Another Aboriginal woman dies of `natural causes’ in custody

In August, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. She was being held for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu complained, some say screamed and begged, of intense pains. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died, in the emergency room, within 20 minutes. It is reported that she never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.” That wasn’t enough.

Ms. Dhu joins a long line, actually a mob, of Aboriginal women who have died in custoday in Australia. In 1982, 40-year-old Nita Blankett was in custody for driving under the influence, a six-month stay. She complained of pain, became distressed, was ignored. Finally, and too late, she was dumped into an ambulance, where she died en route to the hospital.

In 1989, 38-year-old Muriel Gwenda Cathryn Binks died in custody. She was in for non-payment of a $30 fine. She complained of severe pains. No one listened. For 22 hours, she received no medical treatment. Muriel Binks died of multiple organ failure … for thirty dollars. That was the going price for an Aboriginal woman’s life in 1989. It hasn’t gone up.

The stories pile up; the women’s bodies pile up. People gather in protests and demonstrations, as they did today across Australia. The family calls for an inquiry. The State at first refuses, then relents. Elected officials promise action. Everyone is shocked.

Two years ago, Maureen Mandijarra died in custody. As of yet, there’s been no inquest date set. The police report, two years later, was only recently turned over to the coroner.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal women are increasingly destined for incarceration. In the last year alone, incarceration rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have skyrocketed 18%. The government “response” is to cut funding Indigenous legal and family violence prevention services. Aboriginal? Woman? Need help of some sort? Have we got a place for you … prison.

Twenty-five years ago, commissioners looking into Muriel Binks’ death concluded, “the time for tolerance of such official neglect and complacency has passed.” Not.

Australia, like the United States, Canada, others, has invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying.

A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women’s bodies, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. Another world is possible … and it requires more than an endless cycle of “discoveries” followed by commissions.

 

(Photo credit: Jade Macmillan/ABC News)

Florida built a special hell for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution

On October 9, Michelle Tierney, 48, died. On October 1, Latandra Ellington, 48, died. On August 22, Regina A. Cooper, 50, died. On April 30, Affricka G. Jean, 30, died. All four women were inmates at Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution, and they are not the tip of an iceberg. They are just another part of the special hell Florida runs for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution. And they did not “die”. They were killed.

Both Affricka Jean and Regina Cooper died under suspicious circumstances, and both of their deaths are under investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office of Inspector General. They are classified as “active death investigations.” Despite that, neither death raised much of a fuss in Florida or elsewhere, except among the usual suspects. Otherwise, it was just another season in hell, and women’s bodies continued to pile up.

Then Latandra Ellington died … or was killed. Ellington had written her aunt a letter in which she said a sergeant, known as Sergeant Q, had threatened to “beat me to death and mess me like a dog”. A few days later, Ellington was `discovered’ dead in a confinement cell.

Other inmates have written letters, anonymously, in which they describe, in detail, guards’ sexual exploitation, violence, and torture of inmates. They describe a culture of pure sadism, in which women are beaten for sport, and then intimidated into silence. At some level, none of this is surprising. It’s the story of Alabama’s special hell for women, Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, translated to Florida.

The twist at Lowell is that recent evidence suggests that Latandra Ellington’s death, or murder, was part of a power struggle … between two factions of corrections officers. Lowell Correctional Institution is being ripped apart by a gang war between gangs of guards.

Ellington’s autopsy shows blunt force trauma to her abdomen, consistent with having been beaten.

Michelle Tierney, who died last week, was killed slowly. Tierney was scheduled to be transferred to another prison on October 30, in preparation for her release from prison in January. She was so close to getting out. By all accounts, Tierney was a model inmate, a friend to all, a mentor, and a teacher of basic to advanced reading and writing. So, what happened?

For most of her fourteen years in prison, Tierney had been in good health. Recently she started complaining about leg pains. According to a friend of Tierney’s, she said she was suffering from so much pain in her legs that she couldn’t walk and was always crying. She went to the infirmary day and night, and, day and night, was turned away with a “diagnosis” of arthritis, get used to it.

When Michelle Tierney was finally taken to the hospital, her feet were blue, she had cysts all over her body, she was in septic shock, she had a fever and suffered from pneumonia.

