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

How the corporate university exploits sexual assault

Sexual assault happens on university and college campuses.  It happens a lot.  More often than not, women are on the receiving end of this violence.

How does the university respond when it becomes aware of such violence?  It responds with blaming and insulting survivors, with bogus advice about not drinking alcohol, and with purposely underfunding resources for survivors.  One way or another, the university removes itself from the narrative and responsibility, and places the work of preventing sexual assault on individual students, often individual women.

This is institutional violence, the violence that flows from institutions like the university through the active neglect of certain groups deemed extra, or surplus.  The story of institutional violence is the story of a crisis, and that crisis is a lack: a lack of institutional responsibility, a lack of proper safety measures, a lack of proper resources for survivors, and a supposed lack of a proper amount of time for the university to put together a proper response.  The university actively creates these lacks, crises, and violence.

Stories of sexual assault and university neglect repeat, campus to campus.  These cases of sexual assault appear to fit the model of the “crisis ordinary,” when crisis is everywhere and inescapable.  The crisis ordinary gives the university the excuse to hide behind resources it fails to provide or else provides paltry, inadequate sums.  The crisis ordinary of sexual assault lets us see the inherent instability in the university’s bumbling, ineffective responses to this violence.  It also allows us to re-narrate the crisis, and the new narration might go something like this:

There are women who have been sexually assaulted.  These women do the work of finding and utilizing resources for survivors, the work of telling and re-telling their stories, and the work of demanding accountability from the university and its administration.

The university increasingly wants diversity.  But it has not provided adequate resources to survivors of sexual assault and further pressures survivors to do their own work of coordinating resources.  Then, the university shows its cruelty by insulting survivors for not following “widely accepted” advice.  Within the supposedly diverse community of the university, survivors and their labor are produced as victims, as extra, as surplus, as valueless, as the university backs away slowly.

The university passes off the actual work of diversity, of maintaining a safe and inclusive community, onto survivors of sexual assault—and it makes a profit!  It diverts the savings from this unpaid work to projects that are in its real interests: accumulating as much capital in as little time as possible.  The university is not merely the university, but the corporate university.

The corporate university appears diverse through the spectacle of branding, but this hides the violence underneath: the violence of sexual assault, the violence of workers’ rights abuses on its ever-expanding campuses, and the violence of producing women, people of color, LGBTIQ people, disabled people, and others as key members of its so-called diverse community at the same it produces them as victims.  None of this is shocking—it’s business as usual, ordinary business, for the corporate university.

To abolish institutional violence, we must abolish the farce of the institution that is the corporate university.  It is in organizing for abolition that we find alternatives.

 

(Photo Credit: Nicholas Mirzoeff)

Soni Sori haunts more than India

Soni Sori

Sometimes the colonizer becomes the colonist. For some, this is what has happened to India, specifically as regards land grabs in Ethiopia and elsewhere.

But the transformation doesn’t stop at “colonialism”. Colonialism is more than settlers and mass and brutal extraction of other peoples’ natural resources. Colonialism involves imperialism, empire building, and not only abroad. Welcome to Chhattisgarh … again.

Chattisgarh has been in the news the last few years for a series of “curious adventures” on the part of police, security, and military forces, responding to a purported Maoist “crisis”. Binayak Sen spent three years and some in prison, for no real reason. Earlier this year, Ilina Sen, a prominent feminist scholar and activist, was charged with organizing an international Women’s Studies conference without proper registration of “foreign nationals.” Kopa Kunjam, a Ghandian human rights and development worker, has also been in prison for years for similarly spurious reasons. Himanshu Kumar worked for almost two decades in the jungles of Chhattisgarh, teaching the poorest of the poor how to vote, how to access better food and any health care. His reward? His ashram was burned to the ground, two years ago. As is so often the case, when security forces occupy a zone, they bring sexual violence as part of the package. For women, the price of national security is high.

And so is the price of national “wealth”. Ask Soni Sori, recently arrested last week in Delhi, shipped back to Chhattisgarh, interrogated there, and sent to hospital yesterday, unconscious and with back and head injuries. Police claim she slipped in the bathroom There’s no real evidence against Soni Sori, nothing that actually links her with any Maoist group or identifies her as a Maoist. Instead, there are “suspicions.”

