Virginia `pays’ for decades of forced sterilization of women

On Thursday, February 26, the Virginia legislature agreed to pay $25,000 in compensation to those who had suffered forced sterilization during the Commonwealth’s decades long adventure in eugenics. From 1924 to 1979, over 8000 people were involuntarily sterilized under the Virginia Eugenical Sterilization Act. It’s believed that 65,000 people nationwide were forcibly sterilized, and so, at over 12% of the total, Virginia holds pride of place. But there’s more. Virginia was the model for many states across the United States and for the German Nazi eugenics program. The line from Richmond to the Third Reich is direct.

More than a fifth of those sterilized in Virginia were African American, and more than two-thirds were women. Virginia’s longstanding war on Black women took many shapes, and the argument was always security and the well being of something called society. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s sterilization program. In the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” By enough, he meant too much.

Virginia’s sterilization program sat comfortably at the intersection of gender, race, class, disability, and confinement. The overwhelming majority of those sterilized were “patients” of state institutions. They weren’t patients; they were prisoners.

In 1985, Virginia finally agreed to inform survivors of their sterilization and to provide them with counseling services. In 2002, then Governor Mark Warner formally apologized for Virginia’s shameful part in eugenics. In 2014, Delegate Patrick Hope, from Arlington County, began pushing for compensation, and that’s what was established yesterday. Yesterday, Del. Hope explained, “I think it’s a recognition when we do something wrong we need to fix it as a government. Now we can close this final chapter and healing can begin.”

Does healing begin this way? The compensation is a step in the right direction. At the same time, the survivors number only eleven. More to the point, what of the system of law, medicine, education, and State that supported the forced sterilization of over 5000 women, all in the name of preserving the health and well being of something called society? That healing has not begun, not while so many of their sisters, nieces, grand nieces, and the list goes on, languish in prisons and jails across the Commonwealth, and across the nation, today. The kind of healing of which Delegate Hope speaks and for which he yearns cannot be purchased. It is not for sale. It must emerge from sustained recognition of responsibility combined with recognition of the subjects of this history. Women. Black women. Black women living with disabilities. Poor Black women living with disabilities. That healing has yet to begin.

 

(Photo Credit: The Institute for Southern Studies)

UK uses destitution and violence to `protect’ women domestic violence victims

In London last week, the Joint Committee on Human Rights presented Parliament with its report, Violence Against Women and Girls. As before, the report is grim, in particular when it comes to State inaction vis-à-vis domestic violence. The authors of the report describe themselves as troubled and concerned, especially about women asylum seekers and refugees: “We heard particular concerns regarding victims with insecure immigration status, asylum seekers or refugees. These women and girls are often overlooked. Immigration policy is developed separately from policy about violence against women and girls. We urge the Government to address the gap in service provision for women with insecure immigration status and to review the use of the detained fast track process for victims of violence against women and girls.”

The abusive treatment of women asylum seekers who are in abusive relationships is State policy, not the error of overworked or unimaginative staff members. “The gap in service provision” and “the use of the detained fast track process” are not oversights. They achieve their intended goals: render efficiencies at the expense of women whose lives mean less than nothing to the State: “Throughout our inquiry we have heard about the experiences of a wide range of different groups of women including those with particular needs, for example women seeking asylum or refugees, women with learning difficulties, women from black and minority ethnic communities and women from communities of belief or religion.”

The treatment of women asylum seekers and refugees in abusive relationships in the UK is in direct opposition to the treatment of women in post-disaster zones: “We are concerned that, during the time it takes for a spouse suffering from violence to regularise their immigration status, they are very often left facing destitution or having to remain in a violent relationship. We find it worrying that current Home Office policies leave people destitute during the asylum and immigration process and that this in itself leads to women being at a greater risk of being a victim of violence. This is in contrast to funding being provided by the Department for International Development to post-disaster zones which looks specifically to address such survival strategies used by women.”

In other words, what’s good for Darfur is no good for Dover. Why is that?