That’s how it is in hell. Your choices are a quick tortured death or a slow tortured death, both accompanied by terror, horror and indignity. None of this is new. None of the violence, terror, horror or indignity against these women is new. Maybe, just maybe now, at last, someone, like the Department of Justice, will do something. What they won’t do is bring back the women who have been systematically murdered in the Lowell Correctional Institution in Florida.

 

(Photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections)

How women in jails die: Another world is possible!

Michelle Mata lives in San Antonio, Texas, and she lives with mental illness. Until recently, that meant living with the near certainty that at some time she would need help, and, instead of help, the police, with no training in mental illness treatment or crisis intervention, would be called: “Mental illness is the only disease that when you’re in a crisis, the cops are called. You’re having a heart attack, you don’t call the police … I’m a mother. I’m a sister. I’m a friend. I’m a volunteer. I’m all these people. I contribute to my community, and I have a mental illness. My diagnosis is major depression, with psychotic features, dissociative identity disorder, and panic disorder … I want to be treated the way you want your mother to be treated if she was ever diagnosed with a mental illness. If I’m in a crisis, you know, I’m in a crisis, and I don’t, I don’t understand what’s going on around me.”

It’s a common story, an American story, happening every day across the country, and with dire results. Women in crisis “resist arrest”, are handcuffed, shackled, and sent to jail. And then what?

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report yesterday on mortality in local jails and state prisons from 2000 to 2012: “The number of deaths in local jails increased, from 889 in 2011 to 958 in 2012, which marked the first increase since 2009. The increase in deaths in local jails was primarily due to an increase in illness-related deaths (up 24%) … Suicide continued to be the leading cause of death in local jails”.

Among women prisoners, from 2000 to 2012, suicide was the most common “unnatural cause of death”. In 2000 and 2001, 91 women died in jail. In 2012, 122 women died in local jails. Starting in 2003, the number of women dying in local jails has never dipped below 111. That’s a minimum 22% mortality increase … and rising.

From 2000 to 2012,1457 women died in local jails. Of that number, 312 committed suicide and another 172 died of drug or alcohol intoxication.

On any average day in 2012, 100,000 women were in local jails. That’s up from 68,000 in 2000, and from 2000 to 2005, the numbers stayed well below 100,000. Today, 100,000 is the norm. The “good news” is that the suicide rate among women in jail has gone down from 30 out of 100,000 to 25 out of 100,000. But more women in jail are dying of suicide, and if you throw in drug and alcohol intoxication, it’s a crisis.

Most women in local jails are awaiting trial or are being processed. Twenty some years of zero-tolerance `urban redevelopment’ have combined with the gutting of mental health services to create today’s perfect storm of suicide and self-harm by women being held in local jails.

San Antonio decided to go another way. About a year ago, the San Antonio Police Department instituted a Crisis Intervention Training program for its police officers, and Michelle Mata is one of the trainers. Since the program went into full effect, officers have not used force even once on someone in crisis. People in crisis are going to treatment centers rather than jail. People living with mental illness and people living with people with mental illness report they are leading better lives. Another world is possible. Ask Michelle Mata.

What do you mean, sterilized without consent?

Last week, California formally banned forced and coerced sterilization of women prisoners … again. Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill No. 1135 into law. The bill reads, in part: “This bill would prohibit sterilization for the purpose of birth control of an individual under the control of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation or a county correctional facility, as specified.” Not forcing sterilization on women prisoners seems pretty straightforward. Some would even say a no-brainer.

And yet, this law took a lot of brains, and muscle and organizing and history.

The quick story is that the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed, last year, that the California prison system had coerced women prisoners into 4sterilization. Lawmakers, and in particular the California Women’s Legislative Caucus, called for an investigation. A State audit showed that between 2005 and 2013, 144 tubal ligations were performed on women prisoners. At least 25% of these had no evidence whatsoever of informed consent. Most of the others were dicey. 88 of the women were Latina or Black, and 6 were “other”. All of the women, one hundred percent, had been jailed at least once.

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson wrote the bill. She worked with Cynthia Chandler, co-founder of the prisoners rights group Justice Now. They worked with former prisoners, such as Kelli Dillon, who could confirm the allegations and, more importantly, put a human face on the story. When the bill was presented, it passed unanimously, thanks to the great work of great investigative reporters, community organizers, legislators, and current and former women prisoners.

