Women Lead Network Joins CSUN’s Criminology and Justice Studies Students and California Coalition for Women Prisoners to Highlight Human Rights Abuses facing Women Prisoners during the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women at NGO/CSW 67

On March 15th, during the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York, Women Lead Network hosted human rights defenders and advocates in a virtual parallel event. We are honored to join you all today to highlight critical human rights abuses experienced by women in the U.S.   Denice Labertew and Kimberly Wong along with students from the California State University, Northridge Criminology and Justice Studies Department, joined Diana Block from California Coalition for Women Prisoners to discuss the forced sterilization of women in detention settings and the criminalization of self defense for survivors of gender based violence. Women Lead Network is a collective of women who work to ensure that women’s needs are central in discussions about world problems and that they are engaged as leaders in solutions to those problems.  This includes all who identify as women, as well as femme, gender nonbinary and other birthing folks.  

Excerpt from the event: “Although decreasing in size during the pandemic, The U.S. still has the largest carceral system in the world.  According to their own data,  the U.S. incarcerates more than 1.2 million people, not including those in immigration, juvenile and Pre-Trial detention which would push the carceral population to significantly over 2 million.  While only 10% of the prison population are women their incarceration rates have increased 2-4x faster than their male counterparts over the last 3-4 decades due to the gendered effects of carceral schemes like the “war on drugs”, mandatory arrest policies for domestic violence and the criminalization of sex work.

Parallel to this landscape is the dwindling of access to bodily autonomy for women, femme identified and gender non-binary folks.  While the criminalization of abortion in a post Roe society and the criminalization of gender affirming care are two examples, access to bodily autonomy has been precarious for many American women for decades.  Reproductive justice advocates have raised the red flag long before Roe became law in 1972 and have noted that Roe, while a critical tool to provide important access to reproductive care,  had significant gaps that prevented women across a cross section of vulnerability from accessing true reproductive freedom most specifically poor women, women of color, trans women and other birthing people, incarcerated women, undocumented women, disabled women and the list goes on.

This is why we are raising these issues here today on a platform that looks at the implications of human rights abuses on women and strives to intervene in and rectify the devastating impacts.  

Recently I was asked what is meant by the term “Criminalization of Gender” that we use in the title of this event.  This is an excellent question and I thought it might be a good place to start our discussion today.

Criminalization is the process that society uses to determine criminality or what and who should be punished by the state (meaning government).  Criminalizing gender means that criminality or  punishment is distributed along gender lines.  For example, if we look at the increased criminalization of abortion at the state level since Roe V Wade has been overturned, those who will be, and are, disproportionately impacted are women (or other folks who can get pregnant).  Another example is the impact of the “War on Drugs” .  While it has been framed as a neutral policy it has had a disproportionate impact on low income women and women of color.  It’s also important to recognize that existing focus on sex work as a crime has a disproportionate impact on women (including transwomen).  The phrase “criminalizing gender” shines a light on the usually invisible experiences of women in the criminal legal system.   

Criminalizing can also describe the ways in which specific punishments get connected to certain types of crimes or prisoners.  The issues we’ll be raising fit into both of these categories.  

First: We’ll be highlighting the human rights abuses experienced by incarcerated women (and other birthing people) who have been subject to sterilization procedures without their full consent.  Many have gone to prison medical personnel with complaints ranging from period cramping to between period bleeding and emerged from Medical having been completely sterilized without consenting to the procedure.  When justifying these procedures, egregious excuses were given that it would “save taxpayers money since these women would likely end up incarcerated again or on welfare”.  This would be considered a way that a specific “Punishment” might be targeted at women.  Let’s not forget that because the carceral system is also racialized and classed that these women are disproportionately women of color and poor women

The U.S. played an integral role in developing the U.N. Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and their 2015 revisions The Mandela Rules and yet, as noted previously, incarcerated women are subjected to medical procedures that were unnecessary and unconsented to.  The U.N.’s Committee against Torture has acknowledged denying abortion care can result in “physical and mental suffering so severe in pain and intensity as to amount to torture”, and the same can be said of non-consensual sterilization.  Additionally, the U.S. has an obligation under the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (The Bangkok Rules) to ensure that incarcerated women are treated humanely and are provided appropriate healthcare which includes the same standard of care available to women on the outside.  Informed Consent is key to the appropriate provision of healthcare and is a standard of care that prisons have failed to provide many incarcerated women.

The second issue we’re looking at is what we might call “criminalized survivorship” for survivors of gender-based violence.  Domestic violence survivors, sexual assault survivors, human trafficking survivors are often prosecuted for “fighting back” or what we’d more appropriately call “resistive violence”.  Their sentences tend to be much more significant than the sentences received by those who are abusive or who are traffickers (abusers 2 years manslaughter, victims 15-life homicide).  Also, these survivors may be charged and prosecuted for crimes like defending their children, taking their children when they leave an abuser, engaging in sex work to support themselves so they don’t have to return to an abuser…and of course, immigration violations due to the inhumane crossover between immigration and the criminal legal system.  Because of the gendered nature of these types of victimization, this impacts disproportionately women, both cis and trans.

International customary law lays out the reality faced by survivors of gender-based violence and recognizes that this is a global issue that is being addressed around the world.  The U.S. has regularly implemented laws that recognize and criminalize a variety of forms of gender-based violence, including the Violence Against Women Act, but continue to fail to meet their obligations in protecting women from these harms.  Additionally, while the U.S. has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which explicitly requires states to protect women from gender-based violence, it is a signatory obliging it to act in good faith towards CEDAWS’ ratification and to follow it’s guidance until that ratification is secured.  If the United States met its obligation to protect ALL women from gender-based violence these survivors would not need to engage in the actions that resulted in their incarceration.  Additionally, the first rule under the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders is to KEEP WOMEN OUT OF PRISON including eliminating pre-trial detention and increasing the use of post-conviction sentencing schemes that are gender sensitive.  If the U.S. were meeting its human rights obligations most survivors of gender based violence would never  be incarcerated.

We will hear today from students at California State University, Northridge’ Criminology and Justice Studies Department, Human Rights, Crime and Justice class who have been studying these issues and will share their findings related to the U.S human rights obligations in addressing or preventing the topics I mentioned earlier.

We’ll also hear from the folks who are doing the heavy lifting of abolition and working to protect their sisters’ human rights.  Diana Block from the California Coalition of Women Prisoners will share the work of those directly impacted by these abuses and their programs to resist the ever-increasing impact of the Prison Industrial Complex on women 

While women’s resistance movements have been an equitizing factor in gains made for women, we also recognize that we cannot fully engage in a true discussion and advocacy for women without also understanding the impact of trauma both interpersonally and systemically.  On an interpersonal level, trauma from gender-based violence, including that violence perpetrated by the state, can impact the way that women respond to incidents of abuse and affect their self-perception. At a systemic level, living with sexism, racism, homophobia and misogyny and within carceral settings can have an insidious effect on women’s lived experiences and world view compounding their reactions to interpersonal trauma.  Kimberly C. Wong, LCSW, and expert in trauma resilience, will help us to understand the impacts of trauma on women who experience gender based violence, including carceral violence.

Finally we’ll give you an opportunity to develop your own understanding of the problem and to engage as an accomplice in dismantling the systems that have caused these abuses during  a “community conversation” where we can share ideas and ask questions to develop your own plan for action to address these harms.  .

Again, we thank you for joining us and look forward to our shared learning and advocacy.”-Denice Labertew, J.D., Master of Human Rights

A transcript of the event is available here