On 2 July 2012, over 40 attendees representing parliament, NGOs, donors and partners gathered to celebrate the launch of two books by Dr Rani Dhavan Shankardass, Penal Reform International’s Honorary President and Secretary General of Penal Reform and Justice Association (PRAJA), India:
- Of Women ‘Inside’: Prison Voices from India and
- In Conflict and Custody: Therapeutic Counselling for Women
Baroness Vivien Stern, also Honorary President of PRI, began by welcoming those present and commenting on how impressive it was to have produced two books at the same time. She went on to say that a revolution was needed in the way women are treated in the criminal justice system.
Baroness Helena Kennedy spoke of her experiences working with women in the criminal justice system of England and Wales, and likened ‘the most riveting, terrible and extraordinary stories’ in Of Women Inside to those told by women around the world; women and womanhood are tested by the double standards of the law and of society, which are not the same as those for men. Punishment often extends, too, to the children for whom they are primary carers.
She feared that not enough had changed in the British system, and worried about the impact the reduction in legal aid would have on the most vulnerable, women who are already victims of society.
Dr Shankardass began by saying there was a historian in everyone and there was a history to the unfolding of criminal justice laws in India. She described the origins of the 19th-century Penal Code in India formulated by Lord Macaulay against the ‘chaotic’ legal backdrop at the time – a collage of the Hindu and Muslin legal systems, the regulations of the East India Company and the common law itself. A uniform system seemed necessary for the ‘equal justice’ that the British believed was an essential ingredient for the goal of law and order for effective State functioning. But the formal quest for equal justice did not address any of the real problems of inequality that lay firmly entrenched in society. Class, caste, region, religion and gender all had to be addressed with some understanding of the social fabric. One of the most complex of these inequalities related to women whose daily lives had been defied by cultural rules firmly put in place by patriarchal societies (Hindu or Islamic). These could not be written away simply by legal enactments. The tussle between the law and cultural realities continues to be played out and the women portrayed in the stories from prison voices from India tell it all. Reliance on the law as a sole factor for change in the justice that women get has clearly not worked well enough. Something much more was and is needed.
Rani Shankardass elaborated on the problems faced by women enmeshed by and in the criminal justice system in India where both an interest in and information about them is negligible. Incarceration is used as a quick fix according to rule books and laws without any study or observation of its adverse effects on the most vital of living realities for women and society – the family. With women being far less empowered to deal with their problems than their Western counterparts because of centuries of dependence, confinement and exclusion the equality that the law promises remains a dream.
Dr Shankardass gave an insight into several women whose stories feature in her work, describing their brutal treatment at the hands of the police, and their inability to cope with the prison regime that frequently led to their poor physical and mental health. She elaborated on the complex interplay between women’s ordinary lives and the law, and felt that to have equal justice women would need to have the kind of equality in society and consideration of their individual needs that makes equal justice more than a pipe dream.
Question and answer session
In answer to a question on what hope there might be for women in India, innovative measures addressing women’s special needs were mentioned. If open prisons of the kind that exist in some Indian States can be thought of as beneficial then other steps that enable women to rebuild their lives should be thought of for them. The Bangkok Rules and CEDAW were also cited as impor`tant frameworks for change, although it was often difficult for women to access information about their rights. It was agreed there should be better assessment at different stages of imprisonment as well as independent monitoring of places of detention. It was also felt that to change women’s lives in prison it would be necessary to get a grasp of the inequalities in their everyday lives. How their children are affected by imprisonment also needs a special focus, as they are often forgotten by the formal machinery of criminal justice. Lastly a comment was made on the need for women judges to promote equality, alongside more enlightened male stakeholders.
Alison Hannah (Penal Reform International’s Executive Director) thanked the panel for their inspirational speeches and expressed her delight that two of PRI’s Honorary Presidents and the Secretary General were present. The books show the human side to the work in law and statistics that all were doing and felt to be essential.
Further information on the books
*As at 31 July 2012 PRI has a limited number of both books at a reduced price – please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.*
Of Women ‘Inside’: Prison Voices from India (RRP £65, PRI price including UK postage £13) 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 after the PRI offer, please contact: email@example.com / publisher’s website
In Conflict and Custody: Therapeutic Counselling for Women (RRP £14.99,PRI price including UK postage £7.50) 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 after the offer, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / publisher’s website