International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on how far we have come in valuing, respecting, and honouring the mana of women in our whānau, communities, workplaces and across the country.
As the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, I’m calling on all New Zealanders to hear the voices of women held in our justice system.
Incarcerated women are amongst the most disadvantaged in our society. Being imprisoned, many have already experienced economic deprivation, poor physical and mental health, addiction, severe trauma, a school system that may not have met their needs, discrimination and under-employment.
Many of them are survivors of family violence. Many are mothers, negotiating the stress and anguish of being a parent from inside prison walls. Many female inmates are far from their homes, making regular contact with whānau challenging.
Treatment of women in prison
International research has shown that most women do not pose a high-security risk, making restraints, use of force and intrusive body searches unnecessary, yet these techniques persist in our prisons, and wāhine Māori are disproportionately affected. For example, wāhine Māori make up 63 percent of all women in prison but account for 78 percent of those held in management units — the most restrictive form of solitary confinement, and for the longest time.
Treating our confined women with dignity is a basic human right. Recently, a district court judge described the experience of women in prison as “degrading” and “cruel”, amounting to a “concerted effort to break their spirit”. The ruling confirmed that women were forced to undress in the presence of male guards and could be denied toiletries and sanitary products.
Women in prison are often aware of their rights and do choose to challenge the conditions of their treatment. But they do so under very constrained circumstances and often face severe consequences. The same court ruling found that women in the Auckland Women’s prison set off sprinklers in their cells as a protest for the harsh conditions they faced, and their complaints being repeatedly ignored.
A Human Rights Commission’s report late last year found there is a need for greater action to uphold the dignity, health, safety and security of women in prisons and commit to better alternatives to detention.
Human rights are basic rights based on shared values such as dignity, fairness, equality, and respect. Our government has obligations under international law to ensure that no person in this country is ever subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Equal access to opportunities after incarceration
Ensuring that women who leave prison can access secure and decent work is vital.
As mothers, many women exiting prison face a familiar set of challenges to other women when trying to access decent paid work, including the need for affordable childcare and opportunities that accommodate their domestic lives.
Women in prison typically have limited employment experience and low levels of education. The Department of Corrections estimates that 60 per cent of women prisoners have literacy and numeracy abilities below NCEA Level 1.
Upon release, women are burdened with a criminal conviction, putting them at risk of further exclusion. Ensuring women in prisons have opportunities for skill development, training and education is crucial to the advancement of their human rights.
Women leaving prison need wrap-around reintegration services which are tailored to their needs, including the provision of sustainable pathways to education, employment, affordable housing, mental health, welfare and substance abuse support.
Transforming our criminal justice system
From a Tiriti o Waitangi perspective, transformational change means sharing power and resources by moving from a system that is punitive to one that addresses causes of offending, ensures accountability in a broader sense and restores mana.
We do this by upholding mana wāhine, women’s human rights, and tikanga Māori in the treatment of all people in prisons. This involves a greater emphasis on prevention to address inequalities and discrimination. It also means strengthening the social safety nets to empower women to overcome the disadvantages they face.
Now more than ever, we need to invest in a system that breaks the cycle of violence, poverty, discrimination, and abuse and gives women, their children, and whānau the best possible chance at living a life of dignity.
We all have a role to play as communities, employers, and the government to help our women back on their feet.
• Saunomaali’i Karanina Sumeo is the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.
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