What is going on in Chhattisgarh? The State would tell us that these stories are part of the larger “security” narrative, that there is a Naxalite, or Maoist, emergency in Chhattisgarh that necessitates the infamous state of exception. Dangerous times require dangerous men … with even more dangerous guns and techniques, including torture.

This is not a story of “poverty”. Rather it is a story of wealth. Chhattisgarh is rich in resources, has an extensive forest, and a large tribal population. The women of Chhattisgarh historically have enjoyed a unique position in India … and beyond. The population is more or less equally divided between women and men. Women have participated in every aspect of agricultural production, of labor, and of public life. Chhattisgarh is a place in which gender equity and female subservience have always been in tension.

With the arrival of the global market, that tension has increased. The areas women dominated, in particular that of food security and food sovereignty, don’t carry the same value in a global economy. Both multinationals and the national government have given men positions of authority in the new economies.

Soni Sori is a primary school teacher. Thanks to “security” campaigns, Chhattisgarh has one of the lowest literacy levels in India. State security forces and their paramilitary brethren occupied schools. Then they were attacked by Maoists. The State then closed the schools and moved them to State-controlled areas. For village children, those are impossibly distant areas, both in miles and in culture. And so, literacy levels, never high, plummeted. And what is the shining solution? Build a residential complex, even further away, for the few high school students who are preparing for engineering and medicine.

The rest, and especially the girls, can simply work the fields, build the roads and bridges and malls, watch the distance between rich and poor grow greater and greater, and more and more violent. This is the crisis in Chhattisgarh. Chhattisgarh doesn’t need more troops. It needs more teachers, more schools, more women like Soni Sori. Soni Sori haunts more than India. Soni Sori haunts the world economy.

 

(Photo Credit: Tehelka / Garima Jain)

 

Instead of Women’s Day, What About Women’s Enjoyment of Freedom Day?

 


In South Africa, August 9 is National Women’s Day, and August is Women’s Month. This August, the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, a South African women’s rights and well-being organization has a simple and direct question for everyone, “So just how real are women’s rights?”

They began, publically, to answer that question yesterday, August 11, with a new report, “The Right & The Real: A Shadow Report Analysing Selected Government Departments’ Implementation of the 1998 Domestic Violence Act and 2007 Sexual Offences Act”. On one hand, the answer paints a dismal picture. Only 8% of police stations meet their obligations under the Domestic Violence Act. Compliance would include helping a victim to find shelter and obtain medical assistance, serving notice on an abuser to appear in court, arresting an abuser who breaks a protection order, and, critically, keeping records of domestic violence. Failure to comply means misconduct, and should result in various forms of sanction and punishment. It hasn’t. Police stations ignore their responsibilities with impunity.

In 2007, 57% of police stations were compliant. Now … less than 8%. That’s not a drop, not even a steep drop. That’s a nose dive.

The report focuses on the failure of the South African Police Services and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (which includes National Prosecuting Authority), as well as the Departments of Health, Social Development and Correctional Services. The press has covered this failure as a failure to protect women and women’s rights, which it certainly is.

But Tshwaranang’s analysis goes far beyond the failure to protect.

The real of women’s rights is more than, bigger than, and more profound than “protection”. The real of women’s rights is freedom, and specifically the enjoyment of freedom:

“South Africa’s Constitutional Court makes it clear that, `few things can be more important to women than freedom from the threat of sexual violence.’ So important is this right to be free from all forms of violence that, along with the rights to life and dignity, it imposes two sorts of duties on the state: the first obliging the state to refrain from acting in ways that infringe on these rights, and the second compelling it to develop legislation and structures guaranteeing those rights….It is not only sexual violence that constitutes a rights violation of the sort requiring state intervention: `Indeed, the state is under a series of constitutional mandates which include the obligation to deal with domestic violence: to protect both the rights of everyone to enjoy freedom and security of the person and to bodily and psychological integrity, and the right to have their dignity respected and protected, as well as the defensive rights of everyone not to be subjected to torture in any way and not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.”