To answer that, the report analyzes the fast track detention system; the culture of disbelief; and the lack of gender sensitivity; and concludes: “Despite the Minister’s assurances, we are disturbed by the evidence we received that the routine use of male interpreters, the operation of fast-track detention system and the reported culture of disbelief within the Home Office all result in victims suffering further trauma whilst seeking asylum or immigration to the UK. We find this unacceptable.”

We find this unacceptable. “This” is the systematic behavior and public policy of the State. The report has been described as demonstrating a failure: “UK failing to protect female domestic violence victims”; “Trapped with your abuser: How the Home Office fails domestic violence victims.” The Home Office didn’t fail; it achieved its stated goals. Calling it failure is an alibi. Rather say this: UK refuses to protect female domestic violence victims. How the Home Offices violates domestic violence victims. How the State uses destitution and violence to `protect’ women domestic violence victims. We find this unacceptable.

 

(Photo Credit: Asylum Aid)

In Zimbabwe, Samukelisiwe Mlilo says NO to the criminalization of women living with HIV

Samukelisiwe Mlilo and lawyers from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights went to court this week to challenge the constitutionality of a Zimbabwean law that criminalizes “HIV transmission.” The story of Samukelisiwe Mlilo is the story of one woman in one household, and it is the story of criminalization of HIV transmission as part of a global assault on women.

On every continent, countries have passed laws that criminalize something called intentional HIV transmission. Each time, the law is draped in the language of protection: of society, of women, of `us’ from the monstrous `them.’ The specter that haunts these laws, however, is not predatory monsters, but rather women.

In Zimbabwe, the law that adjudicates “deliberate transmission of HIV” is Section 79 of the Criminal Law Code: “Deliberate transmission of HIV: Any person who, knowing that he or she is infected with HIV; or realising that there is a real risk or possibility that he or she is infected with HIV; intentionally does anything or permits the doing of anything which he or she knows will infect, or does anything which he or she realises involves a real risk or possibility of infecting another person with HIV, shall be guilty of deliberate transmission of HIV, whether or not he or she is married to that other person, and shall be liable to imprisonment for a period not exceeding twenty years.”

This law sits at the intersection of legal arguments, made last week by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which point to the unconstitutional vagueness of the language of the law; and women’s lived lives, call it the existential tragedy, which is the story of Samukelisiwe Mlilo. Both the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and Samukelisiwe Mlilo argue that the law targets women.

Samukelisiwe Mlilo is 36 years old, a mother of three young children, HIV positive, separated from her husband. In August 2009, Mlilo was pregnant with her second child. She went in for prenatal care, and was found to be HIV positive. She struggled to accept her status, and then, fairly quickly, informed her then-husband. At first, things were ok, but soon the two began fighting. According to Samukelisiwe Mlilo, her husband became violent and physically abusive, but he did stick around and help with childcare, after the second child was born. Finally, in 2010, Samukelisiwe Mlilo went to the police, reported her husband’s abuse, got a restraining order, and they formally separated. Her husband was given visitation rights, and so the fighting and abuse continued. When the two separated, Samukelisiwe Mlilo was three month pregnant, which neither she nor her husband knew. He rejected the child, who was born June 2011. Then, out of the blue:

One day I was summoned to Entumbane police station to answer charges of deliberately and knowingly infecting him with the HIV virus. I informed the policeman that I disclosed my HIV status to this man who accepted it. Now he is lying saying I didn’t disclose my status to him because we had separated. Honestly I did not know what was happening … I had no one to ask to take care of my children. I stayed alone with my children and the child minder. There was no one to take care of my children … It was difficult, especially when the case was covered in the newspapers. I could not work. I could not face my co-workers. I requested for emergency leave, which was denied. I was forced to interact with people, despite the difficult situation I was in. People were calling me names. It was indeed a difficult time. At that time I was also supposed to continue looking after my children. I had to face people and attend to phone calls from relatives, who had seen the story in the paper. If I had not been a woman, I would not have faced any of these challenges.”

Due to requirements women face when accessing antenatal care, women more regularly learn their HIV status. Thus, the burden of informing has been placed largely on women, and women then have to do the calculus. Around the world, women who inform their partner that they are HIV positive often face violence and death, expulsion, homelessness, stigma, and poverty. Additionally, they are more often than not left to care for the children on their own in a hostile environment.