The law’s back-story raises many concerns. Between 1909 and 1964, California had compulsory sterilization laws that targeted people of color, the poor, the disabled, those living with mental illnesses, and prisoners. About 20,000 men and women were sterilized without any pretense of consent. Forced sterilization laws were officially banned, by the California legislature, in 1979.

Prison doctors and administrators found loopholes in the ban, and they were back in business, and the only possible witnesses are `unreliable’. After all, they’re repeat offenders, many with low levels of formal education and many with “too many children.” And they’re women, mostly women of color.

In Maryland, when State Delegate Mary L. Washington discovered that women prisoners were being shackled in childbirth, she replied, “Wait. What do you mean, shackled?” When she learned that shackled meant shackled, she launched what she figured was a no-brainer, a ban on shackling women prisoners in childbirth. It took two years of lots of brain and brawn to get that no-brainer passed.

These crimes by the State succeed because the population at large has been persuaded, for decades, that these women are the problem, and it’s best to leave the problem to the experts, prison doctors and prison guards. That’s how we’ve ended up in a world of what-do-you-mean.

In California, members of Justice Now are organizing an education campaign for current women prisoners and another for former prisoners. We all need that education. What do you mean, sterilized without consent? What do you mean, shackled?

 

(Photo credit: CDCR via Common Dreams)

England’s vicious assault on women awaiting trial

Around the world, people suffer the overuse of pre-trial detention. Too many people are kept for too long, often in violation of national Constitutions and laws. Second, too many people are kept in prison lock-ups, which are not equipped to handle diverse populations. This often means children are held with adults; men and women are held in the same space; remand prisoners and convicted prisoners are held together, and the list goes on. It’s a global crisis, and it’s getting worse by the day.

In England and Wales, this presumption of guilt has particular gendered aspects:

In England and Wales, about a third of men and half of women remanded to pretrial detention are poor enough to receive council housing benefits. … In England and Wales, half of men and two-thirds of women who were employed at the time of arrest lost their jobs as a result of their pretrial detention.”

While the ratios may not be shocking, they bear reflection. How does the so-called criminal justice system, and the State of which it is an ever-growing part, address the gender imbalance? How does the State respond to half of the women being in need of assistance and two-thirds of the women workers losing their jobs as a result of pre-trial detention?

A 2009 report noted that, in the preceding decade, the number of women in English and Welsh prisons had increased by 60%, compared to 28% for men. Much of this rise was due to revised sentencing rules, or better, the intersection of the State will-to-incarcerate and the political economic war on women. Here’s what that looks like.

Between 1997 and 2007, there was a 40% increase in the number of women in prison awaiting trial. In the same period, men prisoners awaiting trial decreased by 11%. More than 40% of women prisoners awaiting trial have attempted suicide at some point in their lives; for men that number is a little over 25%. Nearly two-thirds of women remand prisoners suffer from depression, a figure far higher than that of sentenced women prisoners. Half of all women on remand receive no visits from their family (for men, that number is 25%).

An earlier report by the Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales noted that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, 65% of women had lost their jobs because of detention, and only 11% expected to have a job on release. This compared with 51% of men losing their jobs and 18% expecting to have a job upon release. Between 2000 and 2009, the numbers for women only worsened.

For decades, British public policy has wreaked havoc on women’s lives by eliminating mental health assistance, severely limiting housing and other forms of assistance, and increasing and intensifying “opportunities for arrest”. More women are arrested, held, receive little to no proper attention, receive little to no preparation for trial, lose their jobs, communities, support network, and, often, lives, and for what? Who has benefited from this decades long vicious assault on women’s lives? When innocence is gutted, who profits?

Jamila Bibi and the high price of compassion

On Tuesday, September 16, Jamila Bibi was deported from Canada to Pakistan. The story is straightforward, and then again it’s not. Jamila Bibi is 65 years old. In 2007, Bibi fled her home. She says she was accused, falsely, of adultery. If convicted, Jamila Bibi could face death by stoning. Bibi went to Canada and applied for asylum.

In 2009, her asylum case was heard. Negar Azmudeh, who presided over the case, concluded that Jamila Bibi was a credible witness, that there was ample evidence that she had been unjustly accused of adultery, and that if convicted she would face death by stoning. However, Azmudeh reasoned that since Jamila Bibi’s husband had not filed for divorce, she was not only still married but under the protection of her husband. It was her husband’s uncle who had filed the adultery charges. And so Jamila Bibi was denied asylum. She did not have enough money for a lawyer, and so did not immediately appeal the decision.

