Human rights in prison: more than a red herring

Annelise Roberts, WCHM Community Development Worker

If there is bad news being reported about ACT prisoners, it’s more than likely that the Alexander Maconochie Centre’s status as a ‘human rights compliant’ prison will be raised as part of the commentary.

In the wake of allegations late last year of a child pornography ring at AMC, former superintendent Doug Buchanan implicated the prison’s human rights agenda, explaining that “it happens in the ACT because you have enormous pressure from the departmental [sic] on the superintendent to focus on human rights and nothing else” ( Jeremy Hanson, now leader of the ACT Opposition, commented last year in his capacity as ACT Liberals spokesperson for corrections that the jail’s human rights framework left guards afraid to complain about or respond to inmate violence ( And lawyer Shane Drumgold’s recent Canberra Times article complains that the ACT’s Human Rights Act has made going to prison “much less of a deterrent today, as regular human rights reviews try to make it as close to not being in prison as possible” (

Ignoring the fact that it’s unclear whether the threat of imprisonment has ever been much of a deterrent to crime anyway (For example:, I’d like to draw out a few issues that I think are being conflated here. What is the actual substance of these criticisms? Are they really about the human rights culture they’re trying to cultivate at AMC? Or are they in fact about relaxed security, poor management, and a justice system that (according to Drumgold) isn’t working for victims? Whether or not you agree that the management at AMC is ineffective (or whatever) is beside the point—respect for human rights is being confused with a whole range of things it shouldn’t be.

Building a human rights culture at a prison is about ensuring that people’s most basic rights are respected in a place where they are stripped of their usual community supports and completely at the mercy of the state. It might help to take some time to understand a bit about the content of these rights. The UN Standard that is the basis for the ACT’s Human Rights Act is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ( This includes provisions about torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments; consent to medical treatment; being treated with respect for the dignity of the human person; the presumption of innocence before being proven guilty; and a range of other provisions to do with rights to access to family, information and health services, privacy, and the ability to undertake religious and cultural practices. This means that people who are being imprisoned at AMC are, in theory, promised a torture- and cruelty-free environment, where their legal status (as convicted/not convicted) is respected and where they are assured access to the essential components of social life that any human is entitled to. These provisions are all the more important given that the people who end up in our prisons are primarily drawn from the most vulnerable populations in our community—people with mental health issues; Aboriginal people; people who have grown up in institutional care; and women who have lived through physical and sexual violence, for example (

In spite of what the popular dialogue says, a focus on respect for human rights isn’t an impediment to justice. It’s an aid. To make our ACT community safe and strong, it is essential that the prison environment is set up to enable incarcerated people to develop the kinds of necessary skills and supports that will assist them to live a life without crime. Part of this involves ensuring that they are offered the basic protections afforded by the Human Rights Act. Once we’ve established that, we can get to work on the real issues and challenges that are facing our justice system.

Review: Issues Paper No. 9 – Women and Genital Cosmetic Surgery by Women’s Health Victoria

Silvia Page, WCHM Project Worker (Mental Health)

The number of Australian women seeking Genital Cosmetic Surgery has risen markedly over the last decade. In February 2013, Women’s Health Victoria (WHV) launched an Issues Paper in response to the critical lack of research available on these controversial procedures. WHV’s paper provides a comprehensive analysis of the reasons why women (across all age groups) are undergoing female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS). The paper makes the distinction between medical and socio-cultural reasons for seeking FGCS with a focus on the latter. The Paper also emphasises the significant role that health professionals and advocates have in influencing this trend and educating women about the potential risks involved: “There remains a critical lack of evidence on risks, efficacy, complications, and patient satisfaction…it is important that [women] are also able to access medical practice that is safe, responsible and evidence-based” (p30).

The Paper makes a number of recommendations on how to promote public awareness about FGCS, including the need to: promote awareness about the low standard of evidence for and risks associated with FGCS; promote awareness about the diverse natural range of healthy female genital appearance; encourage research to improve understanding about why women are undertaking FGCS and their experiences of surgery; encourage ethical and evidence based media coverage of FGCS and female genital diversity; and encourage relevant professional bodies to issue statements on and regulate the provision of FGCS and advocate for the development of protocols for management and clinical standards.

The Paper explores the similarities between FGCS and female genital mutilation (FGM) and argues that, although each practice occurs within a different socio-cultural context, there are some similarities between the practices that are not reflected uniformly in Australian law.

The Paper explores a number of social and traditional media initiatives that are challenging false perceptions about ‘normal’ female genital appearance, such as the New View Campaign in America. These campaigns have a role to play in addressing misconceptions and beginning discussions about FGCS. Current media guidelines, such as the Guidelines for the Classification of Publications 2005, contribute to false perceptions through deeming certain images of female genitalia—no matter how true to life—too sexualised. These guidelines have been criticised for contributing to false perceptions because genitalia are often airbrushed to look uniform. If individuals are not aware that the images they consume are digitally altered then it is understandable that they will begin to see the genitalia depicted as the norm. It is in areas such as this that advocacy organisations like WCHM can work to promote awareness and community education.

