Tag Archives: Legislation

International Women’s Day and VAWA Converge, Illuminating Progress and Struggles Towards Gender Equity

Credit: Dominik GwarekOn the eve of International Women’s Day – March 7 – President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act into law. And on March 8, folks around the world celebrated women’s achievements and ongoing struggle towards equality.

I find myself puzzling over the fact that there is no Violence Against Men Act, nor popular observance of International Men’s Day in the U.S. What does this inconsistency say about the genders? We’re not equal, but we’re trying?

The reauthorization, which first passed in 1994 with bipartisan support under President Clinton, recognizes to some extent the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault which disproportionately affect women. VAWA reauthorization did not pass easily this time around, and it got tabled a year ago amid bipartisan bickering over added provisions for Native American, LGBT, and immigrant victims. Those provisions made it into the now-law.

The VAWA reauthorization provides needed funding and services to victims of violence but doesn’t ultimately address the cultures of violence, the reasons women are often victimized, and why acts like rape continue to take place in high numbers throughout the world.

International Women’s Day derived from women’s labor struggles, which persist today. In a Christian Science Monitor article, Steph Solis quotes Carol Rosenblatt’s concern about the factory fires in Bangladesh that killed many female garment workers to demonstrate that women still work for low wages in poor conditions. In addition to freedom from violence and access to fair wages and work conditions, women around the world still fight for equal access from food and clean toilet facilities to maternal health care and parental leave after birth.

In the Guardian, a somewhat sour Suzanne Moore describes International Women’s Day events as, “a strange mixture of talking about female genital mutilation (bad) and then listening to some great women musicians (good).” Both of the Christian Science Monitor’s stories about the international celebration opened with descriptions of the Doodles designed for the day on the Google homepage (one of which makes the G out of the Venus symbol). I’m not sure of the value of Google’s recognition of the day, though it likely promotes awareness to those unfamiliar with the holiday.

Folks throughout the world celebrate International Women’s Day with different practices, some women get time off work, or additional help with housework from the men in their lives. This year in the U.S. women can take the day to appreciate ongoing support for victims of violence though the sentiment remains bittersweet – because the VAWA law and International Women’s Day serve as landmarks towards gender equity which inadvertently highlight the broad disparities that remain between men and women.

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Pregnant Inmates’ Rights and Stories

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAImagine you are pregnant. Nine months pregnant. And in prison. Imagine that when you go into labor, your escort to the hospital, an armed guard, insists on keeping your hands and/or feet shackled. Consider the implications of restrained foot movement for a top-heavy pregnant woman. Now, when you arrive at the hospital, in order to ensure that you will not escape (even though you are fully pregnant and having contractions), the guard then attaches you to the hospital bed by hand, foot, or belly restraints. Try to imagine how would you feel about that.

These restraints limit mobility for the birthing mother, which can normally help ease and facilitate the labor process. And the restraints can cause delays if she needs to be prepared quickly for a caesarean section.

The practice of shackling incarcerated pregnant woman is widely condemned by medical groups including the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric & Neonatal Nursing. It’s also been condemned by the United Nations in various treaties and documents, some of which the US has signed on to. But despite the condemnation of this kind of shackling, which is often framed as a type of illegal, cruel and unusual punishment, it still occurs.

Less than twenty states have laws against shackling inmates while giving birth. California just passed a law to forbid shackling a woman during “pregnancy, labor, delivery, and recovery,” reports Huffington Post. Even in states without such legislation, incarcerated women (and women who were held and not-yet-convicted) have been filing — and winning — lawsuits for their treatment during labor. A case like this was filed in Nevada this summer, reports Reuters. In September, The Tennessean ran a story about a woman receiving $1.1 million in damages from the metro government for the way she was treated while in custody and in labor.

Shackling during pregnancy is not only viewed as a violation of the Eighth Amendment (re: cruel and unusual punishment), but the UN has condemned the practice in their Bangkok Rules (on the treatment of women prisoners). In 2006, the UN cited the US for not maintaining the international standards that they signed on to when ratifying the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

This topic is new and rich to me, as I’ve been researching it for a term paper. I wanted to share my findings and tie them in with yesterday’s observance of the 2012 Human Rights Day. The theme of the day was “My Voice Counts,” which ties in so well with this anti-shackling group I found while digging around for my project.

