Interview: Palestinian women prisoners shackled during childbirth

VIENNA (IPS) - Female Palestinian prisoners detained in Israel are often denied legal representation and medical care while being housed in squalid conditions that can include sharing cells with rodents.

According to Fabrizia Falcione, a women’s human rights officer for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), now part of UN WOMEN, told IPS that it is crucial to reveal the human face behind this breach of international law and international humanitarian law in order to address the plight of Palestinian political prisoners, including women and children.

Since 1967, more than 700,000 Palestinians have been arrested or detained in Israeli prisons and detention centers. Approximately 10,000 of these prisoners were women.

Today, 37 female Palestinian prisoners continue to be held in Israeli prisons — out of a total of about 7,500 inmates. The reason is primarily political — most of the prisoners are members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Falcione’s work includes providing legal aid and representation to female prisoners, psychosocial support to family members of prisoners, and preparation for release and reintegration of prisoners into family and society.

This week Falcione participated in the first international meeting of its kind organized by the United Nations to focus on the question of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli detention. During the two-day meet she took time out to talk to IPS about the absolute urgency of specifically addressing the rights of female prisoners.

IPS: What are the most immediate concerns for Palestinian women prisoners in Israeli prisons today?

Fabrizia Falcione: The situation of Palestinian women and minors in Israeli detention facilities is bad. In terms of numbers, Palestinian female political prisoners and detainees in Israel prisons almost disappear compared to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian male political prisoners. But the plight of female prisoners is worse than the men.

The situation, condition and violations faced by women in jails in Israel needs to be addressed from a gender perspective. At present the number of women prisoners is considerably lower than before, but women and girls continue to be arrested, their special needs continue to be neglected and their rights violated.

IPS: You talk of physical and psychological problems faced by female prisoners. What do you mean?

FF: There is medical neglect and lack of specialized medical services for the prevention and treatment of illnesses of women.

The female prisoners at present are mainly incarcerated in two Israeli facilities in Hasharon and Damon — both of them located outside the occupied [West Bank and Gaza Strip], in violation of Article 76 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Former Palestinian female prisoners in both these prisons and family members of women currently in prison say that the cells are infested with insects, particularly cockroaches as well as rodents. A former inmate released a few months ago said, “No matter how hard I try to describe the cell to you, I cannot. It is like an underground grave … There are so many insects in the cell, the mattresses and cover sheet were damp and smelled awful. Sewage was overflowing. I could barely make my ablutions to pray.”

Beyond general healthcare there is no gynecological support. Women require medical attention regularly, which is their right during confinement as recognized by CEDAW [the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women].

The great majority of Palestinian women political prisoners in Israeli prisons suffer from various health problems.

IPS: Is it true that pregnant women are shackled during childbirth?

FF: It is true. Pregnant women are shackled while giving birth, and soon after. There is a total lack of medical care, particularly during childbirth. Women lament that infants born to them are taken away after two years. In Israeli prisons, the rights of Palestinian women prisoners is recognized, but not respected.

IPS: And the psychological concerns?

FF: Women bear the brunt of the infringement upon their cultural and religious rights. A former prisoner said, “They took away my jilbab [long dress] and gave me their special brown prisoner uniform. It was short sleeved. I asked for a long sleeved shirt that I could wear under the uniform. Again they refused. I moved between cells among male guards in a short-sleeved uniform … what hurt me most were the insults they hurled at me.”

Women’s privacy is violated and male guards conduct room searches without any consideration for religious norms. Prisoners are counted four times a day, including very early in the morning, and punishment is inflicted if women are found asleep or do not reply immediately to the count.

The most troubling aspect is the denial of family visitation rights. Family visits to prisoners are allowed twice a month, theoretically, but are drastically restricted due to the fact that the prisons are outside the occupied Palestinian territory.

A round-trip visit to the prison is a ten-hour journey — not only due to geographical distance but also because the movement of Palestinians in Israel is controlled. If families succeed in making the journey, they are allowed to visit for thirty minutes — speaking through a thick glass divider that prevents any physical contact, even between mother and child. This affects the well-being of not just the mother but also the children. The break in family and social relations is severe on the psychological state of the women.

IPS: What exactly is the crime of these women?

FF Many women are imprisoned without trial for belonging to organizations banned by Israel, under the guise of protecting the national security of the state.

Untried Palestinian women political prisoners are detained in Neve Terza prison in the women’s section allocated to convicted criminal offenders in clear violation of Rule 85 of the United Nations standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners that says “Untried prisoners shall be kept separate from convicted prisoners.”

This allows Israeli prisoners to threaten and humiliate Palestinian women through verbal and physical abuse. Palestinian women prisoners and detainees are further prevented from using prison facilities like pens, reading material and recreational time.

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