• Saturday, April 13, 2024
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Unseen, unheard: Inspiring inclusion for confined women

Unseen, unheard: Inspiring inclusion for confined women

Behind the walls of Keffi Correctional Centre, where the bitter scent of captivity lingered, I met Blessing Ogah—a quiet middle-aged lady who was referred to me for legal support by the welfare officer of the prison. Blessing’s tale began with a heart-wrenching loss: the death of her 7-month-old baby.

The realisation that she had infected her poor baby with the disease that killed him pierced her soul. Blessing’s anguish was not the HIV raging inside her. I saw a woman who had longed for a child for nine years, broken by the deceit of a husband harbouring a secret—a clandestine battle against the same virus that now ravaged her body.

Read also: Nigerian Prison: Reps seek adequate feeding of children born by inmates

With fury coursing through her veins, Blessing confronted the betrayal, unleashing a tempest of emotions upon her unsuspecting husband, who had been secretly using anti-retroviral drugs for about 3 years. In the wake of her righteous fury, fate intervened with a heavy hand, casting her into the confines of a prison cell.

“In many crimes, and especially in the Nigerian context, victims of crimes face barriers to accessing justice.”

Like Blessing Ogah, a considerable number of incarcerated women have also experienced victimisation, shaped by intersecting factors such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or gender identity. They have a history of trauma, including experiences of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, which have profound and long-lasting effects on their mental health, well-being, and life choices.

In many crimes, and especially in the Nigerian context, victims of crimes face barriers to accessing justice. When the crime is linked to sexual and gender-based violence, the barriers are usually exacerbated by societal stigma, limited access to support services, a further decline in their socio-economic status, silencing their voices, and perpetuating cycles of trauma and exclusion.

Failure to adequately attend to the needs of victims not only erodes confidence in our justice institutions but also contributes to the predictably increasing incidence of criminal activity among women. World Prison Brief reports that, since 2000, the number of female prisoners has increased significantly faster than that of male prisoners, even though the number of incarcerated women across the world is low compared to men. The proportion of men incarcerated is about 22 percent, compared to a nearly 60 percent increase in the number of women and girls. In prison, these women are not only silent but also unseen.

The theme “Inspire Inclusion” for International Women’s Day suggests a focus on promoting and encouraging the active involvement, participation, and recognition of all women, regardless of their background, identity, or circumstances. The UN theme “Invest in women, Accelerate Progress” is actionable.

For victims of crimes, this means investing in a justice and social development system that prioritises and protects all their rights.

For incarcerated women, it means ensuring that their voices are heard and their experiences are acknowledged within the broader conversation about women’s rights and empowerment.

It calls for efforts to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create opportunities for all women, including those who are often marginalised or forgotten, to fully participate and thrive in society.

To do this in Nigeria, we must implement already existing policies that support alternatives to incarceration, such as diversion programmes, restorative justice initiatives, and community-based interventions as provided for in the Nigerian Correctional Service Act and Bangkok rules.

Across the world, we must consider the enactment or implementation of policy changes that address the root causes of women’s involvement in the criminal justice system, including poverty, prior victimisation, and gender-based violence. Criminal justice officers must understand trauma-informed care, and facilities must be equipped to provide appropriate mental health services and support. Resources must be invested to expand access to support services for all justice-impacted women.

Finally, we must recognise the intersecting identities and experiences of incarcerated women, including race, ethnicity, gender identity, and socioeconomic status. Centering intersectionality in advocacy and policymaking ensures that solutions are inclusive and address the unique needs and challenges faced by these diverse groups of women.

Oluwafunke Adeoye is the Executive Director, Hope Behind Bars Africa. She is also a Commonwealth Scholar, University of Oxford.