Three months after the 2009 hearing, Bibi’s husband filed for and received a divorce. That action did not change the decision. Bibi has been working in Saskatoon as a cook. She reported dutifully every week. She made friends, some very dear, such as her employer Sahana Yeasmin.

In 2012, Bibi had enough money set aside to approach a lawyer, who immediately appealed the case. Again, Bibi reported every week. Two weeks ago, on her regular visit, she was informed she was to be deported. She was immediately taken into custody. Less than a week later, she was deported to Pakistan. According to Sahana Yeasmin, Bibi, now in Pakistan, fears for her life and is in hiding. Yeasmin reports that Bibi is thankful for the support and remains hopeful that she will be able to return to Canada and to her life in Saskatoon.

Jamila Bibi’s story, up to now, is painful and terrible, but Canada’s story, in many ways, is far worse. How is it that an adjudicator can say that despite credible and ample evidence, a woman accused of adultery is safe because her husband has not divorced her? How is that no one applied compassionate grounds to keep Jamila Bibi in Canada? Where exactly is the intersection of the rule of law and the exercise of compassion, in particular in asylum cases? Surely, these are the exceptional cases that test and prove the rule.

As Nida Shahzeb wrote, “What evidence are they talking about? Did they expect Jamila Bibi to pull some strings even though they know she does not come from privilege back in her village? Or do they expect her accusers to now shower her with petals at the airport? What makes this action of the Canadian government different from the numerous acts of brutality in Pakistan? Is Canada to be held accountable if Jamila Bibi is killed in Pakistan, a country which has a continuing history of honour killings?”

Why did Canada ship Jamila Bibi back to Pakistan, perhaps to a slow and painful death? Because she wasn’t worth keeping. As a woman, a woman of color, an older woman, a woman worker of meager means, she simply didn’t have enough value for the State to be bothered. In the global asylum and refugee marketplace, the price of compassion for such women has become prohibitively high.

Aurora Anaya-Cerda, Isabel Martínez and the Casa Azul-ULAMP book drive

Around the world, women understand that caring is both personal and individual, on one hand, a global, on the other. They understand that there must be person-to-person caring, intimate relationships that are also connected, intimately, to large issues and larger campaigns for justice and well being. Meet Aurora Anaya-Cerda and Isabel Martínez, two women who refused to be haunted and insist that a better world is possible, right here, right now.

Aurora Anaya-Cerda is the founder and owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore, in East Harlem, open as a brick and mortar enterprise since 2012. Here’s how Anaya-Cerda describes the project: “In the height of the economic meltdown of 2008, Aurora Anaya-Cerda founded La Casa Azul Bookstore, an online resource promoting children’s literature, educational programing and literature by Latino writers. In the Fall of 2011, Aurora ran the ’40K in 40 days’ campaign and successfully crowdfunded for La Casa Azul Bookstore. With the financial backing of 500 funders – La Casa Azul Bookstore opened in El Barrio on June 1, 2012.”

When Anaya-Cerda heard and read about the child migrants coming into the United States, and way too often into detention centers, she immediately leapt into action. She contacted her close friend, Isabel Martínez, who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and runs the Unaccompanied Latin American Minor Project, U-LAMP: “U-LAMP (Unaccompanied Latin American Minor Project) focuses on providing academic support to recently arrived immigrant minors, or newcomers, who are presently in deportation proceedings. Working in conjunction with Safe Passage Project, U-LAMP interns (all CUNY students) work with the youth and their families to assist with finding proper educational programs in New York City including traditional and alternative educational services as well as social support.”

Anaya-Cerda and Martínez decided that one thing the children newcomers would both want and need would be age- and language-appropriate books. Along with age and language, the two paid close attention to situation and context. Children in immigration detention don’t necessarily want books about being migrants and being in detention. To the contrary, they want books about being and becoming. They want the same books all children their age, across the country, want.