WHV held a forum to launch the Women and Genital Cosmetic Surgery Issues Paper which you can access on the WHV website, along with the issues paper:

Media Watching Women

Annelise Roberts, WCHM Community Development Worker

Media Watching Women is a new section of our e-bulletin which delivers snack-sized summaries of themes in global media coverage on women. We hope you enjoy. Bon appetite!

Margaret Thatcher’s death: Britain’s first and only female prime minister dies. Tributes pour; street parties are held in Brixton and Glasgow as people parade signs that read: ‘The Bitch is Dead’; The Guardian publishes an article called “The Margaret Thatcher look: from the pearls to the handbag”. Lionel Shriver and Janet Albrechtsen declare that the world lost one of its ‘finest feminists’, with Shriver explaining: “She did not pursue justice for her gender; women’s rights per se was clearly a low priority for her. [But] she was out for herself and what she believed in. If we had more feminists like Thatcher, we’d have vastly more women in Parliament and the US Senate.” Ah, so that’s what a feminist is. Meanwhile, Hadley Freeman writes a far more sensible article about Thatcher’s “notable lack of female-friendly policies” and “her utter lack of interest in childcare provision or positive action.”

Rape culture: In the wake of last December’s gang-rape in New Delhi which led to the death of Jyoti Singh Pandey, media keeps the focus on sexual violence at a gentle simmer. Rebecca Solnit points out the hypocrisy of a situation in which US media is fascinated with the Delhi gang-rape but ignores horrific statistics about violence against women at home. Clementine Ford continues to be one of the few Australian voices who sees through the sensationalism around what happened to Jyoti Singh Pandey and Jill Meagher to articulate a systemic, cultural problem; she writes about rape culture and the Steubenville gang-rape, as well as anti-rape underwear.

Female Genital Mutilation: Ayaan Hirsi Ali thinks dialogue around FGM that looks at the practice within a cultural context has been characterised by “white guilt” and “moral racism”. On the other hand, Fuambai Sia Ahmadu’s experience of female circumcision left her with “pride” in a cultural tradition that “honours our female ancestors”, and she reckons that “the aesthetic effects of [cosmetic] surgeries on white vaginas are conspicuously similar to our so-called mutilated black vaginas.” Still at an impasse on this one.

Women and power: Conversations about the same old gender disparity problems continue to be had: “Women still outnumbered where it counts” ; “Women are still being held back at work by ageism and sexism”; “UN conference on women: some rights won, but more battles ahead”. But more importantly, Beauty Beat gets to the core of the problem with this hard-hitting piece: “Why do Australian women give up on their appearance?”

Women in the media: New Matilda’s ‘Women in the Media’ project surprises no-one by finding that journalism is still dominated by men. Violeta Politoff points out that gender parity in the newsroom (and the boardroom) matters for gender equality more broadly. Clementine Ford once again delivers the goods, using her Pamela Denoon lecture to shout into the vacuum that is women’s presence in the media.

WCHM Women and Work

Angela Carnovale, WCHM Social Research Officer

Arguably one of the most important dates in the WCHM calendar was celebrated since the last edition: International Women’s Day! This year the WCHM team celebrated IWD with the annual breakfast organised by the ACT Women’s Services Network (ACTWSN), where the Network received an award for excellence from the ACT Minister for Women, Joy Burch MLA (this award was a temporary replacement for the ACT IWD awards, which were not run this year). Later that day Angela and Emilia went along to the Manning House Lecture by Germaine Greer on eco-feminism, which was a nice contrast to the excellent Pamela Denoon Lecture given by Clementine Ford on women in the media, which Angela also attended with Annelise (read more about this lecture in the Media Watching Women section above). Angela also represented WCHM at a cocktail reception hosted by Minister Burch, where Minister Burch announced that the ACT Government would be creating awards for excellence in work to prevent violence against women and children.

As we did for IWD in 2012, this year WCHM partnered with Women’s Health Service and the ACT Women’s, Youth and Children’s Health Policy Unit to run two information sessions for women in their 40s and beyond. Titled Midlife—Mood, menopause, and more, the sessions were an opportunity for national and local experts in women’s health to share up-do-date and practical information about a range of issues impacting women at midlife, such as: menopause, emotional wellbeing and mental health, sexual and reproductive health, sexuality and intimacy and general wellbeing. The sessions were well attended, with over 100 women making the most of this free and valuable resource.