Criminalization adds two elements to this toxic brew. First, it allows for the violation of the right to privacy and confidentiality. We should not know Samukelisiwe Mlilo’s name, but `thanks’ to the criminalization laws, we do. The second toxic element is prison. While prison for any woman is a terrible thing, her imprisonment is a living death sentence for her children.

Last week, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights released a video telling the story of Samukelisiwe Mlilo, and of women around the world. It concludes: “Say NO to criminalisation of HIV. Criminalisation harms women.” In the words of Samukelisiwe Mlilo, “If I had not been a woman …” Being a woman is not and cannot become a crime.

 

(Video Credit: YouTube / Zimbabwe Lawyers Committee for Human Rights / HIV Justice Network)

The cruel and usual treatment of women in jails

In the United States, jails are filling up, with particularly catastrophic consequences for women. Caging more and more women in jails for longer and longer periods of time is how the State protects its interests … and `its women.’

The Vera Institute released a report last week on the misuse of jails in the United States. It details the ways in which jails have become the repository for the poor, mentally ill, of color. For women, the situation is dire: “Serious mental illness, which includes bipolar disorder, schizophre­nia, and major depression, affects an estimated 14.5 percent of men and 31 percent of women in jails—rates that are four to six times high­er than in the general population … While most people with serious mental illness in jails, both men and women, enter jail charged with minor, nonviolent crimes, they end up staying in jail for longer periods of time. In Los Angeles, for example, Vera found that users of the Department of Mental Health’s services on average spent more than twice as much time in custody than did the general custodial population—43 days and 18 days respectively … Although women still make up a relatively small proportion of the jail population—14 percent in 2013— their share has been steadily increasing, up from 11 percent since 2000 … In 2005, 79 percent of women in jail were mothers, with nearly 250,000 children between them.”

The key here is serious mental illness affects 31 percent of women in jails. Mental illness has a gender here, and it’s women. Somehow, that salient feature drops out of the various news reports, which focus on the warehousing and punishing of the poor for their poverty and often of people of color for their race and ethnicity. Women, mostly poor, mostly women of color, and an extraordinarily high number of whom are living with mental illnesses, are being piled into jails across the country, in increasing numbers and for longer periods of time. As the Vera report notes, the money that pays for this adventure comes from “the same pool of tax revenue that supports schools, transportation, and an array of other public services.” So, first cut the services that might help these women, then pop them in jail, and then, in order to pay the freight, cut the services even further. And for the quarter million children, who are left behind, show no mercy.

Women haunt the entire prison project of the United States. Last month, California `celebrated’ its prison population dipping below the federally mandated level, which is 137.5 percent of capacity. So, the prison system is still overcrowded but not unconstitutionally so. The one exception here is the Central California Women’s Facility, the largest women’s prison in the world, built to house at most 2,000 prisoners. It currently has 3,383. That’s almost 170 percent of capacity, but it’s not cruel and unusual. It’s cruel and usual. The same is happening in the more than 3000 city and county jails across the country. It’s cruel and usual, and so it’s fine.

 

(Inforgraphic: Vera Institute of Justice)

Domestic workers Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat shake the world

Gloria Kente is a live-in domestic worker in Cape Town. In 2013, her employer’s then-boyfriend got angry with her, allegedly grabbed her, spat in her face, and screamed a racist epithet at her. Kente called the police and had him charged with assault and a violation of her human and civil rights. She called him out for hate speech and harassment. When the man tried to extend `an apology’, Kente said, “NO!” If an apology meant not going to court, not having the State fully involved, then Gloria Kente wanted no part of it. Last November, the man was found guilty, and on Friday he heard his sentence.

The man was sentenced to two years house arrest, 70 hours of community service “in the service of Black women”, successful completion of various programs addressing substance abuse, prohibition from owning any firearms and from using any substances.

Gloria Kente was not in court on Friday, but her attorney said she was happy with the sentence.

