Who pays for the rule of law? Who will pay?

Birtukan Mideksa is currently being held in Kaliti Prison, in Ethiopia. Remember her name, Birtukan Midekas, and remember Kaliti Prison. There will be a test on prison geography and another on prisoners, with special attention to women prisoners. Women prisoners aren’t only in prison, however. Consider Mitmita. She’s an Ethiopian human rights activist. Mitmita is not her name. She can’t write in her own name. Reading Prespone Matawira’s series on Zimbabwe, I’ve been thinking of the anonymous and pseudonymous women, those one knows about, those completely obscured, in the shadows, disappeared. How many named and unnamed are there, officially or existentially political, imprisoned and confined women, in Ethiopia, on the continent, globally? Why do we know some names and not others? How many are hidden under or within, how many are blurred and waiting a proper reading, a proper enunciation? For every Prespone, for every Mitmita, for every Birtukan Mideksa, for every Jestina Mukoko, how many go unheeded, unrecognized? What becomes of their lives and stories? How much of silence, shadows, blurs is gendered? How do these women, and these women’s issues, mark a border between human rights and women’s rights? How is that border different from the militarized U.S. – Mexico borderlands, that actually extend across Central America, that home sweet home in which women are trapped in the transnational household, and how are they identical?

Recently, in Tanzania, the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs suggested a review of the Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act, SOSPA, because the sentences were too severe. Women’s and feminist activists protested the statement and decried the incompetence underlying its reasoning. Between 2006 and 2007, Salma Maoulidi conducted a study of Zanzibari attitudes towards sexual violence: “sexual violence continues to be viewed more as a moral crime rather than as a legal crime. It is thus not surprising that about 34 per cent of respondents consider sexual crimes as private issues. Only 16 per cent think that it is a criminal offence…. only 50 per cent of functionaries interviewed indicated using the Penal Decree in matters concerning GBV, the remaining 31 per cent used religious laws, and 18 per cent used medical guidelines when dealing with GBV cases. The study found knowledge of laws related to GBV to be very low in communities. Over 65 per cent of individuals interviewed were not aware of any law related to GBV. Largely, local customs and religious law are used to solve GBV matters.”

Moral crime, Legal crime. Human rights. Women’s Rights. What does it mean to categorize, to differentiate and perhaps by so doing to make some offenses more equal than others?

In Norway, a Muslim woman police officer requests permission to wear her hijab as part of her uniform, and all hell breaks loose. Is this the hell of human rights or of women’s rights? In Nigeria, a bill is passing through parliament that would further criminalize same sex  relationships and associations. Is this moral criminalization or legal criminalization?In Dar es Salaam, a culture of silence prevails for lesbian women. Is this the silence of morality or of legality?

Women are imprisoned, jailed, confined. In the U.S. almost 3 million children have their parents in jail. This occurs at a period of escalating incarceration of women, most of whom are Black or Latina, two thirds of whom are mothers of young children. What happens to those children? Who cares? Not the State. The State cares about war, war on poverty, war on drugs, war on terror. They’re all wars on women. Women with names, women with pseudonyms. In Quito, Ecuador, as all over the world, women know that the war on drugs is a war on women.

In Tanzania, distinguishing between the moral and the legal is killing women. In the United States as well, where women immigrants in detention are dying for health care. Women are flat out denied or have to wait ridiculously long times for any sort of gynecological care, mammography and breast health care, any sort of prenatal or postnatal care. It’s a gruesome list, indeed, and women are targeted as women. And services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence? “ICE policy fails to comprehensively address the needs of survivors of violence.” Au contraire. Inaction is a policy, non-policy is a policy. If rape during border crossing is `routine’ and routinely unreported, and if those, mostly women, who have suffered sexual violence during their journeys across borders and across streets, at work and at home, if there is no address, is that moral criminalization or legal criminalization?  Human rights or women’s rights? Which state actually cares? Not the United States, not if you’re an `immigrant woman’, certainly not if one recalls that “immigration detention is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the United States.”

The U.S. immigration detention complex is a black hole. “Victoria Arellano, a 23-year-old transgender woman from Mexico, was detained at ICE’s San Pedro Facility in May 2007. Arellano was suffering from AIDS though not exhibiting symptoms. In detention, her condition deteriorated because she was not given access to the antibiotics she needed.  According to The Los Angeles Times, her requests to see a doctor were ignored by facility staff. Other detainees dampened towels to reduce her fever and created makeshift trash cans from cardboard boxes to collect her vomit. Only after a strike and civil disobedience by detainees in the facility did staff take her to the infirmary. Arellano died two days later, after two months in detention, due to an AIDS-related infection.” Women, and children, in shackles. Transgender women violated every which way.

Nomboniso Gasa says all political prisoners in Zimbabwe must be freed now. Furthermore, the situations and conditions, and dreams and dignity, of women must be addressed: “All of the crises affect women more severely. One important issue is the widespread use of rape as a political weapon. And there has recently been a noticeable change in the way security forces relate to women. When Jestina Mokoko was arrested she was in only a nightdress. She asked if she could get dressed before she was taken but security denied her the right to her dignity by not allowing her to change clothing or take her female medication with her. And of course widespread shortage of food affects women more because they are always the last to eat. Even though they forage more food, after the men and the children eat it is the women’s turn, but by then there is nothing left.” The conditions in Zimabwe’s prisons are dire.

Across the United States, states are relaxing sentencing guidelines and softening drug laws. When Tony Papa, a victim of the Rockefeller drug laws, was finally released, he co-founded Mothers of the NY Disappeared. Now he feels truly released, and can exhale freely, if with a lingering sense of disbelief. So, the 70s at last may be laid to rest: “Nearly 40 years after the Rockefeller laws launched America down the disastrous road to wholesale incarceration, a more sensible and nuanced approach to drug sentencing is starting to take centre stage.” Where are the women in this account, in this relief program?

The rule of law targets many: drug users, sex workers, lesbians, immigrants, Muslims, activists, women. Everywhere. These laws have driven the hyperincarceration rates of women, in the U.S. and everywhere. The rule of law is a war zone. The laws change, they may be gone, but nothing changes until women’s names, bodies, lives are brought into the light of day. How many more stories, how many more articles, are required before that action is taken, before the war on women is acknowledged and addressed? Who pays for the rule of law? Women. Who will pay? There’s the question.

(Photo Credit: Ethiopia Forums)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.