Imagine a South Africa in which all women are free to move around as they please, dressed as they please. Imagine a world in which all women are free to move around as they please, dressed as they please. Imagine a world in which democracy means the enjoyment of freedom. Instead of celebrating Women’s Day, what about Women’s Enjoyment of Freedom Day?

 

(Photo credit: Halden Krog / Times Live)

Violence against women haunts independence

 

Egyptian men and women in one hand

“After the revolution”. In Egypt and Tunisia, women who made the revolution, women who pushed Mubarak out, are now facing the struggle for more rights, autonomy, and physical safety. This should come as no surprise to the rest of the so-called independent world.

Yesterday, August 6, Jamaica celebrated 49 years of independence from the United Kingdom. There were celebrations. At the same time, sexual violence against girls is both increasing and intensifying.

Across the African continent, August is celebrated as Women’s Month. August was chosen to commemorate the August 9, 1956, women’s march in Pretoria, in protest of the infamous pass laws. The women chanted, shouted, screamed: “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!”. “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock!”

That was 55 years ago. Today, the women are still being `touched’, and in the most violent ways. Across the nation, campaigns, such as the One in Nine Campaign, and organizations, such as the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust, struggle to address and end violence agains women. Organizations such as Free Gender struggle to address and end violence against lesbian, and in particular Black lesbian, women. All of these women’s organizations, all of these women, all of these feminists, struggle to address and end the hatred that is rape.

In many places, such as in the United States, that hatred often takes the form of legislation. For example, in 2005 Wisconsin passed a law that barred access to hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery for prison inmates and others in state custody. Three transgender women prisoners, Andrea Fields, Jessica Davison, Vankemah Moaton, challenged the law, and this week, after six years, won their case in a federal appeals court.

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, the nation’s capital, transgender women are hunted, attacked, often killed. For the crime of being transgender women. For the crime of being women.

What is independence? What is a revolution? Across the globe, women continue to struggle for the basics of independence, of autonomy. That begins with real recognition, that begins with the State as well as the citizenry and the population ensuring women’s safety. Women are not specters and are not promises to be met. Until women’s simple physical integrity is ensured, rather than promised, violence against women will continue to haunt independence.

 

(Photo Credit: NPR / STR / AP)

What will be our King trial?

As a teenager, I remember listening, watching, and wondering about the outcome of the Rodney King criminal trial. When the jury acquitted three of the four Los Angeles Police Department officers, and couldn’t determine guilt or innocence of the fourth officer, I felt anger, loss, and hopelessness. The riots that ensued in the greater Los Angeles area, although horrific, seemed justified in my teenage mind. A black man, savagely beaten by four white officers, all caught on candid camera.  An injustice unpunished.

Flash forward to 2009. Two then-New York Police Department (NYPD) police officers were called to assist a taxi cab driver with a drunk female passenger. The police officers assisted the female to her apartment, and then one of them allegedly raped her, while the other stood guard. Last week, a jury acquitted both police officers of sexual misconduct and falsifying business records. This verdict comes on the heels of the International Monetary Fund’s then-Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest and arraignment of committing several sex crimes towards a hotel maid.

As a lawyer representing sexual assault survivors in civil legal court, I have profound respect for the theoretical implications bolstering the legal system. Yet, in practical terms, the justice system seems unfair in sexual assault cases where, unlike in other cases, victims are met with profound skepticism by the trier of fact. Indeed, as one juror mentioned after the NYPD trial, the need for physical evidence that a rape occurred – which isn’t necessary in all criminal cases to reach the government’s burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt” – is often the linchpin.

What makes the Rodney King trial and the NYPD Rape trial interesting is a common thread: both victims were highly intoxicated. With the NYPD Rape trial, the questions were always “where is the DNA,” and “how can we believe a woman who doesn’t remember.” With King, the looming question was “is this a just way to act.”

To me, these are strikingly different questions to crimes where police abuse and power had similar lasting physical and emotional effects on the victims and the community at-large..

The acquittal of abusing a man, turned into race riots. It became a symbol of those in power versus those not in power, abuse of authority, police brutality, and historical implications of slavery.