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WORTH is a New York based group that lobbied for the state bill that prohibited shackling women in labor. The project expanded their reach to reproductive rights of incarcerated women throughout the US. They are currently collecting testimonials from women who have been incarcerated. The project is called Birthing Behind Bars. They have a website to host blog posts, videos, and audio stories about women who gave birth in shackles or had a range of other pregnancy or postpartum experiences in prison. They’ve even asked for stories about the prison nursery experience, for those women incarceration in institutions with nurseries (that is a topic worth its own post).

The broad range of stories sought by WORTH is a testament to the fact that shackled labor is not the only challenge for pregnant women in prison. Other hurdles including getting adequate nutrition and dealing with the emotional strain of separation from the baby. For women with mental illnesses (a disproportionate portion of the prison population) immediate separation from a newborn can be especially traumatic.

I am not advocating for reform, but as a journalist, I value the power of story-telling. And for the women with traumatic experiences as pregnant inmates, they deserve to share their story. Please comment with links if you have narratives to share.

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Disability Rights Garner Recent Attention, Debate

Despite … various instruments and undertakings, persons with disabilities continue to face barriers in their participation as equal members of society and violations of their human rights in all parts of the world – UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Preamble

Disability accessDisability Rights made headlines twice in the last two weeks. The Associated Press covered an extensive report from the National Council on Disability that identified people with disabilities continue to face bias, especially in regards to having and keeping children. And just a few days ago, 38 Republicans in the US Congress resisted appeals to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, reported the Washington Post.

This second story has received more coverage and extensive commentary as the US has a history with this UN convention, and the failure to ratify it has raised some interesting contradictions. But the two stories together feature the often-overlooked struggles that people with disabilities continue to face in the US and around the world.

The Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 and was signed by George H. W. Bush in front of a crowd. Then-Senator Edward Kennedy called it the “emancipation proclamation” for persons with disabilities. This document was a model for the UN Convention, which was crafted with assistance from George W. Bush’s administration and signed by Barak Obama in 2009. It’s had bi-partisan support until now. But the treaty is not ratified until congress signs on.

Veterans and disability rights groups and lawmakers who’ve served in the military made appeals to congress to ratify the convention, but resisters drew upon a few different arguments, including a fear that ratification would threaten US sovereignty, making us subject to UN oversight. Other commentators critical of ratification cited the financial cost of supplying regular reports to the UN as a roadblock.

I cannot speak to how much it costs to issue reports to the UN, though the US has ratified and follows the protocols of other UN treaties. These UN conventions are not legally binding, nor would they allow for the UN to intervene directly in domestic affairs, but they do create another level of accountability and oversight, in this case regarding accessibility, equality, and other rights of people with disabilities.

In the UN convention there is a section referring specifically to parenting and reproductive rights. It states that:

Persons with disabilities [can] decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and [have the right to] access to age-appropriate information, reproductive and family planning education… In no case shall a child be separated from parents on the basis of a disability of either the child or one or both of the parents.

These issues were a theme in David Crary’s AP article on disabled parents. If Congress were to ratify the convention, then parents and lawyers like those featured in Crary’s article would be able to draw on that document to support their cases. As it stands, those advocating for the rights of parents with disabilities can draw on the ADA and other human rights treaties, which some say is sufficient for the US and others continue to disagree. In any case, these issues have been raised to the level of national debate and the continued struggles of people with disabilities acknowledged, at least to some extent.

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Translating trans-prisoners’ rights to all

Transitioning from male to female or female to male is not an easy or inexpensive process. Considered by some insurance companies as an elective or cosmetic surgery, many transpeople must pay for gender reassignment surgery out-of-pocket and draw out the process over years. In many instances the process involves hormone therapy and surgical components.

The number of insurance companies covering sex reassignment surgeries is on the rise reported Huffington Post last December. Recent court decisions in Wisconsin and Massachusetts ruled that the failure to provide hormone treatment and other services constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. So if it’s a constitutionally mandated right for our prisoners to have access to transgender surgery, shouldn’t it also be accessible to law-abiding citizens?

