Hong Kong is still failing its women

Hong Kong is still failing its women

The South China Morning Post, 8 March — Op-Ed on International Women’ Day, with CEO of The Women’s Foundation, Su-Mei Thompson.

Later this year, Hong Kong will come under the microscope of a UN committee reviewing the city’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw). While Hong Kong is ahead of many other societies in protecting the human rights of women, big gaps remain, and The Women’s Foundation has submitted a “shadow report” to inform the committee’s analysis.

The gaps we have identified are wide- ranging and affect women and girls across age bands and social strata. Chief among them is the feminisation of poverty, reflected in the lack of specific consideration given to elderly women in the government’s budget for health care and the fact that, because many were not part of the formal workforce, they do not receive any benefits from the Mandatory Provident Fund scheme. This is all despite the fact women are outliving men by an average of six years.

In addition, middle-aged women hold the greatest number of casual, part-time and poorly paid jobs, representing the bulk of the workforce in catering, caring, cleaning and on cashier’s desks.

Indeed, while Hong Kong has a number of public and NGO-run schemes that provide fully or partially subsidised services for children, the elderly and the disabled, there are too few of them due to traditional gender roles and stereotypes. This places a burden on female family members in Hong Kong.A review of the minimal protections and benefits afforded part-time and casual workers is urgently required, along with retraining programmes that offer technical, financial and management training paired with employment opportunities that take into account the caring obligations for the elderly and children borne by many of these women.

In terms of the private-sector care market, this is restricted largely to the 10 per cent of families who can meet the financial and other requirements for hiring a foreign domestic helper. Easing the full-time and live-in requirements for foreign domestic helpers would open up the part-time care market for families who cannot afford or don’t have space to employ a helper, thereby restricting the ability of women to work.

This would also, critically, allow greater protection for foreign domestic workers, who can find themselves trapped in abusive conditions, and align with the UN committee’s 2006 recommendations to “implement a more flexible policy regarding foreign domestic workers” and protect them from abuses. In a recent survey by the Women’s Commission, many women cited caring for family members as the main reason they dropped out of the workforce. This is in a context where flexible working hours or options to work part-time or from home are rare in most sectors and professions.

Hong Kong’s paid maternity leave entitlement is among the lowest in Asia and the government’s plans to introduce paternity leave seem to have stalled. In the long term, Hong Kong should embrace the concept of gender-neutral parental leave, allowing parents to choose which of them assumes the greater share of child-care responsibilities.

But introducing paternity or parental leave is not enough – girls and boys need to be conditioned from an early age to accept that both sexes have a role to play as earners and carers.

Too little is being done by the government to combat harmful gender stereotypes – particularly in the media and advertising. That media are easily accessed through multiple devices and by younger generations makes it even more critical that the government, parents and educators adopt measures to ensure consumers, particularly young consumers, are aware of the potentially harmful effects of news reports and images that objectify women and promote unrealistic body ideals.

Linked to this, many teenagers are growing up without essential life skills and the critical thinking required to challenge gender-based assumptions and to see new possibilities for themselves.

Gender biases explain why women continue to be under-represented in science, technology, engineering or maths and in technology jobs. Addressing this will be critical for the prospects of future generations of Hong Kong girls and, ultimately, the economy.

This is a pivotal time for Hong Kong as it stands at the twin crossroads of greater democracy and ever-growing ties with China. It is critical that women have a seat at the table when it comes to deciding the policies that will govern and shape Hong Kong. Although there are some notable women in government and political parties who undeniably punch above their weight, women are under-represented in all levels of politics – from office bearers to voters.

The government needs to introduce initiatives to encourage the full and equal political participation of women, including helping to strengthen our political parties to make them an attractive and viable career path for women. In addition, education programmes for women on their right to vote would help balance the gender ratio among voters.

Finally, we hope the government will overhaul the Women’s Commission and give it the authority and resources to ensure that all relevant data is collected and analysed by gender and fed into the design of policies, programmes and budgets that promote women’s equality in Hong Kong.