The acquittal of raping a woman turned into social networking outrage, with change.org petition, Twitter and Facebook posts, a protest in front of NYC’s courthouse, and an attitude that this is another trial added to the long master list where the victim’s credibility was questioned and then destroyed, with the perpetrator walking away with nothing but a bruised ego.

Although I condemn riots and strongly believe in non-violence, I ask, where is our, female, feminist King-like response to this trial? Where are the boycotts, the outward anger and rage? Where are the speeches, the opinion pieces, and the gobbling of media airtime?

More importantly, where are the leaders of this movement who are willing to step forward and say enough is enough already?

Like the King trial shaped my understanding of the world, I wonder if and how the NYPD Rape trial is shaping the views of our youth.

(Photo Credit: The Villager / Jefferson Siegel)

Zimbabwe, Haiti, just go …

What are these lies?
They mean that the country wants to die.”

Haitians, Zimbabweans, everything at home is just fine. So say the United States and the United Kingdom. Everything is just fine and you must just go.

Except that everything is not just fine.

In Harare yesterday, Saturday, April 9, 2011, thousands met at a church service at St Peters Kubatana in Highfield. They engaged in a peaceful demonstration to pray for peace. They came together to pray to end the escalating violence in Zimbabwe. Police threw tear-gas canisters into the church, and when the parishioners and congregants ran out or leapt through the windows, the police attacked them, beating them with batons.

This is peace and unity in Zimbabwe today.

But, according to the UK, Zimbabwe is a-ok, so much so that it’s time to start deporting all those pesky `failed’ and `undocumented’ asylum seekers, people like Nyasha Musvingo. Musvingo fled Zimbabwe after her husband was beaten, tortured, and then died as a result. She knows she can’t return, because of `the situation’.

The UK would disagree. Last month, on March 14, the most senior immigration judge in the country, Mr. Justice Blake of the Upper Tribunal (Immigration and Asylum Chamber), ruled that Zimbabwe is fine. The violence is over. People need not live in fear in Zimbabwe nor need they fear returning. So what if disappearances, indefinite detention, torture and violence have returned and are on the rise? Zimbabwe is `safe’ enough.

Likewise, in Haiti, everything is not just fine.

In Haiti, high levels of violence continue. Rape is epidemic. Over a million people remain homeless. Everyday, the so-called temporary camps seem to become more and more permanent. Cholera is on the rise. A recent study suggests that by November the number of cholera cases in Haiti will be close to 800,000, and the number of deaths will reach a little over 11,000. The crisis is worsening in Haiti.

The United States would disagree. This week, the United States government announced it has formally resumed deportations to Haiti. Haiti is `safe’ enough.

Cholera is on the rise in Zimbabwe as well.

In 2008 – 2009, in large part due to the intensification of political violence, Zimbabwe suffered a cholera epidemic that killed over 4000 people. Close to 100,000 cases were reported, and, according to a recent report, a rapid response, once the 400 cases were reported, would have reduced the number of cases by 34,900, or 40%, and the number of deaths by 1,695 deaths, also 40%. Why was nothing done, why were so many allowed to die? `The political situation.’

But that was then. This past Friday it was reported that over the last month, 36 people died of cholera in Manicaland and Masvingo provinces, in Zimbabwe. In the past week alone, 13 died, and the Ministry of Health notes that the death toll could be higher, as records are not up to date.

Sending people back to Zimbabwe is a death sentence. The United Kingdom would disagree … or would it? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office describes Zimbabwe:  violence on the farms, in the streets, random and targeted; abominable prison conditions; torture; and a culture of impunity. The most recent Foreign and Commonwealth Office Human Rights report, from 2009, paints an equally grim picture.

The Department for International Development describes the state as `unstable’. 25% of Zimbabwean children are described as `vulnerable’. Most live in households, and neighborhoods, built of poverty, HIV/AIDS and State violence. Well over half live in households headed by single women or girls. Of special concern are children living alongside incarcerated mothers and pregnant and breastfeeding women.

All of these statements come from United Kingdom government websites. And yet, somehow, Zimbabwe is now `safe enough’ for asylum seekers to return to.