As so often happens, the news coverage of this case focuses largely on the man. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers is not news. Employers disrespecting and abusing domestic workers’ rights under the law is also not news. The news is that around the world, domestic workers are saying “NO!” to abuse. Around the world domestic workers are on the move, organizing, advocating, going to court and winning civil and criminal cases, organizing unions, consolidating power for domestic workers and for women workers generally. That’s the story.

In Hong Kong today, a court found that Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s employer had indeed abused her. Her employer was found guilty of criminal intimidation, grievous bodily harm and wage theft. Again, the story is not the employer, but rather Erwiana Sulistyaningsih’s refusal to accept the veil of secrecy that enshrouds household labor. Erwiana Sulistyaningsih said “NO!” to the violence of like-one-of-the-family, and, instead, said “YES!” to workers’ right, women’s rights, migrants’ rights, humans’ rights, and every configuration thereof. As Erwiana Sulistyaningsih explained, after hearing the verdict: “To employers in Hong Kong, I hope they will start treating migrant workers as workers and human beings and stop treating us like slaves, because as human beings, we all have equal rights.”

In Lebanon, immigrant and migrant women domestic workers are organizing a union. In Pakistan domestic workers have formed their first trade union, partly as a response to increasing violence against domestic workers and partly as a response to the affirmative recognition of their combined rights and power. Last December, the Pakistan Workers Federation formed the Domestic Workers Trade Union. Of 235 members, 225 are women domestic workers. Sumaira Salamat, in Lahore, is a member: “It’s only in the last year-and-a-half that these women have finally realised the importance of what it means to become a united force. We want to be recognised as workers, just like our counterparts working in factories and hospitals are. We would also like to get old age benefits like pensions when we retire; but most of all we want better wages and proper terms of work.”

Everywhere, women domestic workers are on the move.

Remember that when you read about this court case or that decision and the abusive employer receives all or most of the attention. The days of employers owning history are over. Gloria Kente, Erwiana Sulistyaningsih, Sumaira Salamat are shaking the world up. Remember their names.

 

(Photo Credit: drum.co.za) (Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez / Agence France – Press / Getty Images) ( Photo Credit: Plan – International)

 

Maxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family have decided to stay

Maxima Acuña de Chaupe is an indigenous small hold farmer, a woman from the highlands of northern Peru. She lives in the department of Cajamarca. In 1994, she and her husband Jaime Chaupe bought a small parcel of land to farm and to live on. They began building their home, clearing the land, preparing for the future. In 1994, Cajamarca also `welcomed’ the Yanacocha Mine, the largest open-pit gold mine in Latin America and the second most `productive’ gold mine in the world. Yanacocha is owned by Newmont Mining Corporation, a US-based company and the largest gold mining company in the world; Buenaventura, a Peruvian company; and the World Bank. Newmont owns more than half the mine. Here’s Yanacocha, 2010: “Yanacocha is Newmont’s prize possession, the most productive gold mine in the world. But if history holds one lesson, it is that where there is gold, there is conflict, and the more gold, the more conflict.” More gold, more conflict, and more company and State violence.

This is a story of the largest assaulting the smallest, and the smallest fighting back.

Although Yanacocha is the largest, Newmont wasn’t satisfied. The owners knew there was more gold, just up the road a pace. And so they launched the Conga Mine project, which would be bigger than Yanacocha. Conga promised, or threatened, to be the largest single investment in Peruvian mining history. The mine owners approached Maxima Acuña de Chaupe with an offer, which she refused. She and her family liked their farm, the region, the community, and had no interest in leaving.

That is when the assaults began. In May 2011, company representatives and police tore down the fences and smashed the Chaupe home. The family stayed. In August company representative and riot police bulldozed the Chaupe’s new home and seized all of their possessions. The family stayed. Then private security guards and police beat Maxima Acuña de Chaupe and her daughter unconscious, and took her husband and son to jail. The family stayed.

And so, of course, Yanacocha sued the Chaupe family, charging them with illegal occupation. From Indonesia to South Africa to Canada to Peru, the one constant in mining is there is no irony in those killing fields. The family decided to stay: “I may be poor. I may be illiterate, but I know that our mountain lakes are our real treasure. From them, I can get fresh and clean water for my children, for my husband and for my animals! Yet, are we expected to sacrifice our water and our land so that the Yanacocha people can take gold back to their country? Are we supposed to sit quietly and just let them poison our land and water?”

