Remembering Female Prisoners of Conscience on International Women’s Day

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Female Prisoners of Conscience (starting top left, clockwise): Diane Rwigara (Rwanda), Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan, now released), Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee (Iran), and Atena Daemi (Iran) 

Today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let us take a moment to consider the plight of female prisoners of conscience, a group of women distinguished both by their exceptional heroism and by their extreme vulnerability.

As the United Nations has increasingly emphasized in recent years, even among activists, journalists and politicians generally, Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) face heightened danger; they are “subject to the same types of risks as any human rights defender, but as women, they are also targeted for or exposed to gender-specific threats and gender-specific violence.” The factors behind these heightened risks are complicated, but can relate both to the type of work that WHRDs often engage in (advocacy related to women’s issues), as well as who the WHRDs are (women, challenging traditional gender roles). Far too often, WHRDs face stigmatization, exclusion, violence and imprisonment.

Take the case of Diane Rwigara, for instance, a 35-year-old Rwandan politician currently being held in pre-trial detention. Diane’s crime was attempting to run against Rwanda’s authoritarian president Paul Kagame in the most recent election. Within 72 hours of her announcement of her candidacy, nude pictures allegedly of Diane were leaked on social media. When this public shaming failed to intimidate her, she was arrested—along with her mother and sister—and charged with a slew of specious offenses related to forgery, incitement to insurrection, and promotion of sectarian practices. Although Diane and her female relatives were arrested about six months ago, the government has refused to release her and her mother on bail while they await trial. There have been credible reports that the women have been tortured while in prison. If convicted, Diane’s mother and sister could spend up to seven years in prison; Diane herself faces a 15-year-sentence.

Sadly, Diane’s story is not unique. In fact, it hews closely to the authoritarian playbook on how to target a WHRD. Those who follow prisoner of conscience cases might remember a similar fact-pattern playing out with respect to Khadija Ismayilova, a prominent Azerbaijani investigative journalist, who was arrested in 2014, after a leaked video of her having sex with her boyfriend—obtained through illegal surveillance in her home—failed to shame her into silence.  After spending nearly 18 months in prison, Khadija was finally released in May 2016, however she remains under a travel ban for at least three more years.

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UN Special Rapporteur, Rashida Manjoo, will moderate a Panel Discussion & Deliver a Keynote Address at the University of Chicago Law School

You are invited to attend a panel discussion on Tuesday, May 14 from 12:15 p.m. to 2.30 p.m. in Chicago on the occasion of the public launch of a report, Women in Prison in Argentina: Causes, Conditions, and Consequences, written by Cornell Law School’s Avon Global Center for Women & Justice and International Human Rights Clinic, the Defensoría General de la Nación Argentina (Public Defender), and the University of Chicago International Human Rights Clinic.  The Report relies on empirical data from a survey developed by the authors of the Report and randomly administered to nearly 30% of all women prisoners in federal prisons in Argentina.

There has been an increase in the rate of women’s imprisonment in many countries around the world. Yet many countries fail to adequately address the unique issues raised when women are deprived of their liberty. The panelists will discuss the causes of the increase in rates of imprisonment, including the global war on drugs and drug use. They will also address the conditions of women’s imprisonment, such as lack of gender-specific healthcare, shackling during childbirth, and sexual violence in prisons. The increase in women’s imprisonment impacts children and families. The increase in women’s imprisonment impacts children and families.  To address this, some countries such as Argentina have prisons where children up to 4 years old can live with their mothers.  What are the benefits and challenges of this? What are the alternatives to this?  The panel will discuss issues relating to women’s imprisonment from an international and comparative perspective.  What can countries learn from each other’s practices?  To what extent are the Bangkok Rules recently adopted by the UN being implemented in women’s prisons around the world? The findings and recommendations from Report on Argentina will also be discussed.    

Moderator: Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences


• Mikhail Golichenko, Senior Policy Analyst, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

• Andrea Huber, Policy Director, Penal Reform International (London)

• Sital Kalantry, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the International Human Rights Clinic, University of Chicago Law School

• Silvia Martinez, Director of the Prison Commission of the Public Defender’s Office in Argentina

• Gail Smith, Founder and Senior Policy Director, Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers.

Student speakers: Jullia Park, J.D. Candidate, 2014, University of Chicago Law School and Jamie Stinson, J.D. Candidate 2014, Cornell Law School

The venue is Room III at the University of Chicago Law School, 1111 East 60th Street, Chicago.  Open to the public and lunch will be provided but seats are limited.    

For special assistance or needs, please contact Aican Nguyen at 773.702.0184Image