Sending people back to Haiti is a death sentence. The United States would disagree … or would it? This past week the US State Department released its 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Haiti? “Alarming increases of sexual violence” against women and girls. Alarming increases of domestic violence. No effective agency to deal with sexual or domestic violence, and not much of a plan to do so. “Corrupt judges often release suspects for domestic violence and rape.” Often. LGBT persons face constant violence. The prisons are a hotspot for violence, torture, cholera, and worse.

All of this comes from the US State Department.

If the government of the United Kingdom finds Zimbabwe perilous and the government of the United States finds Haiti perilous, how is it possible in the same breath to determine that Zimbabwe and Haiti are `safe’? In both Haiti and Zimbabwe, the prisons are a nightmare. Deportees to both countries typically `return’ through an extended stay in prison. In both Haiti and Zimbabwe, cholera is on the rise, violence is epidemic, violence against women and girls is more than epidemic, and not only sexual violence.

Sending asylum seekers and prisoners to Zimbabwe and to Haiti is a death sentence. Whether the individual persons live or die matters … terribly. At the same time, the political economy of this moment is that the lives of Zimbabweans and of Haitians to the so-called democracies of the world are of no value. If you are Haitian, if you are Zimbabwean, you must just go. If you die, you die. If you live, perhaps you were fortunate, perhaps not. Either way, you are no longer `our problem’. Your country is `safe enough’. Just go.

 

(Photo Credit: http://www.marieclaire.co.uk)

State sexual violence haunts the world

Eman Al Obeidy burst into a hotel dining room in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday, and struggled to tell the story of how she’d been raped and beaten, for two days, by Qaddafi’s forces. She was then attacked, in the hotel dining room, and carried out. Journalists present were disturbed, as much by the treatment they witnessed as by Al Obeidy’s account. The latest report suggests that she is being held hostage at Qaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.

Salwa al-Housiny Gouda was one of the proud citizens of Tahrir Square, in Cairo. She was also one of seventeen women, arrested by the Egyptian army, imprisoned, tortured, stripped and subjected to a `virginity test.’

These women’s stories are critical to any understanding of the ongoing struggles in particular places, such as Libya, such as Egypt. They are also part of the treatment of women in prisons around the globe. There are more prisons and jails now then ever before, and women are the fastest growing prison population, globally and in many regions of the world. Across the world, nation states rigorously refuse to address sexual violence. At the same time, across the world, nation states build more prisons in which sexual violence against women intensifies and spreads.

From the United States to Jamaica to South Africa and beyond, rape kits sit unprocessed for months, some times years. In the United States, many cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have failed to process rape kits in a timely manner … if at all. When called to task for the failure, the administrations stonewall or, if forced to reform, drag their feet. Illinois just this past week passed a law “that will force law agencies to submit DNA evidence for testing.” They had to pass a law to make agencies process DNA. In New Jersey, also last week, the State legislature passed a law banning the practice of charging rape victims for the cost of processing the rape kits.

In Jamaica, rape survivors wait an average of two years for their attackers’ cases to be heard. In South Africa, the State has failed to adequately educate police about the appropriate procedures to follow in cases of sexual violence. Sometimes the training is a pro forma run through, with little follow up or evaluation. More often, there’s no training at all.

This is the state of the world. This state is made most manifest in the asylum and immigrant detentions centers. When the United Kingdom set up its fast track asylum processes, it did so with complete disregard for the women asylum seekers who are fleeing sexual violence. For example, one woman applied for asylum. She was part of a dissident movement in Angola, had been tortured, raped, and suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome, among other mental issues.  The first official to hear her case, in 2008, decided she was `lying’. She was detained at Yarl’s Wood, despite compelling evidence of both torture and mental illness. All part of the system.

This is just one of many such tales. The asylum system has been described as “simply not equipped to handle rape, slavery, the threat of ‘honor killings,’ or other complex claims”. The simplicity of being unequipped is this: the state chooses not to equip, because women, and especially women of color, don’t matter.