The related Wisconsin case concluded in March of this year, and it began with a state law barring the medical care of transgender inmates. Lambda Legal and the ACLU challenged the state law in federal court and won in 2010. After being upheld in a court of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a subsequent appeal, securing the right for current and future transgender inmates access to appropriate medical care.

The recent decision by a federal court in Massachusetts focused on the right to surgery, discussing the medical implications of gender identity disorder. The fact that convicted murderer Michelle Kosilek (born Robert Kosilek) attempted suicide and self-castration demonstrated the gravity of the disorder and the requirement of surgical treatments. I do, however, worry about labeling all transgender people as disordered. Mental illness and trans-identities are both already stigmatized in the U.S.

Implementing these new rules will be complicated for prison systems, which operate on a strict gender binary. Officials in Massachusetts worried about the added cost and security required to care for a transfemale in a male facility. But just because an transition is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not important and necessary – just ask a transgender person.

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Three Different Tribes, Three Different Systems

Image by Salvatore Vuono

Amanda Rockman stood back from the podium during her keynote address, as dictated by her nine-month-pregnant belly. Rockman spoke at the Coming Together of Peoples Conference, just seven years after she graduated from the UW Law School

“I can remember being in law school and thinking, ‘Jeeze, I really hope that’s me someday giving that keynote address,’” said Rockman. “[I thought] when I go, I’ll have long, grey hair.”

Rockman, despite her lack of grey hairs, plays an important role in the Ho-Chunk tribe as an associate trial judge. Rockman presented about the Ho-Chunk Healing to Wellness Court, a drug court operated by the tribal judiciary that provides an alternative to prison.

The wellness court offers a non-punitive treatment that works to “restore traditional values,” explained Rockman. The Ho-Chunk Nation consists of pockets of land throughout the state, but the Healing to Wellness program serves native and non-native offenders in Jackson County.

The court has special jurisdiction allotted by the legislature, and the program includes community service requirements, cultural activities, education, and rehabilitation services.

The Ho-Chunk tribe has assumed more judicial responsibility while also developing their tribal police force. As Wisconsin remains a Public Law 280 state, the tribe is not allowed to prosecute felonies. Rockman and other Native American law specialists strive for more sovereignty for law enforcement and prosecution.

The Menominee tribe in Wisconsin regained full criminal jurisdiction over misdemeanor and felony crimes. Anecdotes from the Menominee prosecutor at the conference, however, made it clear that tribes with criminal jurisdiction are still working out kinks in their judicial systems. They still have limits on the length of sentenced prison terms as well as ongoing struggles with funding and staff support within tribal legal systems.

The Lac Courte Oreilles tribal police are co-deputized with the Sawyer County police. The tribal police address misdemeanors on the reservation while the county takes on the rest. Because of this relationship the tribal and county police can also work together.

Tribal communities maintain a balance of cooperation with and independence from local law enforcement and jurisdiction, and each tribe faces unique issues. Each tribe has different revenue, and while many of them have casinos for community income, geographic location often affects the success of the casinos. Location, funding sources, and relationships with local law enforcement all affect how tribes are able to address crime on their reservations.

Ho-Chunk’s drug court illustrates a tribal judiciary working to better the tribe and surrounding community through rehabilitation. The Healing to Wellness Court allows the Ho-Chunk to address the addictions that drive repeat crimes, rather than repeatedly provide the same punishments to the same offenders.

As CJ Doxtater, Oneida member and advocate at Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, explained, “we don’t throw our people away.”

Rockman outlined all the logistics and challenges that face the growing Healing to Wellness Court and touched on the growing responsibility assumed by the Ho-Chunk judiciary and law enforcement. Despite the challenges, Rockman felt good about gaining sovereignty for the tribal nation and working to improve the community.

“I think it’s really important for Ho-Chunk people to have the ability to become a part of our society, as opposed to just shame and guilt,” said Rockman. “What I’ve seen from the participants has been nothing but hope.”

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Tribes Fight Violence Against Women

Enjoy News from the Margins’ first podcast! M. Brent Leonhard, tribal attorney and supporter of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), presented on the impact of VAWA on tribal sovereignty. He spoke at UW-Madison for the Indigenous Law Students Association’s Coming Together of Peoples Conference on March 23, 2012.

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