And so they have organized a book drive for the kids. They set a goal for how many books they hoped to send, and that goal was far exceeded. They set a goal for how much money they hoped to raise to ship the books, and that goal was far exceeded. Each book has a project name plate, so that each child knows the book is hers. Each book is accompanied by a personal note from someone somewhere, someone touched by the situation of these 90,000 children and by the project. Those cards came out of community education forums organized by Anaya-Cerda and Martínez.

This is neither a big nor a little story. It’s not about the scale, it’s about the doing, the making it happen. As Anaya-Cerda explained, “That’s what you do. It’s really part of what you do. Our resources, collectively, is what made it happen.” Part of what you do is who you are. As Martínez notes, “My grandmother was a 15-year-old pregnant teenager when she crossed in 1918, and if she hadn’t crossed, I wouldn’t be here. This is part of the story of the United States.”

In Colombia, the Butterflies’ bravery beyond words

In 2010, in the Colombian Pacific port city and environs of Buenaventura, a small group of women decided that enough was too much. Too many women were suffering violence at the hands of too many armed groups. Too many children were being assaulted. Too much violence was becoming the air and water of everyday life in Buenaventura. And so they set out to create a space of healing. The started a group, a movement really, called “Red Mariposas de Alas Nuevas Construyendo Futuro”. The Network of Butterflies With New Wings Building the Future.

Today, they number around 120. One hundred twenty women go out each day and meet with women and child survivors and organize. They mobilize as they empower, yes empower, the women to, first, resist the violence, both internal and external, and then to turn the swords into ploughshares. This movement began with just a few women, like Gloria Amparo Arboleda and Mery Medina. Today, it includes women organizers and leaders such as Maritza Asprilla Cruz, Fabiola Rodríguez Salazar, Loira Cecilia Rosero, and many others.

Today, the United Nations recognized the Butterflies with the Nansen Refugee Award. In awarding the prize, the UN representative said, “Their bravery goes beyond words.” Yes and no. Their bravery is in words and deeds. As Gloria Amparo Arboleda explained, “Denouncing violence here is a risky business. But somebody has to. Besides, here you risk losing your life whether you put up a fight or not. It’s better to die fighting.”

Here’s how the Butterflies describe themselves: “We are a network of women and organizations that work to defend the rights and quality of life for women in Buenaventura, bringing tools for the eradication of all forms of violence against women. The `Butterflies with New Wings Building the Future’ envisions a Pacific region free of all forms of violence against women, contributing to the formulation of public policy, the formation, investigation and intervention for the visibility and eradication of this problem in the entire zone of Buenaventura.”

The Butterfly women work towards complete transformation. They intend to do more than heal individual women and children, although that would be accomplishment enough, and they have already worked closely with 1000 families in their short four-year history. They aim to transform Buenaventura, Colombia’s new horror capital, into a place of peace that will inform the rest of the country, the national government, every single household in the country, and the world.

Their work is precisely not bravery beyond words. Their work is the work of ordinary women everywhere, who address the violence and, first, say no more, and then work, every day, to heal, to create peace, to build the future … today.

The scale of India’s “one small incident of rape”

According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, in 2013, there were, nationally, 33,707 rape cases, up precipitously from 24, 923 in 2012. New Delhi suffered the highest incident of rape, accounting for 1,636 cases in 2013. That’s up from 706 in 2012. Mumbai, Jaipur and Pune, the next three cities with the highest reported incidents of rape, together had 754 rape cases in 2013. In 2013, in 13,304 of the reported cases, the victim was a minor. In 2012, that number was 9,082. Finally, in 94% of the cases, the offender was “familiar to the accused”: a parent, neighbor, relative other than parent, or someone else. 94%.

These numbers are beyond disturbing.

Last month, India’s Finance Minister Arun Jaitley raised a storm of protest when he reflected, “One small incident of rape in Delhi advertised world over is enough to cost us millions of dollars in terms of lower tourism.” The “one small incident” was the 2012 gang-rape and murder of a young woman, now known as the Nirbhaya case. Nirbhaya means fearless.

When protests exploded all around him, the Finance Minister regretted his words, and, of course, the ways in which they had been “misconstrued”. As witness to his recantation, the formal, published version of the Finance Minister’s talk removed the word “small.”