In August, a judge found for the mining company, but in December, an appeals court struck down the lawsuit. Maxima Acuña de Chaupe won the battle! The small woman on her small piece of land had stopped the largest mine, one of the largest mining corporations, and one of the most intensive forms of industrial violence against people, the environment, and democracy. Maxima Acuña de Chaupe was supported by many women: her lawyer, Mirtha Vasquez; the members of Asociación de Mujeres en Defensa de la Vida (Association of Women in Defense of Livelihood) and of the Unión Latinoamericana de Mujeres – ULAM, the latter of whom named Maxima Acuña de Chaupe as the Defender of 2014.

That was December. This week, over 200 fully armed private security guards and police entered the Chaupe farm, again without any warrant or formal authorization, and tore down a second small shack the family was constructing. They held the family hostage for hours. The struggle continues. Maxima Acuña de Chaupe and her family have decided to stay.

 

(Video Credit: Vimeo / Alexandra Luna, congaconflict.wordpress.com) (Photo Credit: CommonDreams.org / Jorge Chávez Ortiz)

 

For women in England and Wales, `safety in custody’ means harm, death, hopelessness

On Thursday, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice issued its Safety in custody quarterly update to September 2014. The report is grim. In 2014, 84 people killed themselves `in custody’ in England and Wales That’s the highest figure in seven years and an increase of 12% over the year before. The rise in suicide is surpassed by the rise in self-harm, up more than 25%. Overall, it was a banner year for the prison state, with 243 deaths in custody: “The 243 deaths in prison custody was an increase of 28 on 2013 and is the highest number of deaths recorded in a calendar year. This increase has been the result of both natural cause and self-inflicted death.”

Wrong.

The increase has been the result of rapidly rising prison populations, decreased access to mental health and other services, overworked prison staffs, and the general toxic soup that goes under the genteel name of `austerity.’

For ten years, the prison population has increased. The rise in prison suicides has more or less kept pace with that rise, but the rise is self-harm far exceeds the rise in population. And that’s where gender kicks in. Of the 84 people who committed suicide, three were women, up a bit from the one in 2013, but still low. Self-harm, on the other, is another story. According to the Ministry’s report, “Females are more likely to self-harm than males.”

Women make up 5% of the prison population and 27% of the incidents of self-harm in prison, over the past year. Where men had 222 incidents of self-harm per 1000 male prisoners, women had 277 per 1000 female prisoners. Even more telling, of those men who engaged in self-harm, each did so 2.8 times. Of those women prisoners who engaged in self-harm, each individual did so 6.2 times within a twelve-month period.

This what passes for safety in custody. As Frances Cook, of the Howard League, noted, concerning the rate of suicide in prison, “The numbers hide the true extent of misery inside prisons and for families.”

While the gender maths didn’t make headlines, they should have. As Soroptimist UK Programme Action Committee along with the Prison Reform Trust have noted, too many women are being sent to prison [a] for too little cause,[b] for too long, when [c] they could easily receive alternative sentences in their home communities. Furthermore, women prisoners know what the deal is when they leave prison: fewer than one in 10 women released from a prison sentence of under 12 months managed to secure a ‘positive employment outcome’ within a year of release, three times worse than the equivalent figure for men. Once in, there’s no way out.

There has to be a way out, and it begins with closing a so-called justice system that reflexively sends increasing numbers of women into overcrowded and often distant prisons for little or no reasons. If women are committing self-harm six times in a year, the problem is not `criminal justice.’ The problem is the criminal denial of access to health care. There is no justice where, for women, “safety in custody” means hopelessness, self-harm, and suicide.

 

(Image Credit: The Mental Elf)

Domestic workers in Lebanon organize a union!

Yesterday, more than 200 women from Ethiopia, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and beyond met to establish a first in the country, a union for migrant domestic workers. For decades, domestic workers have struggled with the `kafala system’, a `sponsorship’ system that binds migrant workers to their employers. This system gives employers practically absolute free rein over their domestic workers, because, under the kafala system, a domestic worker cannot quit. That would mean losing her sponsorship. It’s a vicious and often deadly cycle.