Decisive action is needed on women’s rights, or we risk condemning future generations of women to indebtedness, indecision and frustration.

Su-Mei Thompson is CEO of The Women’s Foundation. Jo Baker is a research consultant on human rights. Lisa Moore also contributed to this article. 

We need to talk about Quotas: Making women's views count in Myanmar

We need to talk about Quotas: Making women

South China Morning Post (Op Ed), 12 December 2013

Myanmar’s first high level international forum for women showed a surge of new ideas being tolerated by its government. Of the most impactful was in the debate on quotas – with global female icons Aung San Suu Kyi and Christine Lagarde on either side.


Myanmar’s most famous icon may be female, and yet women have been absent in decision-making throughout its five-decade military stranglehold. Its activists have been at best, ignored – at worst imprisoned or killed. So last week’s high level international forum on women’s leadership – the first in the country, and with the support of the government – was a high profile suggestion of change.Hosted by the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society, and attended by political icon Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde and a range of international CEOs, it gave diverse women from Myanmar one of their first chances for unfettered public debate – including with Daw Su Kyi herself.

In doing so, Myanmar women were brought full force into one of the more divisive issues in developing democracies: quotas for women. Quotas are a temporary tool used to balance equality of opportunity, by allocating a percentage of positions to women, in sectors from politics to peacekeeping. Critics claim that they can lower the bar of ability or talent in a field, and lead to the tarnishing of legitimately qualified women; advocates counter that, wielded well, they are one of few ways to break through institutional barriers, change minds, and challenge stereotypes.  (Earlier this year the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) reported a significant increase in women MPs during the 48 elections in 2012, and put this largely down to their use.)


Yet despite the recommendation for quotas by the UN’s independent expert on Myanmar as well as the Myanmar government itself in a strategic plan on women’s empowerment (launched in October) – and strong results from the use of quotas in other fast developing neighbours, such as India[1] – the country has yet to host a healthy range of debates on  the issue – the kind that lead to locally owned decisions on where and how quotas are used.

It was therefore incredibly heartening to see the issue’s public debut at the conference, at full force.  In a compelling sight, Aung San Suu Kyi’s more conservative stance – softer pro women measures such as boosting education for girls – was countered with confronting questions by women from a range of sectors. Why should there be a 25% quota for the military in politics, but none for women? Will pro-women education policies really be enough to change the fact that more than 95% of Myanmar ‘s lawmakers are male – and across its 66,000 village wards, just ten reportedly have women leaders?  How can ethnic minority women bring their needs and priorities into negotiations on the conflicts that see them displaced,disenfranchised, and horrendously abused? And what role can and should the CEOs of Total, Accor, Pepsi Co – all present at the conference – play in promoting women’s equal rights to jobs, credit and resources as they take advantage of the country’s opening?

Christine LagardeAung San Suu Kyi The view of the IMF Chief – notable in its contrast to Daw Suu Kyi – made no small dent in the conversation. Quotas should be complemented by other measures, like flexi-time and training programmes, and be removed when enough momentum is built, she said. But they allow many talented women to take a step that, because of discrimination, is often too far large for them to take alone. And in this way Myanmar’s ‘cultural barriers’ Lagarde insisted, “can be shaken and moved.” Her reasoning will by now be wending its way in conversations, no doubt, across many of the country’s 14 provinces.

Myanmar’s government claims that it has started to progressively implement gender equality and women’s rights throughout the country, and this conference was indeed the latest in a very recent series of positive steps. Their support and attentiveness to events such as these – not only international and regional, but at the most local of levels – will be critical in keeping such a process valid, and sustainable.



[1] Ten years ago women made up less than five per cent of elected leaders in India’s panchayats, today, more than 40 per cent of local council leaders are women, and the perspectives of men and women in those villages about the value of girls, and the value of their education, has measurably improved. Read a case study I researched on quotas for UN Women.

