I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh, from 1 to 4 May to develop PRI’s work in the South Asia region. Alongside meetings with the Chief Justice and Law Minister, PRI had also organised, together with our local partner organisation BLAST (the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust), a roundtable event on women and girls in the justice system followed by the launch of two books written by PRI’s Honorary President, Dr. Rani Dhavan Shankardass. The publications were Of Women ‘Inside’: Prison Voices from India and In Conflict and Custody: Therapeutic Counselling for Women (more on these and how to buy them at the end!)
The event was a great success, and thanks should be given to our partner BLAST who did a great job of organising the event. More than sixty people attended and the presence of Advocate Sahara Khatun, Hon’ble Minister, Ministry of Home Affairs, Bangladesh, ensured there was substantial press and media interest, with at least half a dozen camera crews in the room and several reporters.
There was an initial discussion on the topic of women prisoners and women in prison: Justice Imman Ali (Judge of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and PRI Board Member) opened the meeting; he was followed by Sara Hossain (BLAST Director); then myself (speaking on the Bangkok Rules), followed by a speech by a special guest, Ms Shireen Akhtar, President of the organisation Karmajibi Nari. Shireen had been in prison for 2 years about 30 years ago for her political work, and she recounted in harrowing detail her experience of imprisonment, from the time she was arrested, tortured in the police cell, taken to prison and tortured again (including administration of electric shocks and whipping), sent to the women’s wing of Dhaka Central Jail, and her treatment there. She is now a candidate in the Dhaka Mayorial elections, truly a remarkable woman.
Dr. Rani Shankardass spoke next and, amongst other things, made the point that to properly understand how prisons violate human rights one needs to go beyond simply looking at prison conditions and understand the context and the issues faced by individual prisoners. She made the point, later picked up on by the Inspector General of Prisons Brigadier General (retd.) Md. Ashraful Islam Khan, that there are always three agencies involved with, and inter-locked within, the criminal justice system – the police, the judiciary and the prison service – and it wouldn’t do simply to lay blame for problems and shortcomings only on the prison system.
The Inspector General in his presentation made several interesting points including the fact that conditions have improved a lot since the days when Shireen was imprisoned (a point challenged during the roundtable discussion which followed) and that, to improve conditions for women prisoners, interventions are also needed with and from the police and judiciary.
The Home Minister in her speech echoed the points made by the Inspector General saying things have improved although she acknowledged a lot still remains to be done.
Following the discussion Justice Imman Ali launched the two books by Dr. Shankardass’s, who then spoke about the relevance of their content to the discussion which had gone before. She stressed the importance of understanding context in women’s lives which is what has been set out in the several case studies contained in Of Women ‘Inside’, and also the importance of designing and implementing concrete programmes to help women in conflict with the law, highlighted in the book In Conflict and Custody: Therapeutic Counselling for Women.
A concrete outcome from the event was an offer from PRI to the Inspector General of Prisons and the Home Minister to help build capacity, working closely with BLAST, within the criminal justice system for treatment of women prisoners, through providing training especially to staff working closely with women prisoners, but also more widely through awareness-raising work with a range of agencies including the police and judiciary and including civil society. PRI is currently exploring a possible project design in collaboration with BLAST.
4 May 2012
More detail on the books:
Of Women ‘Inside’: Prison Voices from India narrates the real-life stories of women locked up in Indian prisons for alleged or actual violations of the state’s criminal laws. It contextualises women offenders’ experiences of the criminal justice system and of state custodial institutions within the larger narratives of their particular lives, thus interrogating the social as well as legal frameworks within which women face adversities in their lives and in custody. It argues that the sex and gender issues that affect women ‘outside’ are carried over ‘inside’, with extremely damaging consequences for the lives and mental health of women prisoners. The volume will be of interest to those in gender studies, legal studies, sociology, and human rights organisations, as well as to policy makers and the general reader.
To buy, please contact: email@example.com / click on the publisher’s website
In Conflict and Custody: Therapeutic Counselling for Women advocates for and recommends fine-tuned agenda-free professional counselling as the most constructive method of addressing the mental health issues of women in two problematic contexts in the Indian society – conflict and custody. The book imparts theoretical and practical guidance for trainers and would-be counsellors to equip them for therapeutic counselling of women faced with a range of personal, social and legal problems. It demonstrates how professionally conducted therapeutic intervention can be the most empathetic way of enabling and empowering distressed women to take charge of their lives.
To buy, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / click on the publisher’s website