Women like Mabel Gawanas – detained, dreams on hold

Tomorrow, the government plans to deport Mabel Gawanas, after months of seperation from her family and children.

Donna Riddington
20 April 2016
Yarls Wood Protest.jpg

Image: Indymedia

How does a woman prove that she is worthy of an opportunity to get on with her life, to live it to the fullest, in the way that she chooses? That is the question I came away with, leaving Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre (YWIRC), having visited women detainees.

I have never been to Bedford for any other reason, than to visit detainees or to protest on the outside of a three-to-four-meter-high wall, at a series of Movement for Justice organised demonstrations. Each time, our demands were to “Shut it down!” because Yarl’s Wood, and the nine other privately run detention centres across the United Kingdom, are places that inhumanely hold people for indefinite lengths of time. 

I have heard before, from people who have experienced indefinite detention, of how the vagueness of incarceration time led them to feel as though they were losing their mind. And people do lose themselves. No parameters on one’s detention means there is no tangible context of the system one is held within. Will you see your family again, your children? Will you be deported back to where you escaped from; back to the continual cycle of systematic abuse; the hands of abusers, the specific inhumanities unchecked or endorsed by society and the State?

As I waited for Mabel Gawanas, I spoke briefly with other women who relayed their deep, collective sadness at being held, not sleeping properly, poor diet, and depression. I was urged, by the duty guard that I must not speak with women who I am not registered to see. At this point, the artifice of the place was accentuated to me (sit in your padded chairs together, enjoy conversation, acknowledge the TV, watch the vending machines… but only speak as directed). I slinked off to a distant seating area, occasionally looking back at this group of sisters who emanated that they are absolutely there for one another, through their shared experiences of sadness and unknowing.

At the prospect of personal/social visitors and contact with people from ‘outside’, they were beaming with delight, eager to hear news and be disrupted from the usual tedium. While I waited, a lady with the widest, brightest smile dashed past me, toward her children who emerged with a guardian from the prison vestibule. All of us were transfixed as she smothered her bewildered boys in kisses, hugging them desperately – happiness spiked with pain. I took special note that beside this temporarily reunited family stood a series of cutout painted timber effigies of officials, holding hands via rope-arms. There were a couple of lady bobbies, a police sergeant man, a civil service office-jobber, a doctor, and other respected functional professions. Rather grotesquely, it is a fence of public servants, kettling the children’s play area, and each one symbolises the various industries that prop up the behemoth that is Yarl’s Wood: SERCO, NHS, Barnardos, and so on.

Mabel is due to be deported this Thursday, 21 April. There is a plane ticket with her name on it.

The HM Inspectorate of Prisons review of 2015 stated that there had been a significant increase in depression and feelings of suicide among newly detained women at YWIRC. Since a preceding review, this figure had risen to 49%. The report also highlighted a lack of trained staff, experienced in mental health. In January of this year, the damning Shaw Report expressed concern at the worsening of the immigration detention system. It warned against the overuse of detention and the damaging effects this has on a person’s mental health, especially on victims of torture. With regard to the indefinite nature of detention, the Shaw Report stated it was: “…almost universally raised as making people more vulnerable and for its impact on mental health.” Considering that Mabel’s term in Yarl’s Wood is just shy of the two-year mark, one can draw fairly cynical conclusions as to the timing of her proposed deportation. Mabel is due to be deported this Thursday, 21 April. There is a plane ticket with her name on it.

Mabel has been detained at Yarl’s Wood for 22 months, separated from her daughters; the youngest, not quite 7 years old (due to turn 7 shortly after Mabel’s scheduled deportation). Everything she and I speak of is hinged on her girls; how she knows they need their mother, and how she strives to maintain, remotely, some semblance of a relationship with both of them. Her family and romantic relationships have been shattered. There have been attempts to mend these back together, throughout this limbo situation, as best as people can manage.

Mabel is one among many-thousands of incarcerated women across the UK, failed by our justice system and a widespread public disbelief in women’s stories of abuse. Movement for Justice, Black Sox and Sisters Uncut are some of the drivers of a movement where imprisonment is a focal point with which to open peoples’ eyes to comprehending the inequalities women face in society, and how violent abuse and discrimination will shape the scope of a woman’s life, her state of mind, and her pattern of survival.

What a job there is ahead of us all, to understand, that complicated mental health issues are most often the result of a complicated past.

In Mabel’s case, her mental health issues link back to her sexual, emotional and physical abuse, as well as a childhood spent in servitude as the childminder and maid of her extended family, while still a child herself. To escape torture, she deemed it safer to flee for her life, to the UK, having made the excruciating decision to leave her firstborn with relatives in Namibia. This is a common, painful resolution that many female torture victims come to. It is not possible for Mabel to convey to me, the severe guilt she still carries from this decision. 

What model of a person is someone supposed to be, having experienced Mabel’s life history? Who manages to be perfect, post-abuse? What a job there is ahead of us all, to understand, that complicated mental health issues are most often the result of a complicated past. Women like Mabel – and there are many – can end up in detention or prison because their mental health issues have not been properly addressed and support is simply not there. Too often, their stories are maligned and consequently, the process of abuse is perpetuated through this invalidation.

We live in a fear-filled society where it is becoming easier for almost anyone to be that ‘feared other’. But at the front of that line of most dreaded, scapegoated, people, there are migrants and picked-on people of colour. To be a detained black woman from Africa or India, in the UK, with a complex and misunderstood history of illnesses and abuse, is clearly dangerous. Isolated, stigmatised, scared, angry, acting out, and in crisis – these are but some of the emotions and feelings that can change the direction of a life, if they manifest to an incident of perceived anti-social behaviour, as was the case with Mabel. The Home Office does not look kindly on foreign national misdemeanours and criminal offences. These are the people who can, all too easily, slip through gaps, go unnoticed or be targeted, and end up in Yarl’s Wood. 

The 22-month indefinite sentence the UK Home Office has inflicted on Mabel is inhuman. But, for her, it is just about tolerable, if she focuses on a future with both of her daughters, here in the UK.

Today, and through Thursday, please take time to lobby the current Home Office decision to deport Mabel Gawanas. Demand that this ruling be overturned and let them know that you believe victims of torture need special consideration and care in our society. Tell the authorities that there is a place here in the UK for Mabel, and a real opportunity for her to live a fulfilling life.

Write to the Home Secretary, Teresa May and James Brokenshire MP at:

[email protected]

[email protected] and

[email protected]


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