Jo is a writer and human rights consultant with expertise in the fields of gender equality and violence against women, and a background in civil and political rights advocacy. She has worked as grant manager for women’s rights at the Sigrid Rausing Trust, a research, training and evaluation consultant, and an advocacy coordinator for the Asian Human Rights Commission. She has worked in over 20 countries, many in Asia, but also Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet Union, and began her career as a journalist and editor. Her clients include UN Women in New York and Bangkok, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Plan, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, Plan, the European Union, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Thailand Institute of Justice, and the Cairo Institute on Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), among others. She conducts impact assessments for EU funded projects led and produced a series of multi-country research studies on conditions for women in detention for DIGNITY, the Danish Institute Against Torture. Jo has been published widely in journals and the press, from The Oxford Human Rights Hub to TIME Magazine, and has presented at various international symposiums and workshops. She still writes about culture, design and travel in her spare time. Find her on Twitter @JoB4ker or see About for a full biography and a list of publications.

Thrills and Kills: Interview with Frederick Forsyth

Thrills and Kills: Interview with Frederick Forsyth

South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker.

IMG_5247[1]AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was… interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”

[Click here for the original article] 

Fans might have forgiven Forsyth for researching one of the world’s more dangerous cities, in Somalia, from a distance. But the British thrill master felt that his latest look into the world of modern-day terrorism, The Kill List, should be held to the standards that helped take his other novels to the top of bestseller lists.

Debuting as a novelist in 1971 with The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth has become known for his melding of fictional characters and plot lines with real political intrigues, using research techniques from his days as a journalist.

“I’ve always been intrigued in the things the establishment don’t tell us, rather than those they do.” he says with a smile. “Nowadays we think we know it all, and Mr. Snowden tells us, ‘oh no, you don’t know the half of it – what they’re listening to, eavesdropping on’.”

A journalist in the 60s and 70s, Forsyth has certainly developed a sense for the world’s lurking dangers and blind spots. Growing up in a small ‘one horse’ town in Kent with little money, he failed to secure the career he wanted with the RAF, but dreamed of travel. The idea of ‘diplomatic corp. cocktail parties’ was less than thrilling. “So the only alternative was the by-lines in Dad’s morning paper from cities with amazing names, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Beirut,” he recalls.

From the offices of a daily provincial paper, to London’s Fleet Street and then to the Reuters news agency, by age 23 Forsyth was reporting from Paris, covering the almost daily likelihood of an assassination attempt on president Charles de Gaulle by French extremists.  It was a ‘baptism by fire’ he says. This fire raged onward in the mid 60s, with two years in the thick of Nigeria’s civil war, first for the BBC and later – since he was unwilling to toe its editorial line and return to London – as a freelance reporter and writer.

At that time, few had attempted to blend modern-day politics with fiction, and the decision to use his experiences in France and skills as a reporter to write a political thriller, produced Jackal, his sleeper hit. Surprised but gratified, Forsyth continued to write his novels to a similar template, tackling subjects from the underground Nazi movement in Europe (1972’s Odessa File) to international drug cartels (2011’s The Cobra). In researching his books he was able to pursue the once-imagined thrills of a Kent boyhood, with ‘hairy moments’, as he calls them, galore. There was Afghanistan and Pakistan; Equatorial Guinea, where he blithely recalls almost losing a leg to septicaemia; and Guinea-Bissau – ‘a horrible place’ – where he came close to being caught up in a gruesome coup.

Each adventure produced new material for adrenalin-fuelled accounts of dark places and dastardly deeds, with a reporter’s eye for detail. “Travel was the main impulse for fifty years of my life,” he says. “And as an investigative journalist one learns where the knowledge reposes, and how to get at it. So that is how I approached fiction.”

The Kill List, which hit shelves in September, fits squarely into this oeuvre. As cold-war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda, it follows a US government-sanctioned assassin on the trail of a charismatic jihadist, and takes readers into the administrative bowels of an American organisation tasked with tracking and killing ‘enemies of the West’. It then leads them across the gullies and firewalls of cyberspace to various havens of Islamic extremism, from London to Kismayo  Deftly paced, the thriller has been reviewed as the usual meticulous yet macho Forsyth romp: heavy on action and intrigue; light on moral complexity and character development.