Domestic workers have struggled to tell their own stories and to frame the larger narrative for themselves. Ethiopian born domestic worker and filmmaker Rahel Zegeye explained, “We often hear stories of abuse and bad treatment of Lebanese employers towards their foreign domestic workers (maids). Most media and organizations working to help migrant domestic workers (MDWs) in Lebanon portray the worker as a helpless victim, her fate ruled by evil agencies and bad madams. Although this often does happen and is definitely an issue that needs attention, reality is much more complicated.”

In Lebanon, domestic workers have joined with organizations, such as Kafa (enough) Violence & Exploitation, the Migrant Workers Task Force, and others, to end the kafala system and more. They’ve launched research projects, social media campaigns, film and other media projects, to decry the inhumanity of the system and the brutality that is visited upon them regularly. They’ve tried to contextualize the tragic and regular tales of suicide among migrant domestic workers in Lebanon. Throughout, they’ve insisted that their human rights story is a women workers’ story.

To that end, the women persuaded Lebanon’s National Federation of Labor Unions to endorse their union proposal. Five weeks ago, the Federation submitted a proposal to the Labor Ministry applying for formal recognition of a migrant domestic workers’ union. As Carlos Abdullah, head of the Federation, explained, “We’re in a struggle phase now … This is the start of the journey and we don’t know how much time it will take to set up the union.”

With the National Federation of Labor Unions on board, migrant women workers, from all over the world, established their own autonomous women workers’ space. According to Lily Jacqueline, from Madagascar, “It’s a big step forward. Maybe we could have a common contract for all domestic workers and force employers to abide by it.” Gemma, who has lived in Lebanon since 1993, concurs, “We domestic workers are not seen as real employees. We are … employees, not … slaves.” Leticia, a Filipina domestic worker, agreed, “We want to be treated like human beings, like real workers. With this union, I will no longer feel alone in the face of abuse.”

To no one’s surprise, the Ministry of Labor today rejected the proposal, saying it prefers a legislative route, which has thus far completely failed women workers, rather than one of trade unionism. The struggle continues, and the women continue to organize to be treated like human beings, like real workers.

 

(Photo Credit: AFP/ Anwar Amro)

African Women Stand their Ground Against Big Coal

Every day Sonto Mabina walks past the dam to get to work. The dam is close to her house. No fence or wall prevents children from playing in the potentially toxic water, or stops the water from overflowing and flooding her house and the community.

For the past week, women from mining communities in South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe have been meeting in Johannesburg to share their experiences, strengthen their networks, map and take the way forward. They have been brought together by WoMin, African Women Unite Against Destructive Resource Extraction. They have had enough of environmental devastation, corporate predation, and State violence. They are sick and tired of living and dying in communities and households where everyone is tired, sick, and dying. And they have had enough of being ignored or silenced. They come together to say, Now is the time! They come together to make NOW the time.

In an hour long interview this week, Samantha Hargreaves, Regional Coordinator of WoMin; Nhlanhla Mgomezulu, Coordinator of the Highveld Environment Justice Network; and Susan Chilala, Secretary of the Rural Women’s Assembly, in Zambia, laid out the program. Generally, the women are calling on the State to divert its massive investments in the infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction into alternatives, particularly solar, wind, tidal, and thermal, all plentiful in the Southern African Development Community, SADC, region. All of the countries are already investing great sums of money to make mines happen. The women say: Make something else happen; something sustainable and renewable that will meet the challenge of growing consumption in growing economies.

This diversion would mean that the State would have to reconsider its comfortable relationship with those few who make huge profits at the expense of the many. This would also mean, the women said pointedly, that politicians, such as Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa, would have to address their complicity as shareholders and leaders in the mineral extractives sector.

The majority of the interview describes the impact of coal mining on local communities. Susan Chilala explained that coal mining attacks women small scale farmers most viciously. She described the impact of coal mining on farming and food security. She talked about the impact on women when their space is taken over by an industry that is so deeply male dominated, from top to bottom.