While the diminishment of a terrible event of violence against a woman, and of violence against women, was horrible, and according to many of the responses and critiques much worse, the reduction of sexual violence to an economic equation is equally problematic and wrong. If the `one small incident of rape’ only cost, say, a thousand dollars, would it then be fine? Would it then not be a matter of concern for India’s Finance Minister? Is finance exclusively and only a matter of hard, cold cash, and curiously that of other nations?

There are calls – from the victim’s family, from women’s groups, and from the general citizenry – for the Finance Minister to resign. It’s not enough. Words of repentance and regret are fine, but they do not suffice. Arun Jaitley is part of State power. He has been for years, both in the opposition and now in Cabinet. Let him and his colleagues say less and do more. If they feel they must talk, let them say, publically, that as members of State they take full responsibility for the 33,707 women and girls.

But the place to show real remorse is in the national budget. Invest in those organisations in India that are sisters to organisations such as Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust in South Africa, organisations made up of women and men, made up of individuals and communities, hard at work at the coalface of sexual violence. Incidents of reported rape rose 35% in one year. Raise the budget for prevention of sexual violence and for care for survivors of sexual violence by 70%. Don’t talk about the millions of dollars lost to “one small incident of rape.” Instead, invest in stopping violence against women. Be fearless.

 

(This is part of a collaboration between Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust and Women In and Beyond the Global. The original, in a different version, can be found here. Thanks to the staff and volunteers at Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust for their great and urgent work.)

Mary Hounga’s victory is a victory for all women workers everywhere

At the end of July, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom handed down its judgment in the case of Hounga (Appellant) v Allen and another (Respondents), In their unanimous decision, the Court decided to protect and strengthen the rights of women workers, and in particular of migrant and immigrant women workers, irrespective of legal status. It’s a great decision and an important victory for women everywhere.

Lord Nicholas Wilson, Justice of the Supreme Court, explained the case and the Court decision as follows. On 28 January 2007, “Mrs. Allen” brought “Miss Hounga”, aged around 14, into the United Kingdom on a visitor’s visa. Miss Hounga is described as illiterate. She had lived with Mrs. Allen’s brother in Lagos. Miss Hounga was brought into the United Kingdom under two false claims. First, her age was listed as 20. Second, she was claimed as the granddaughter of Mrs. Allen’s mother. Miss Hounga was “aware” of the false pretense. She knew that she could only stay for six months and that she could not legally work for pay.

Miss Hounga, illiterate and 14 years old, “entered into a contract” with Mrs. Allen to help with Mrs. Allen’s children. Miss Hounga never received any pay, nor was she ever allowed to attend school. Further, Mrs. Allen verbally, emotionally, and physically abused Miss Hounga, and repeatedly threatened her with prison, explaining that since she was “illegal”, if she were caught on the streets, she would go to jail. Miss Hounga lived under these conditions for a year.

On 17 July 2008, Mrs. Allen pushed Miss Hounga out of the house, locked the door, and that was that. Miss Hounga was found by someone, who took her to Social Services.

Miss Hounga sued Mrs. Allen for discrimination, since she was brutally mistreated because of her Nigerian nationality and her unlawful immigration status. The Employment Tribunal agreed with Miss Hounga and demanded that Mrs. Allen pay compensation. Mrs. Allen appealed the case, claiming “the defense of illegality.” That is, Mrs. Allen claimed that since Miss Hounga was working illegally, she could not sue. The Court of Appeals agreed with Mrs. Allen.

The Supreme Court unanimously reinstated the Employment Tribunal’s decision. For two of the Justices, “the defense of illegality” did not hold, and so that alone sufficed to throw the appeal out. For the remaining three, the more compelling argument was that Miss Hounga had been trafficked. They argued that the public policy of maintaining the integrity of the legal process was secondary to the public policy of opposing trafficking and protecting the rights, if not the well being, of vulnerable people. To accept Mrs. Allen’s claim of “defense of illegality” and to refuse Miss Hounga’s appeal would be, in the words of Justice Wilson, “an affront.”

Anti-trafficking activists and others have hailed this decision as an important step forward. The immigration status of a worker has no bearing on the labor rights of that worker, including the right to sue the employer in court. In the United States, women understand that courts matter. In South Africa, women understand as well that judges matter. And in this decision, in the United Kingdom, Mary Hounga, who as a child labored in virtual slavery in someone’s house, has demonstrated that courts matter, judges matter, justice matters, women and girls matter. All women. All girls. Always.