IMG_5070IT WAS A NEWS REPORT on drone attacks that inspired Forsyth to pick up his pen again. Not long after the extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals, the author became curious about how modern-day manhunts take place. Originally called The Tracker, the novel’s name was changed when his American publishers called – in high excitement, he says – to verify that such a list actually exists in the White House. Forsyth was able to tell them, rather smugly, that it does. In 2012 the US government had admitted publicly that it authorizes ‘signature strikes’ on certain targets, with the decision centred around the counter-terror chief in the White House.

Yet this batch of research posed a new kind of challenge. The author had covered the technicalities of espionage and warfare with the Arab world before, in the Fist of God and The Afghan. But for a 74 year-old who, until last year had refused to own a cell phone, and continues to churn out his 10 pages-per-day on a steel-cased portable typewriter, Cyberspace was an alien landscape.

Forsyth has joked that if his first novel had been set now rather than the 1960s, with photos that could be e-mailed and data instantly accessed, it would have been ‘a very short spy novel’. But in choosing the story of an Islamic terrorist, tracked via high-tech military surveillance systems (and with the help of a teenage hacker), The Kill List is an attempt to reconcile these two worlds.

“I had to go to people who are real cyber experts and ask them to explain as if to an idiot, what they were doing and why,” he recalls. “There was obviously a huge generation gap. A lot of the real, talented geeks are younger than my grandson!” Accordingly, the novel gives out a sense of both wonder and foreboding for technology. “The ones who are deeply into this cyber stuff I do find very strange,” he admits.  “But also tremendously talented.  These hackers can carve their way through firewalls in the databases of the Pentagon with something they bought at Computer World.”

With weapons technology and warfare, Forsyth is on more familiar ground. His grasp of the subject has grown with each novel, along with his little black book of experts to consult. And with each novel too, doors for the author have opened at ever-higher levels, aided perhaps by an Order of the British Empire (CBE), awarded in the late nineties. “When I was much younger, particularly for the first three books, the big bosses in the forces of law and order wouldn’t give me house room,” he says with a laugh. “I would have to go instead to the underworld. Now, if I say to someone fairly high up in, say, Scotland Yard that I’m writing a book on the cocaine trade, he’ll put me in touch with his head of narcotics.”

This has no doubt spared him a certain amount of trouble in recent years. Forsyth fondly tells an anecdote from the seventies that almost led to his untimely end, while he was researching his third novel, Dogs of War. He had needed to find out where and how mercenary groups in Africa bought their weapons. With the arms black market based in Hamburg, and being able to speak German, the author decided to masquerade as a South African on a buying expedition for a wealthy patron, he says. “I more or less used the plot of my book about a mining millionaire who wanted to topple an African republic,” he recalls. And all went well until one of the bosses, returning home from a meeting with Forsyth and others, reportedly saw his author’s photograph in the window of a book shop.  “I received a call from an insider friend in my hotel room, who said grab your passport and money and run like hell!” he says. “Fortunately I was in the train station hotel, so I ran across the square to station, vaulted the ticket barrier, and dived straight into the window of a departing train – into the lap of a German businessman who had a sense of humour failure.”

He didn’t go back to Hamburg for years. “The book came out in German with them very thinly disguised, and I hear they didn’t like it at all,” he says.  Compared to this, he admits, his recent ‘reccie’ in Mogadishu was more leisurely.

