Cross- posted from our Bell Bajao blog. Written by Eesha Pandit, Breakthrough’s Women’s Rights Manager
As she went into labor Juana Villegas was shackled to her hospital bed. Living in Tennessee, she gave birth while in custody. She had been pulled over while driving and taken to jail when the officer discovered that she did not have a valid drivers license as was undocumented. She went to prison, where she went into labor. Her ankles were cuffed together on the ride to the hospital and once there, Juana begged the sheriff to let her have at least one hand free while in labor. She was denied.
Watch Juana’s story:
In another instance, Maria, also undocumented, was more than 8 months pregnant and on the road with her husband and two US born children when they were pulled over by a police officer in Tuscon, Arizona.
Tuscon police spokesmen claimed in an interview with the Huffington Post, that the family had been stopped as part of a “random license plate check,” which indicated that insurance on the vehicle was suspended. When Maria’s husband did not have a valid driver’s license and admitted to being in the United States without documentation, the authorities called the Border Patrol.
Maria asserts that her water broke when she was roughly pushed into a Border Patrol car. She soon went into labor and was not allowed to be with her husband as she gave birth and he was deported within the week. Inside her delivery room with her were two armed Border Patrol agents.
Watch Maria’s story:
These women, living miles apart, share an experience of giving birth while in custody. It is an experience shared by more and more women in the United States and around the world. In the US specifically, incarcerated women, particularly those who are undocumented, face a vast set of barriers to accessing health care, as do their children and families. What do Maria’s and Juana’s experiences show us?
They show the additional points of vulnerability faced by women who are immigrants and refugees. They are at greater risk to experience violation of their human rights either at the hands of others in the community or at the hands of the state, because they often live outside the protections afforded by citizenship. Yet another border is created around them. This border keeps civil society protections just out of reach. Their very identity is criminalized leaving them no recourse for justice.
In another illuminating example, immigrant and refugee women, like all women, face the risk of domestic violence. But their status as immigrants or refugees often means that they face a tougher time escaping abuse. They often feel trapped in abusive relationships because of immigration laws, language barriers, social isolation, and lack of financial resources. They worry about what will happen if they go to the police. Will they be sent away? Will their families be torn apart? Will they have any financial resources available to them? How will they survive?
These challenges facing immigrant women are particularly acute for women who are undocumented. How can an undocumented woman who is considered a criminal by simply being in the US appeal the government to uphold her human rights? As it turns out, this is exactly the tough spot that we put undocumented people in. And it is exactly the reason that human rights should be afforded to everyone regardless of their citizenship status, in the US and everywhere else in the world.
No one should have to deliver their child while cuffed to a hospital bed, or be forced to deliver their baby in the presence of armed guards. Yet this is what happened to Juana and Maria, and countless other women in the US and around the world. Their stories show us something very important: Borders shift. Citizenship policies change. But human rights must remain constant.
Take action! Encourage your representatives to support the International Violence Against Women Act, which calls for a comprehensive U.S. response to end violence against women and girls globally.
Photo courtesy of bellbajao.org