Women of all colors, ages, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds find themselves in abusive relationships with their intimate partners. This month is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which celebrates survivors of domestic violence and strives to shed light on the struggles and resiliency of this community, including against the state’s reluctance to “meddle” in “private” affairs. Yet while Latinas are frequently victims of intimate partner violence (IPV)—in fact, immigrant women are disproportionately represented among IPV-related homicide victims—perhaps the sadder part of the story is the extent to which violent and degrading treatment is a common thread in narratives about how many public institutions treat our community.
Take immigration detention, for instance. Part government institution, but also part of the prison industrial complex, immigration detention metes out punishments that are excessively severe; this punitive state of affairs is compounded by horrendous treatment and deplorable living conditions. Women represent a relatively small proportion of the immigrant detainee population, but many of them are Latinas—71% of all detainees in ICE custody in January 2009 were from Mexico, or Central or South America. Similarly, two-thirds of women in prison are women of color. So because women of color are disproportionately incarcerated, they are also disproportionately affected by these policies.
Rape, assault, and sexual harassment are too often parts of daily existence for detained women. The shackling of pregnant immigration detainees is in keeping with the treatment of women who are incarcerated for criminal violations–this practice is not only an illustration of how immigrants and immigration are increasingly criminalized, even though the violations at stake are typically civil, but also a perfectly gruesome reminder of how the state sees fit to treat women. Pregnant incarcerated women are frequently shackled prior to delivery and during transport, despite policies that recognize that this is as unnecessary and unacceptable. After labor and delivery, they are often immediately reshackled, without attention paid to the exceptional discomfort and even particular health and hygiene needs women have during this period. And for some, the shackles never come off—women must give birth in shackles.
This practice, which is likely equivalent to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment (CIDT) under international human rights law, is unquestionably a degrading experience for women, including many Latinas. Notably, too, this practice occurs at the hands of the state—a stark contrast with IPV, which has long been relegated to the unregulated (and unpunished) “private sphere.” Even so, progress to eliminate it is slow–California’s governor just vetoed legislation that would limit the use of shackles on pregnant women in incarceration settings.
So this month, even as we celebrate women who have made their way out of abusive relationships, we should not forget those who continue to struggle at the hands of an abuser or those who remain mired in a more public abusive relationship: the relationship between the US government’s immigration entities and the immigrant women caught in our dysfunctional and inhumane immigration system.
The National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights (NCIWR) works on a wide range of issues affecting immigrant women in the U.S., including working to stop the policy and practice of shackling women in immigration detention. For more information about our work, please take advantage of NCIWR’s information and resources at http://nciwr.wordpress.com/.