As a search-engine sceptic, Forsyth makes heavy use of industry publications, such as those from Jane’s Information Group. His books are populated with the likes of Ukrainian freedom fighters, French paramilitaries, Gulf War soldiers, Somali pirates and Al Qaeda – along with American and British Special Forces and spies. All are often locked in combat and armed to the teeth. Keeping up with the fast-moving world of weaponry is no small feat, particularly for his weapon of choice in The Kill List – drones. “These drones are being modernised and improved all the time, so the stuff used from just ten years ago is outmoded,” he explains. “But the information is mostly public domain. If you know where to go, there’s probably a technical publication that tells you exactly what it does.” At times his digs into the field have been met with warnings, he says, about breaking the UK’s Official Secrets Act. “I tell them, don’t worry – you can read all that in Avionics Today!”, he says with a chuckle.

Yet on the ethnics and legality of drone warfare, still hotly contested, Forsyth has less to contribute. Those who challenge their use, tend to question how any country can strategically use lethal force against individuals without a trial, and outside of a ‘symmetrical’ war. He doesn’t share these concerns. “I think there’s a lot of nonsense talked about the immorality of drones. If it’s a legitimate target, what’s the immorality in destroying it?” he asks. “We are in a defence posture against these terrorists, and when we find them we have a right to defend ourselves from them killing us.”

“I don’t recall that we declared war on Islam,” he adds. “But certain elements of Islam are at war, which they call Jihad, with the Christian-Jewish world.”.

Forsyth will acknowledge that in the UK, the Left has ‘given up’ on him, but he insists that his politics are ‘conservative with a small C’. He calls the euphemism ‘War on Terror’ – coined by the administration of George W. Bush – ‘manure’, and he claims no interest in the UK’s party politics. What he stands for, he explains, is more of a ‘traditionalist attitude’ to life.  “It seems to me our forefathers got an awful lot right,” he says. “And I’ve never seen why anyone should be ashamed of loving one’s own country. It seems modish now not to, and I rebel against that. And for it, I’m called right wing.” He has often lamented that he was born in the wrong era. Given the choice he would have lived through the Second World War and what he considers the height of its glory, the Battle of Britain.

This sentiment runs thick through his books. They vibrate with faith in the hard-boiled integrity of his mostly white, male government operatives; with reverence for men in combat and action over ambiguity; and with the cut-and-dry morality of good guys vs. bad guys. Plotlines are streaked with a boy’s thrill for heroism and love of aliases, acronyms and techno­speak – at the expense of inner dialogue or political nuance. He rarely uses anti-heroes he says, which tend to be less popular with his audience.

Yet he’ll be the first to explain this approach, in less ideological terms.  “I’ve never hidden the fact that if it didn’t pay, I wouldn’t do it.” he says of writing fiction. “It’s more about the bank than the message for me!” For Forsyth, the public’s consistent fascination with spies and terrorist hunters has fit neatly with his own interests and skill set, becoming a cash cow that he says he has been happy to milk.

And he’ll acknowledge, sometimes, where romanticism and reality part ways. “The problem is that 99% of espionage is bureaucracy, scanning communications and technical information. And there’s no James Bond wandering around out there,” he says, gesturing to the Hong Kong skyline. “There are probably a few spooks, but they’re probably rather shabby little people. So yes, there is a false glamour.”

Which his books perpetuate?  “Yes,” he laughs. “Or at least a bit; because most people have a banal existence, and it’s what they want. That’s not patronizing. It’s a fact of life.

Yet the size of Forsyth’s ‘conservative C’ seems to be larger, or at least becoming larger, than he will sometimes acknowledge on book tours. Touted as a ‘bestselling author and political commentator’ by UK newspaper the Daily Express, for whom he writes a column, his claim to not be sending messages through his work, seem disingenuous.

In his column, Forsyth has written passionately and divisively about those who hate the West, and the heroism of those who protect it. A few weeks ago, writing in support of the ‘spooks’ and special forces he has interviewed throughout his career, the author consigned whistle-blowers to the seventh circle of hell. “Revealing secrets that enable Jihadists to penetrate our defences, all the better to place bombs where you and I go shopping, that is traitorous,” he wrote of a ‘whingeing and whining’ Snowden. ““Dante reserved the seventh and innermost circle of Hell for the betrayers and he was right.”

