Feb 14th — Not all hearts and roses

When you think about the 14th of February, you might envision red roses, romantic dinners and maybe even lonely hearts. However, over the past 20 years, V-Day has also represented a global movement bringing attention to issues of violence against women and girls. This is an issue that is particularly relevant to Australians. As Our Watch Chairperson Natasha Stott Despoja declared in 2018, it is now a national epidemic. In Australia, just over one woman a week dies at the hands of a current or former partner according to the Australian Institute of Criminology’s 2017 study.

In 2019 V-Day is focusing on women who are, or have been incarcerated, their experiences and why their stories must be told.

In my role at Marie Stopes, I am often working with our funding team to support women with complex psycho-social needs to help them access our sexual and reproductive health services. I felt that I needed to better understand the pressures they face, outside the boundaries of healthcare. So as part of my postgraduate studies in Law, I enrolled in a Clinical Legal Education class and took the opportunity to volunteer at a local women’s community legal service supporting women with criminal law matters.

As a volunteer, I was astounded by the increasing numbers of incarcerated women and both the variation and similarity in their circumstances. The number of women in prisons has been growing considerably for some time. According to ABS data, the number of women in prison in Australia has increased from 1,957 prisoners in 2008 by approximately 85% over a decade to 2018 (3,625 prisoners). Globally the rate at which women are imprisoned has increased by 53% since 2000 according to an analysis in the Worldwide Prison Report by researchers at Birkbeck University’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research in London.

As a society, we may have a bias towards thinking that women from lower socio-economic settings and vulnerable populations may be more likely to end up in prison, however, the reality that I saw is much more complex. Evidence indicates that drug abuse underlies many of the offences committed by women, but the trigger for drug use for many of the offenders that I met is a lifetime of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, the effects of which are often undiagnosed and go untreated. This abuse leads to not only trauma in that woman’s life, but also often affects her children and family dependents.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies released a 2012 publication addressing women’s victimisation histories in custodial settings and found that women enter prison with less serious criminal careers than men and that there were high rates of sexual abuse and other abuse/assault histories. It found that the prison system can, in fact, exacerbate trauma for women with a trauma history. That’s why this year, V-Day 2019 is focusing on conversations addressing women in prison and detention. V-Day is calling for five actions to combat the issues affecting the rising trend of incarceration rates for women including:

(1) Access to college education in prisons

(2) Sentencing reform so that punishments are less severe and more focussed on rehabilitation

(3) An end to solitary confinement

(4) Access to therapeutic programming, and

(5) Honouring the rights of incarcerated parents and their children.

I would also add that access to appropriate medical care, including mental and sexual and reproductive healthcare is essential in supporting women, and that appropriate funding for services in culturally appropriate and diverse methods of delivery is key to the challenges faced in Australia and globally.

Need help to support women?

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.

In an emergency, call 000.

Sisters Inside is a dynamic organisation that supports criminalised women and girls, and their children, both inside and outside prison. You can make a tax-deductible donation online.

The Law and Advocacy Centre for Women (LACW) provides mostly free legal advice and representation for women. You can make a tax-deductible donation to LACW online.

The Marie Stopes Australia Choice Fund supports Australian women experiencing financial and other pressures, such as living in rural and remote areas, to access contraception and safe abortion care. You can learn more on their website. Tax-deductible donations can be made online.

Jamal Hakim is Chief Operating Officer of Marie Stopes Australia. You can find him on Twitter @therealjamalhakim and on LinkedIn

Marie Stopes Australia is a non-profit organisation and Australia’s only national, independently accredited safe abortion, vasectomy and contraception provider helping women and men take full control of their reproductive lives.

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MSI Australia is the leading, accredited, national provider for abortion, contraception and vasectomy.