A week or two ago, I came across this headline in St. Lucian news “Teenage Inmate At Bordelais Correctional Facility gives birth”. Unexpected, jarring and indicative of a number of social issues that are worth discussing. While the trend of mainstream feminism leans towards empowerment and other buzzwords unsupported by action or empathy towards the women who suffer most, there are clear feminist issues within our culture that an article such as this one brings to light…
1. Imprisoning Pregnant Women And Children Is A Human Rights Violation Regardless Of What the Colonial Legal System Says
Prison injustice is not unique to the United States; the headline and content of this article make that clear. Regardless of what the law states, as Caribbean women, we need to ask ourselves what could possibly make it just to imprison a sixteen-year-old who is already a mother? Is it just to imprison people under eighteen years old for what is a non-violent crime? Even if her crime was violent, is imprisonment just?
Women are villainized in our society from birth, especially black women. Is a sixteen-year-old mother of two really the villain in any story? Or is it more likely that she’s been victimized again and again by society at large?
Women’s liberation movements in the Caribbean need to start asking themselves about the relationship women as a social group have with the justice system and if there’s any room for that relationship to change. Is incarceration the solution to our social ills or can we acknowledge the positive impact prison abolition might have and seek alternatives? (Note: Just because YOU PERSONALLY haven’t conceived of alternatives doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.) I recommend reading this article about prison abolition, and learning how it differs from prison reform. Here, we see the potential for feminists to grow their perception of women’s liberation by adopting the ideals of prison abolitionists or at least entertaining the ideas.
Hopefully, as empathetic people, we can all agree that pregnant girls do not belong within the prison system. Doing so is an injustice to all women in our country and blatantly inhumane. Prison is not a place for girls. It is not a place for pregnant people. And it’s certainly not a place for someone to raise a child, “private quarters” or not.
2. Villainizing A Seventeen Year Old Woman Is Objectively Wrong
To be blunt for a moment, I don’t give a damn about violated court dates or the fact that the “WOMAN” in question was revealed to be seventeen. Sixteen, seventeen, it makes no difference. It’s still unjust to imprison a pregnant woman PERIOD, much less one who is under the age of eighteen.
The media and the government, both great bastions of the great sexism our country clings to for dear life, launched what is essentially an intellectualized smear campaign against the imprisoned GIRL, intended to justify her imprisonment despite the justified outrage.
Human rights are prioritized above laws, frankly… It was legal to own slaves. It was legal to rape slaves. It was legal to traffic HUMAN BEINGS. Sometimes, the law is barbaric, backward, and unjust. This is one of those times. At one point, it was legal to beat your wife. It’s still legal to beat and brutalize your children. Whether or not it is “technically legal” to put a pregnant GIRL in jail, it’s morally wrong. The media campaign to villainize the imprisoned girl further highlights our society’s desire to cling furiously to injustice and sexism for no good reason.
Women in our country are constantly abused by individuals and our society and this sort of treatment by the system and media further highlights this abuse. Women (especially poor black women) are denied victimhood at every turn. There is NO consideration that a TEENAGER with two children under the age of eighteen could ever deserve humanity. That is the mark of a twisted system in desperate need of change. NO not elite feminist round tables but DIRECT ACTION.
A quote from the article explores the cognitive dissonance here where government organizations are permitted more empathy than girls under eighteen. Let’s deconstruct this pathetic press release quote:
“The Department of Equity, Social Justice, Empowerment and Human Services and by extension, the Government of St Lucia, wishes to reiterate its commitment to the Care and Protection of all Children and Juveniles.
Any case, circumstance or action that compromises the well-being of our children is utterly disappointing and worthy of our effort. It is equally disappointing when individuals and organizations to cast aspersions- against those who provide support services to the island’s vulnerable population- on the basis of unfounded and erroneous statements and allegations.”
To this so-called Department of Equity etc. seems to think that calling them out for their unjust treatment of a GIRL is akin to the abuse that this CHILD has received. This highlights some of the points I’ve made previously about the vast delusion that fuels our government bodies here where they see themselves as being victims in situations where they are acting as oppressors. Our citizens have a RIGHT to demand better treatment for individuals and social groups.
“Casting aspersions” (Thesaurus fest 2016 apparently) is NOT the same as abusing human rights. They are NOT equivalent and this “department” deserves NO sympathy as all the VALID CRITICISMS are actually quite fair. Making a public statement AFTER your acceptance of human rights abuse has been publicly exposed is not the same as direct action in the public interest.
A department for social justice doesn’t have the role to uphold the status quo but to question the laws in place that would permit a pregnant seventeen-year-old CHILD to be imprisoned for any reason. Otherwise, they are best off changing the name of their department to something more fitting.
“Department of Sensitivity To Aspersions” rings a nice bell.
3. Black Women Are Denied Girlhood By The Justice System And This is Colonial Misogynoir At Work
Check out this link here about black girlhood. Attributing womanhood to a black person under eighteen is nothing more than an expansion of the racist “strong black woman” stereotype on a societal level. It would be naive to think that our colonial (and post-colonial) law writers weren’t operating from a racist perspective when deciding it was alright to imprison black GIRLS.
If we accept this is morally correct, there’s not much room for a “difference of opinion”. We are accepting then that it’s alright to deny black women the chance to be children. To be girls. To be perceived as valid and deserving of empathy and love. A GIRL who is seventeen years old, pregnant in jail and ALREADY the mother of one child has definitely been denied girlhood repeatedly.
I wonder why there are no questions about the father(s) of her two children. Are these men far older than a sixteen or seventeen-year-old? Are these men serving prison sentences for statutory rape? Are they suffering ANY consequences in their community or social group? My guess is, they are not. But the GIRL in question is being villainized by the Department of Sensitivity To Aspersions in the media because they refuse to accept that they could have done any wrong.
What would make our society just, empathetic and dare I say it, Christian (in PRACTICE) would be to eliminate injustice against this young girl who has now been publicly deemed a CRIMINAL on multiple counts. (Not just for her crimes but for daring to be seventeen and pregnant.) As a sexist society, however, I’m almost certain that no steps will be taken to ensure that young girls are not abused by the system or by the men and women in their communities. So as Caribbean feminists we must ask ourselves: Is this acceptable because it is legal?
Caribbean women need to start asking ourselves tough questions:
- What are we willing to accept?
- Who deserves protection in our society and why do we think only certain groups and social classes deserve protection?
- What direct action can we take to end injustice against women and girls?
- How can we deprogram our internalized sexism and misogynoir that allows us to justify the ABUSE of young girls by our justice system and government?
- How long will we sit around and crochet while we wait for our patriarchal government to decide women deserve liberation? When has that ever worked?
When you make your decisions about who gets to be deemed worthy of protection and love, let’s hope you can live with these choices. Additionally, let’s hope that when you decide certain classes ARE unworthy, you can handle those higher than you in our social hierarchy making such decisions about your own life and deeming you unworthy too.