TODAY marks International Women’s Day, and this year’s theme encouraged activists to ‘be bold for change’.
Clearly, this call to action could apply to a range of policy areas in which women are still treated as an afterthought. The gender pay gap is yet to be eradicated, workplace sexism is still a common phenomenon, and the burden of welfare reforms falls disproportionately upon women. These are significant challenges, but for me, they are eclipsed by additional matters of life and death.
Readers will be only too familiar with the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is fast approaching one year of detention in Iran. Her case has provoked outrage, locally and nationally, due to the conditions in which she has been held and the secretive charges upon which they are ‘justified’.
In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Bangkok Rules to address the rights of women in prison. It was the first international instrument to explicitly address the different needs of female prisoners, and to outline safeguards for the children of imprisoned mothers. The rules apply throughout all stages of the criminal justice system, including before sentencing and after release.
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her daughter Gabriella
One rule states that ‘Disciplinary sanctions for women prisoners shall not include a prohibition of family contact, especially with children’. Another adds that women prisoners’ contact with their families shall be facilitated by all reasonable means, especially for those detained far from their homes. Nazanin’s case has seen a wilful flouting of the rules at each and every stage.
Iran has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and supported the Bangkok Rules. It is therefore incumbent upon our Government, as an aspiring torchbearer of human rights, to bring Iran to task for these breaches. However, this would be made easier if Britain fully complied with the Bangkok Rules ourselves.
For one, the Rules emphasise the need to account “for the high levels of abuse suffered by women in the criminal justice system”. The 2012 decision to removing legal aid for family law cases is not consistent with that ethos.
They also state a preference for non-custodial measures to deal with women’s offending. Ten years after Baroness Corston published her Review of Women with Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System, the Government must ask itself what progress has been made in meeting its conclusions.
One pressing conclusion was that that women’s centres were far more suitable means to addressing female offenders. The Ministry of Justice’s statistics show that women’s centres have a significant impact on reoffending, reducing cases by an estimated 9 per cent. Yet we know that the All Party Group on Women in the Penal System argued as recently as November 2016 that women’s centres are “at risk of becoming a thing of the past” – due to insufficient funding.
That is why I wish to use International Women’s Day 2017 to urge the Government to provide the funding where it is necessary and to bring British practice into line with the Bangkok Rules. Doing so will give us unimpeachable credibility when challenging members of the international community, such as Iran, who flout the rules to a much more severe degree.