At the same time, women prisoners suffer sexual violence at the hands of prison staff. Jan Lastocy is a woman prisoner in the United States, and hers is a typical story. She was raped, repeatedly, by a corrections officer. The warden made it clear that any reports of problems tagged the prisoner as a troublemaker. Lastocy was a few months from release. For seven months, three or four times a week, the prison guard raped Jan Lastocy. Terrified and desperate, she kept her silence. Upon release, she reported the assaults, and now suffers a sense of great and intense guilt for her silence. According to recent US government studies, the vast majority of sexual violence committed in prisons is committed by the staff.

Prison rape is a human rights crisis in the United States today. It is a crisis in juvenile prisons. It is a crisis in women’s prisons across the globe. This crisis is not accidental nor is it exceptional. It is the crisis of predictable consequence. Rape today is being used in Libya as a weapon. That is terrible. Rape has been used, across the globe, as a tool in the construction of so-called criminal justice systems, in the construction of more prisons with more women prisoners. That too is terrible, and to continue to claim shock and surprise at the use of rape is unacceptable. State sexual violence haunts the world.

 

(Photo Credit: suzeeinthecity/ Mira Shihadeh and El Zeft)

 

Black women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day

BobbyLee Worm

Stacey Lannert grew up in the middle of the United States, in Missouri. Her father sexually abused her, starting when she was eight years old. On July 5, 1990, at the age of 18, Lannert walked into her father’s bedroom and shot him, twice, killing him. The `final straw’ was her father raping her younger sister. Two years later, in December 1992, Lannert was sentenced to life in prison without parole. In January 2009, at the age of 36, Stacey Lannert was released, thanks to the outgoing Missouri governor, Matt Blunt, who commuted her sentence: “After eighteen years, I was allowed to be Stacey Ann Lannert instead of Offender #85704. I’ll never completely shed the number, but I did start over.”

Wilbertine Berkley would like to start over as well, but the State of Florida has other plans.

In the United States, over five million people cannot vote because of past criminal offenses. One million of those people live in Florida. In one state alone, a million people who have served their time are disenfranchised. Of that million, almost 300,000 are African American.

Wilbertine Berkley is a Black woman in Florida who struggled with drug abuse, spent time in jail, turned her life around, joined a program, got clean, went to college, and gave back to the community in volunteer work. She was awarded the Presidential Volunteer Award. She did everything she was supposed to do and more, and the State response has been to `alienate’ her, to identify her as frozen in the past. Her good work counts for nothing.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, March 9, 2011, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency will vote on whether to make it even more difficult for former prisoners to be re-instated. The proposed change would include a five-year mandatory waiting period before being able to apply for `clemency’. Florida’s Attorney General sees this as a fight against entitlements: “I believe that every convicted felon must actively apply for the restoration of his or her civil rights and that there should be a mandatory waiting period before applying. The restoration of civil rights for any felon must be earned, it is not an entitlement…The burden of restoring civil rights should not fall on the shoulders of government, but rather it should rest on the individual whose actions resulted in those rights being taken in the first place.”

Wilbertine Berkley wants and deserves respect for who she is today, for who she has become, for what she has made of herself and of her world. She made a mistake. She worked hard. She paid her debt.

But for Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

Ask BobbyLee Worm. BobbyLee Worm is a 24 year old aboriginal woman prisoner in the Fraser Valley Institution, a Canadian federal prison that describes itself as “a multi-level facility for women…. Programs focus on the particular needs of women offenders, including Aboriginal inmates and those with psychological problems or learning disabilities.”

One of these particular programs is called Management Protocol.

Management Protocol is “a special program for handling women prisoners who have been involved in a major violent incident or threat of incident while in the system.” Established in 2005, seven women prisoners have been on Management Protocol. All seven have been aboriginal women.

Management Protocol is open ended, unrestricted solitary confinement. Twenty- three hours a day for as long as the prison deems `adequate’ and `necessary.’ How does one leave Management Protocol? One earns one’s way out. How does one earn? What are the wages? No one knows.

BobbyLee Worm entered prison June 7, 2006. She is a first time offender, sentenced to six years, four months. She has spent the majority of her time in segregation, paying off the debt of years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and trauma. For Black women, the debt of incarceration is the gift that keeps on giving.