IWD also marked the end of Summer of Respect 2012-13. And what a successful campaign! As you know from our last edition, we attended a number of festivals throughout the summer to promote the message of respect. We also spent a few very hot and noisy days at Summernats, which was a success not only because of the large number of men we spoke to but also because it has opened up the opportunity for Summer of Respect to work with Summernats for future festivals. Since then we also attended the Canberra Multicultural Festival where we handed out 350 information bags about sexual violence and respect, and supported the ACTWSN Australian National University (ANU) Market Day stall. Our grand finale was a door-drop of over 1500 Summer of Respect flyers to residential colleges at the ANU and University of Canberra (UC). The employees at the colleges were amazingly helpful and supportive, especially considering it was the busiest time of year for them, and several have expressed interest in working with us throughout the remainder of the year.

Of course, with the closing of Summer of Respect for another year comes our sad farewell to Ashley, who as Project Worker brought endless creativity, intelligence and innovation to her work on Summer of Respect. The ideas that she wasn’t able to fulfil in this campaign (due to a sheer lack of time!) are already being developed for the next Summer of Respect and so she will definitely continue to be a part of WCHM’s work. We wish her all the very best.

Chrissie from the ACT Women And Prisons group is also wrapping up her project developing awareness training about the specific needs of women in the prison system, which will be used to educate policymakers and service deliverers. An evaluative pilot of the awareness training will be run within the next few weeks, and then WCHM will work with WAP to find sustainable ways to deliver the training more widely.

Bess is also well into her project documenting a professional peer-support and advocacy framework with the WAP group, which will be completed by the end of the financial year.

The WCHM women are currently thinking about WCHM’s workplan for 2013-14 and how we continue to build on our previous work. In particular we are thinking about how to further our health and wellbeing information provision and health promotion activities. One example of this is the newly live Women’s Health and Wellbeing Hub! The Hub is WCHM’s central portal of online health and wellbeing information sources, designed to help ACT women locate credible, trustworthy and already existing health and wellbeing information. The Hub also links to a range of relevant ACT services. This is a direct response to the needs expressed by ACT women and published in WCHM’s research report It goes with the Territory! ACT women’s views about health and wellbeing information. It can be accessed via the link on our homepage called “women’s health and wellbeing hub” or by following the hyperlink above. The Hub is a work in progress, so make sure you spare a few minutes to check it out and let us know your comments or suggestions. And don’t forget to save it to your favourites, in case you’re looking for any health and wellbeing information or services!

The WCHM team has been fitting in a bunch of tasks above and beyond those mentioned, including: preparing applications for the ACT Women’s Grants funding round and the Confiscation of Criminal Assets Trust Fund grants program; preparing a submission into the Senate Inquiry into Medicare funding for certain types of abortion; representing WCHM on a range of ministerial and government advisory committees and groups, including on the Medicare Local’s ACT Medicare Local’s Primary Health Care Advisory Committee; raising concerns about women’s experiences as patients at the Calvary Public Hospital in a submission to ACT Local Hospital Network consumer experience review; working to ensure that women’s needs are taken into account in the design of the new Throughcare model for prisoners exiting the AMC; working with several organisations to pursue body image initiatives in the ACT; and pursuing new partnerships on emerging issues for the ACT.

And all is not quiet in the WWDACT space either! With Nicole now back from her beautiful wedding—which just about brought the office to a standstill with excitement—she will now be supervising WWDACT’s first Australian Catholic University Bachelor of Social Work student Jo Cunningham. Jo started with WWDACT on April 15 and will be coordinating a WWDACT Circus Day over the coming months. We’ll be sure to send out invitations!

Worth Checking Out…

Angela Carnovale, WCHM Social Research Officer

The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently released “Defining the Data Challenge for Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence”. The publication seeks to consolidate previous conceptual work done in collecting data about family and sexual violence, and provides the ground work for a future evidence base. Such a publication from the ABS is promising and essential; we only hope that the outcomes of it are not too distant future.

If what you need is a good quality blog about the media and sexism then you should check out the news with nipples. The blog is maintained by former journalist Kim Powell who loves writing, likes reading and follows the news, but who doesn’t like reading news that is sexist or misogynist and so writes about it and invites others to write about it too.

The Reconstructionists is a collaboration between illustrator Lisa Congdon and writer Maria Popova to create a visually delightful, yearlong celebration of remarkable women—whether they be artists, writers, scientists or notable unsung heroes—who have changed the way we define ourselves as a culture and live our lives as individuals of any gender. Every Monday in 2013, the duo have/will be publishing an illustrated portrait of one such trailblazing woman, along with a hand-lettered quote and a micro-essay about her life and legacy. It may not be particularly global in view, but it is a visual treat worth checking out.

More online magazines please. And fewer silly ones while we’re at it. Lip is an “independent magazine for young women that aims to provide intelligent, thoughtful content” for “intelligent and thoughtful readers”. Rather than being admonished by fashion pages and rendered inadequate by sex advice, readers of Lip will find critique, review and opinion on culture, art, politics and feminism. With a by-line like “think about it”, why wouldn’t you check it out?