When 70 women went on hunger strike in Yarl’s Wood IRC on 5 February, an unprecedented level of media coverage followed. Rape survivors, mothers separated from their children, and other vulnerable women, some of whom had been detained without trial for months (one for over a year), spoke publicly to complain about the conditions they suffered, why they were driven to protest, and how they resisted official attempts to deny and subvert their action.
On 29 June, a packed meeting in the House of Commons hosted by John McDonnell MP, and chaired by Stella Mpaka, All African Women’s Group (AAWG) and Cristel Amiss, Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP) brought together: women central to the hunger strike, legal and medical professionals, family members of women still detained and a wide range of other organisations and individuals.
Ms Amiss opened by thanking Mr McDonnell for bringing the hunger strikers’ demands into the corridors of power by raising “questions in Parliament, presenting an Early Day Motion and putting Ministers on the spot.” She traced the history of the hunger strike back to a January meeting in Parliament where women from detention spoke about the injustices they and others endured. Ms Amiss then gave a snapshot of the continuous daily support provided, including stopping removals, finding lawyers, arranging interviews and producing 14 updates – all with the aim of getting maximum publicity for maximum protection for the hunger strikers. “When women inside stick their neck out, it changes what is needed from those of us outside. Our focus has to be to defend and support women who are vulnerable to reprisals.”
Ms Mpaka described how many of their members had been detained and that self-help meant they didn’t treat women inside like victims: “We help based on the experience we have had from fighting our own cases’ . . . “The hunger strike gave women inside more power to speak out. That is why we called this meeting Louder Than Words. It isn’t that women were saying anything different just that the collective action and the support meant that they were heard more.”
Women, some of whom had been released from Yarl’s Wood on an electronic tag and had their curfew waived for one night, described how 70 women came together across nationality and language for many weeks in this effective collective action. The violent response from guards who “kettled”, abused and lied about women, only made them more determined. Women spoke of drawing strength from each other and accepting nothing less than to be released.
Verna Joseph: ‘We felt like we were not being heard’ (Video)
‘The hunger strike started on the 5th February. Women were getting very depressed about the things that were happening. We wanted to get our point across. A few of us got together and told other women that anyone who wanted to join the hunger strike should come to a meeting. 20 women from different wings came. We shared our views and started to put together our demands.
On the following Monday, we went to speak to the authorities, but instead of listening, they ‘kettled’ us in a corridor for eight hours. ‘Women were getting sick, there was no air and people had to empty their bowels on the floor. The government tried to say that this never happened. They just repeat that we were all treated with dignity and respect. They are lying.’
Shelley Anne: ‘I was kept in prison for over 16 weeks for no reason’ (Video)
‘I joined the hunger strike with many other women who were suffering like me. We were told that the police were coming to charge us as ringleaders of the hunger strike, but they never came. Instead they transferred two of us to HMP Bronzefield and two of us to HMP Holloway without explanation. They kept us banged up for no reason.’
‘We kept in touch with BWRAP who sent us money in postal orders and they arranged for a solicitor to come and take statements about what happened. I was eventually released on bail.’
‘We showed the world what was going on in there. Some women have been removed, but those of us who they cannot send back will bear witness to the harm we suffered. We are determined to win justice for the violent and vicious way we were treated.’
Dr Frank Arnold, clinical advisor to the Medical Justice Network spoke about the medical risks associated with going on hunger strike: ‘People will not starve themselves unless they are feeling thoroughly desperate and are convinced that they’ve been denied access to justice’. He concluded by asking what could be done to stop the coalition government implementing even more repressive measures than Labour. (Video)
‘Unreasonable and unlawful’ – Emma Jones, Leigh Day & Co. solicitors crucially described how all the woman she interviewed gave entirely consistent statements and that even when she went back for more detail about a particular incident, women never faltered in their accounts: “All of the women told the same story.”
Even an avalanche of misinformation and lies from the Home Office had not deterred her from pursuing legal cases: “When people say that the hunger strike never happened, frankly we at Leigh Day just don’t believe that is true.” (Video)
Paul Jeffcoate, Fisher Meredith solicitors, spoke about the bravery of hunger strikers who faced down threats and reprisals. He similarly found women’s accounts credible. ‘I represent 12 of the women who were detained by ‘kettling’ at Yarl’s Wood. Ministers have said that no force was used during this incident. That is not true: SERCO have instructed a multi-national law firm, but if they think they can bully us into giving up, they’re wrong’. (Video)
Many questions from the floor were directed at the MPs present. In response to concerns about the hunger strikers who are still in prison or detained, John McDonnell MP outlined what he could do. He made reference to Legal Action for Women’s “Self-Help Guide against detention & deportation” as an essential tool to get people released. He credited the hunger strikers’ determination to get their story out for “breaking through the media silence on an issue like this”.
But he said “we need to expose what happened even further, with further investigations….The importance of tonight’s meeting is to maintain and consolidate the coalition that’s been built up around the hunger strikers’ basic demands . . . The solution is obvious; you just stop detaining people on this scale’
Jeremy Corbyn MP: ‘There is something deeply disturbing about a system that imprisons children’
Katy Clark MP: ‘It’s astonishing the lack of publicity that there has been on this issue until now. It’s an honour to be here and you have my full support.’
Niki Adams, Legal Action for Women, spoke from the floor about combining legal work with campaigning. She said the government review into ending the detention of children “must not result in the separation of families. The expert evidence that has been put forward describes not only the trauma of detention for children, but even worse the trauma of being separated from their mothers.
This government’s primary objective is to remove as many people as possible. To do that, they are trying to recruit the voluntary sector into collaborating with them to come up with the best methods. This is what we must absolutely refuse. Unity must not come at any cost . . . Ending the detention of children must mean ending the detention of families’
Layla, from the Mother’s Campaign of the All African Women’s Group, described how they are pressing for family reunion. She spoke about how she and others were forced to leave their children behind in their home countries when they fled to the UK, and were then denied the right to have their children join them. (Video)
Jim Curran, Chairman of the Irish Civil Rights Association received rapturous applause when he connected this modern-day hunger strike to the struggles of Irish people in the North of Ireland and Britain against occupation, including the hunger strikes at the Maze prison in which 10 prisoners starved themselves to death. “In 1981 I was chairman of the support group for Irish hunger strikers in England and in the 1970s I was chairman of a Republican association that looked after Irish Republican prisoners of war and their families.” In response to women’s descriptions of racist abuse from guards, he said “We too know about racial prejudice . . . This hunger strike has been a success. You’ve won the battle but you haven’t won the war, so the war has to go on.” ‘I shall campaign within the Irish community to get as much support as I can for your campaign’. (Video)
Scores of students committed themselves to distributing information through their networks and helping in other ways. Supporters, who have been visiting women in detention, described the frustration of poor legal representation and an unscrupulous Home Office ready to peddle lies to keep women inside, which led to legal cases stalling and women spending month upon month unjustly detained. One young woman, who was released from Yarl’s Wood a year ago, spoke about how that traumatic time had stayed with her. She made a heartfelt pledge to help those she left behind.
Four of the original hunger strikers are still in prison and over a dozen remain in Yarl’s Wood. We continue to work for their release together with other organisations, supporters and lawyers. How to help:
· Call or email for details of women you can write to or support in other ways
· Make a donation to help with our calls to women and their mobile calls to us
· Volunteer at the Crossroads Women’s Centre with women fighting for their right to stay in the UK.
The Guardian Monday 2 August 2010
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