These stories are typical of the conditions of women, and girl, prisoners around the world. Girls whose only `crime’ is being the daughters of asylum seekers, or of being born into oppressive communities, are stuck into detention centers, such as the Inverbrackie Detention Center in Australia. Once there, they suffer nightmares, turn violent, and refuse to eat. What is their crime, what is the debt to society that must be paid? They were born in Iran, they sailed to Australia.

Around the world, women of color, Black women, and their daughters, sit in prisons. Their debt grows incrementally by the second. Their numbers grow incrementally by the day. Today is March 8, 2011, International Women’s Day.  These women prisoners haunt International Women’s Day.

 

(Photo Credit: British Columbia Civil Liberties Association)

Protection: when the powerful offer protection, women know

The day after Obama won the Presidential election, The New York Times wrote that Obama won a decisive victory because “he saw what is wrong with this country: the utter failure of government to protect its citizens”. At the time, I wrote that protection was the wrong goal, that from India to Haiti to Zimbabwe to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Ciudad Juárez, and the Mexico-US borderlands more generally, the powerful offer protection to those they call citizens, and ignore women’s demands for democratic, full and mutual engagement, for the right and capacity to dream and love in public as well as in private. The powerful offer protection as a means to ignore women.

That was November 2009. It’s January 2010, time to consider, again, protection. Not the protection that follows mass devastation, such as in Haiti. Nor the protection that follows extreme violence, as with the massacre near Jos, Nigeria. Nor the protection of legislative and other forms of hate campaigns, as in the current anti-gay Bill in Uganda, where we are all being protected from the threat and scourge of same-sex love and sexuality.

Instead, consider two linked national – global moments in which the powerful few claim to offer the gift of protection to the citizens of the nation.

The World Cup is coming to South Africa. Across the country, “the question of how to deal with sex workers grows louder”. What exactly is the problem, the to-deal-with, with sex workers? Because sex work is illegal, the issues of health and safety for both clientele and workers remain insoluble, and the rights and well being of the sex workers remain distant: “Sex work is illegal in South Africa. Cape Town-based Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), has been campaigning to decriminalize sex work for the past 12 years, said spokeswoman Vivienne Lalu. 

Rights activists say legalizing sex work would protect the workers and their clients from HIV and abuse; there are moves afoot to review the Sexual Offences Act. But, Lalu says, `We are still some years away.’”

Legalizing sex work would protect the workers, not because the law, given by the powerful, would afford protection, but because the entire issue would move from the realm of sexuality to that of workers. Once sex work in South Africa, as anywhere, is legalized, sex workers can unionize, can create their own formal, autonomous, sanctioned spaces, alliances, affiliations. Workers, and especially women workers, don’t seek protection. They demand the right to association. They demand respect for the dignity of their individual and collective labor. That is the reason that the lead up to the World Cup in South Africa has been marked by so many protests. Across South Africa, the poors, largely women, have rejected the promise and offer of protection, in the form of forced removals for their own good, and instead have called for housing, public services, education, and health care.

The Olympics are coming to Canada, and so Canada, British Columbia in particular,  anticipates an increase in sexual assaults during the 2010 Olympics, and, of course, all the money has been spent on `security’. The buildings and international `visitors’ must be protected.

But British Columbia had enough money recently to outsource welfare-to-work to a company called WCG International HR Solution. WCG is a subsidiary of Providence Service Corporation, based in Tucson, Arizona. WCG billed the government for `no-shows’. This is business as usual. When you outsource `helping’, women and children are the first casualties. This is not new information. It’s been available to British Columbians since at least 2005, when Policies of Exclusion, Poverty & Health appeared, sharing stories of 21 women who did not seek protection but rather struggled and organized for change. Instead of change, they got the Olympics and the gift of protection: evictions, clinic closures, increased police presence.

When the promise of protection comes from the powerful, it is always fatal, first to women and children, then to everyone and every thing else. Women know the pitfalls of powerful protection. Women know, in their bodies, the economies of extraction, theft, exploitation and abuse. Change from below seeks material equality, space, time, and it begins and ends with women. Protection from the powerful is what it always has been, an insurance policy forced upon people by extortionists.

 

(Image Credit: http://sites.psu.edu/jld5710/2013/02/03/cartoons-are-a-powerful-medium/)