sets of letters by women asylum seekers currently imprisoned on Manus Island. The women are from Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan. They describe terrible hardships in their homelands, terrific struggles to get to Australia, and then debilitating, crushing conditions on Christmas Island and then on Manus Island. They describe the dire mental health crisis that sweeps through the camps, especially among the younger men who are increasingly suicidal. They write about their struggle for safety for themselves and their children. They write a great deal about their children. They describe the life draining out of their children within the universe of trauma that constitutes the detention camp. They describe the cultures and public policies of violence against women in their homelands that compelled them to leave, to seek personal safety and dignity.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, issued a report last week on Manus Island, based on a January visit. The agency confirms the reports of the women asylum seekers. The physical conditions are “harsh”. The living quarters have no privacy, which is a particular concern to parents of girls; are unbearably hot; and have grossly inadequate sanitary facilities. And that’s the family compound. The conditions in the compound for single male adults are worse.

The conditions are generally and specifically traumatic. They breed mental health crises on an individual, collective and structural basis. For the adults, it’s terrible. For the children, it’s crushing.

The UN list of dehumanizing conditions goes on, but here’s the point. This is what happens when deterrence is a key plank in asylum policy. Since Australia began “offshore processing” its asylum seekers, have the numbers gone down? Absolutely not. They’ve risen, incrementally. Does that mean the policy hasn’t worked? According to the State, it means the State hasn’t arrived at the proper balance of harsh and brutal. When the Australian government can match the brutality the women, children and men have fled, then it will have arrived at what it considers to be an appropriate asylum program.

Australia has invested political capital, national identity, and hard cold cash in brutalizing asylum seekers. They have sought partners. First they turned to Papua New Guinea, and this week, they turned to New Zealand. Australia sees asylum seekers as another `opportunity’ for regional free trade agreements. This time trade is in battered bodies and dreams.

Why can’t asylum, rather than deterrence, by the key plank of the asylum policy? What would it take to move the concept of the right to asylum to the center of all asylum policy? Ask the women asylum seekers on Manus Island. Repeatedly, they say they fled violence but they sought peace. Peace, rather than `security’, must govern asylum policy.

Meanwhile, the women who sought peace sit in the harsh camps on the remote islands, look at their children, look at themselves, look at the guards, look at where they’ve come to and where they’re probably going, if the State has its way, and they sigh, “O brave new world, that has such people in’t.”

Dan Moshenberg dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Resistances: French prison workers win the right to labor protection!

Until now in France, being employed while incarcerated was not placed under labor protection of the civil society. Instead, it was regulated by the prison system. There was no work contract and wages were as much as three times less than minimum wage. On Friday, a court decision changed all that, placing prison workers’ protection under the regime of regular labor laws.

While in jail as a remand prisoner, Marilyn Moureau worked for a phone company. She was laid off for having placed personal phone calls during her work time. In the language of prison management, she was “déclassé” (displaced), a term designed to mark the difference between prison labor and `real’ work. She took her former employer to the Labor Relations Board (prud’homme) and charged them for not respecting proper employment procedures. She won and got everything that is guaranteed by law for workers, including damages and compensation.

This is an important decision because it asserts that work is work whether workers are incarcerated or not. Labor rights should apply to every worker, including prisoners. It also states that people must keep their civil visibility while in jail or prison.

Moreau’s lawyer declared, “It is a great day for all the prisoners of France … an historical decision!”  Let’s hope it inspires the struggle fight to induce changes in worker protection around the world.

Brigitte Marti, bridgemarti@gmail.com