In her laudable statement to mark International Women’s Day, Home Secretary Theresa May declared that we must “eradicate violence against women and girls.” Much as she admits they “can only do so much”, the government might do well to start by getting their own house in order by tackling violence against girls in the justice system.
Today, the Howard League for Penal Reform submitted a complaint to an expert United Nations committee, on behalf of a pregnant 16-year-old British girl who was put in a prison for a non-violent offence and was a victim of discrimination against women.
The girl, “Dora”, was locked up far away from the father of her unborn child, handcuffed for hospital appointments and strip-searched in the prison. She was sent to jail after she was found to have breached a community order imposed for an offence committed two years previously when she was 14, despite having almost completed the community sentence.
Dora’s plight has been highlighted by the Howard League for Penal Reform’s legal team, which has made an official complaint about her treatment to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
It is particularly appropriate that this move comes as millions mark International Women’s Day today (8 March) and Mother’s Day on Sunday (10 March).
Dora, now aged 19, had lived a chaotic life and was in care before she committed her original offence – a robbery on a joint-enterprise basis – in 2007. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a two-year supervision order.
Over time, she made progress, attending college once a week. She became pregnant in December 2009 and was attending a mother-to-be course – only to be imprisoned for failing to attend appointments with her supervising officer when the relationship broke down. She was given a six-month detention and training order.
Locked up, Dora was unable to share key events during her pregnancy, such as scans and medical appointments, with the father of her child. She also lost her accommodation and her college course place.
It is wrong to send a child to prison for a breach of a community sentence. Jail is no place for children and Dora’s experience was devastating to her and her unborn baby. The Howard League is calling for an end to this use of prison for non-violent breaches of community orders.
In their application to the UN, Howard League lawyers claim that Dora’s treatment violates the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
The charity has already taken Dora’s case to the Court of Appeal and the European Court of Human Rights. However, despite domestic and international evidence of the damaging impact of prisons on girls imprisoned for non-violent offences, both courts have failed to recognise the injustice in the case.
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