Editor’s note: Carla Silbert is Officer-in-Charge of UN Women Philippines. UN Women’s work on justice and the rule of law in the Philippines aims to increase women’s knowledge of their human rights, particularly women in communities and those in conflict with the law, as well as build their capacities to interact with justice service providers. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It is difficult for a mother to be separated from her baby, even more so in a situation over which she has no control. If she is a person deprived of liberty (PDL), she is not free to make decisions about herself, let alone the fate of her own child if she gives birth while she is imprisoned.
Many people do not feel sympathy for PDLs and think that these persons deserve to be punished for the crimes they committed. Yet with over 90% of women in the Philippines incarcerated for non-violent crimes, with many connected to poverty, the individual situations of these women are complex. PDLs are among the most marginalized sectors, having to deal with social stigma on top of poor structural conditions and lack of access to justice. They face overcrowding, poor ventilation, and deficient health, hygiene, and sanitation conditions, where infectious disease outbreaks are prone to occur. Because they are shunned for their crimes, many of them are unable to obtain crucial legal and social services. For women deprived of liberty, these challenges are compounded by gender-blind prison policies, which largely contribute to disregard of women’s different needs, especially those related to health.
Figures from the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) show that the congestion rate in their 467 jails is at 534% of capacity as of 19 March 2020. According to the 2017 World Female Imprisonment List, the Philippines has the seventh highest incarceration rate of women in the world. COVID-19 has emphasized the urgency of decongesting Philippine prisons, with human rights groups calling for supervised or early release of pregnant women, older prisoners and those with underlying medical conditions, minor offenders (including pre-trial detainees for non-violent and lesser offenses), and those due for parole or release before the quarantine.
With or without the pandemic, incarcerated mothers are particularly vulnerable. They do not always have access to adequate nutrition and health care, and their babies may be taken from them soon after giving birth. This endangers not only the mothers, but also their unborn or newborn children.
According to the 2017 World Female Imprisonment List, the Philippines has the seventh highest incarceration rate of women in the world.
Pregnant and post-partum women PDLs and girl children in conflict with the law should be protected, along with their infants and young children. This can be done by implementing international human rights frameworks like the Mandela Rules and Bangkok Rules, which provide for minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners, and providing social and health services, such as for sexual and reproductive health, mental health, and psychosocial support. In doing so, we can prevent tragedies like the recent death of baby River who was taken from her detained mother, Reina Mae Nasino, about a month after being born.
The Philippine government has shown recognition of the need to align with the international minimum standards through its laws and policies like the 2010 Memorandum Circular from the BJMP, which provides policy guidance on handling pregnant inmates, inmates who just gave birth, and their infants. RA 9262 and RA 10028 — which expands the promotion of breastfeeding — have already enshrined the rights of mother and child to protection and promotion of their health and well-being.
However, more work needs to be done to effectively implement and strengthen these existing legal frameworks. Systemic reforms within places of detention require providing jail and prison personnel with technical knowledge, material resources, and capacity building on humane and gender-responsive treatment of women PDLs. The government can reduce the prison population through the immediate-term early release of vulnerable groups like pregnant women, and long-term interventions like community-based rehabilitation and facilitated resolution of cases through legal assistance. Adequate health and social services should also be provided to PDLs, in accordance with universal human rights. Civil society organizations must keep on advocating for laws and court decisions that uphold the rights of incarcerated women and their children. Efforts should continue towards removing stigma and raising awareness about both the plight and rights of women in conflict with the law.
We have a long way to go in ensuring that women deprived of liberty will not also be denied the joy of holding their children and being part of their children’s lives. The journey begins with a common commitment to justice for all, which necessarily includes health for mother and child in detention.