Nhlanhla Mgomezulu described the impact on women in the South African Highveld: “We women are the ones who suffer most.” Women suffer as individuals, in that their own health is endangered by poisoned water, air, and land, but they suffer even more as principal caregivers of the community. When the children are sick, women work more intensively. When the men return from the mines with asthma, kidney failure, tuberculosis, injuries and more, women are work more intensively. And this labor is `free’ and it’s 30 hours a day, 8 days a week, for life. If that’s not slavery … what is?

Last year, Greeenpeace published a report, which looked at Witbank, in Mpumulanga, in which they found that Witbank has the dirtiest air in the world. This is the gift of coal as a mainstay of `development’: “Sonto Mabina … works at a small tuck shop that’s just a short walk from her home in an informal settlement over the train tracks outside Witbank, in Mpumalanga. She’s lived here for 25 years, arriving well before the three coal washeries that now surround her house … Sonto Mabina, or Katerina as she likes to be called, lives with her husband, Andries. Their house has no electricity or water and Katerina uses a coal stove to cook their suppers, the black plumes of smoke clouding their home. A municipal truck brings water once a week, but most say it’s too polluted to drink. If you can afford to, you buy bottled water in this area of the country; if not, you boil it like Sonto does and you hope for the best. `Dust is my main problem,’ she says. `Every time my child goes to the hospital it’s because of the dust. The doctors say his chest is full of it. The doctors asked me where I lived and I told them. My other child also has problems with his nose because it is always running – the dust affects him too.’ It’s an everyday problem here.”

The women who have gathered in Johannesburg are saying NO to that everyday. They are engaging in a public dialogue, breaking down barriers, transforming isolation into community, teaching as they learn, and they are demanding a better present. Not a better future, a better present. They have lived too long with politicians and others ignoring them. They are demanding that the State take climate change, the environment, community health and wellbeing, and women seriously. African women are standing their ground and more. They are organizing and on the move. The time is now!

 

(Photo Credit: Mujahid Safodien / Greenpeace)

Where are women prisoners in Obama’s community college plan?

In the room the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo, and Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, and the Constitution of the United States, not to mention sociology, psychology and comparative religion. The room is a room in Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor. On Monday, The Seattle Times reported that college classes “are starting to creep back, operating on shoestring budgets with private money.”

This college program arose out of women prisoners’ demands and dreams. Women prisoners heard that the vocational education program certificates didn’t open employment opportunities, and so they pushed for college courses. After organizing and pushing, they succeeded, no thanks to the State.

Alyssa Knight is a student in this program. She’s in her early 30s. She anticipates leaving prison in 2025: “The fundamental question is, what do we expect from our justice system? Do you expect it to rehabilitate a person? If you are just basically warehousing people, then you are not going to get a change.”

Why must college programs in prison creep? Why are they privately funded? Why are they on shoestring budgets? Because 21 years ago, in 1994, the United States Congress eliminated Federal student Pell Grant aid to prisoners. In 1995, Washington State legislators banned the use of tax money for post secondary education for prisoners.

At the time the Pell Grants were cut, across the country, public colleges and universities were running somewhere around 350 degree and certificate granting programs in prisons. That number quickly dropped to almost zero, and the prisons were formally declared warehouses of the abandoned.

Predictably, the deepest cuts were to women’s prisons.

Last night, President Obama proposed “a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college – to zero.” Want boldness? Take that plan to women’s prisons, and open community college programs there. The President says he wants education to be “free and universal”. Women prisoners are at the heart of higher education’s “free and universal.” Turn their warehouses of abandonment into community colleges. End 21 years of educational war against women. As President Obama said, “Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.”

As Alyssa Knight said of the impact of education, “It pervaded our existence in here — it started to transform what people were thinking about.” Another woman prisoner Tonya Wilson puts it this way, “Who would you rather live beside, a person that’s just getting out of prison who just sat in her cell and stewed, or do you want somebody who has transformed, who is educated, who will not be a drain on society?” It’s time to choose and support transformation.

 

(Photo Credit: Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)