Forsyth says that he spent substantial time researching the forms of Islam that feature in The Kill List, and he was keen to present the disdain of moderate Muslims toward fundamentalism. He describes long doctrinal discussions with a British imam, who became a Muslim voice of reason the plot – as a professor based out of Cairo’s revered centre for Islamic learning, Al-Azhar University. In researching the motives of young Jihadists, Forsyth consulted the cofounder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank in London, who had once led an extremist movement and later reconverted. “So he could explain to me why the Jihadists think the way they do,” says the author. “I was trying to hear both viewpoints.”

Yet his grasp and representation of the religion and its politics has still left many cold. One Asian fan on a review site suggested that the religious aspect was unconvincing, and that the book would have worked better without trying to tackle it. “The author raises the question “Why do they hate Americans?” and answers this complex issue very superficially, almost offhandedly,” she or he comments. “The book is good [but] it’s not about Islamic fundamentalism. The flaws are perhaps more visible to Asian minds than to western ones.”

Indeed, there is a sense that The Kill List, with its parallel but polarised universe is not well placed to deliver the reality of terrorism, and rather reduces it, as one reviewer noted in the New York Times, to the world of movies and video games. For all its up-to-date technical wizardry, it still feels to this journalist, rather wistfully behind the times.

Yet a cash cow it remains, and Forsyth’s success and reputation as thrill master seems very secure. In 2012 the Crime Writers Association awarded him its Cartier Diamond Dagger for his body of work; and the Kill List has perhaps not surprisingly been embraced by Hollywood: it is due to be made into a film shortly, helmed by director Rupert Sanders.

But at 74, could this be an end to adventures in Mogadishu? Sitting in his hotel suite and preparing for lengthy anniversary celebrations in honour of his host, the Mandarin Oriental, Forsyth is tired. He has threatened to retire numerous times. Now, with 70 countries and more than 20 books under his belt, he feels that this could really be it.

“There are people who are compulsives, who are not fulfilled unless they’re writing. But I am not one,” he says. “I have to be dragged to my typewriter now. There are so many other things for me to do. And really – I don’t have a message for the human race.” This remains under debate, but the decision will no doubt leave legions of disappointed thrill-seekers in its wake.






Legal Study: Sisters in Crisis - Violence against women under India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act

Legal Study: Sisters in Crisis - Violence against women under India’s Armed Forces Special Powers Act

A number of studies and international legal arguments have been made to challenge the legality of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act ― in force across much of India’s North and East ― by way of India’s constitution, and its international human rights obligations. This paper aims to explore the socio-legal and psychological forms of violence to which women are subjected under the Act, directly and indirectly, using the growing toolkit of international instruments to protect and advance women’s human rights, and in reference to current feminist legal scholarship. By doing so it aims to highlight India’s continuing and resounding failure to progressively realize women’s equality in the North and East, and the often invisible forms of gendered harm wrought by this low-profile yet powerfully destructive emergency law, along with and militarization generally.

Access the full legal study [pdf]: Violence Against Women under India’s AFSPA J Baker


This paper was written as part of a Master’s degree in International Human Rights Law, at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 2010 – 2011. Thanks goes to the supervision of Proff. Fareda Banda, and feedback from human rights activists in the North and East, in particular Babloo Loitongbam of Human Rights Alert, Manipur, Bijo Francis of the Asian Human Rights Commission, and social entrepeneur Hasina Kharbhih.


Table of Contents

Introduction                                                                                               3

India and international law                                                                    4

The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act                                           6

What does AFSPA mean for women?                                                    7

i)                    Violence against women in international law

ii)                  Violence, impunity and access to justice in the North and East

iii)                Militarization and violence against women

Conclusion                                                                                                        13

Bibliography                                                                                                     14

Appendix 1: Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958                                  20

Appendix 2:  List of Dos & Don’ts as directed by the                                    21
Supreme Court in Naga People’s Movement of Human
Rights v Union of India
[1997] ICHRL 117



Op-Ed: Dynamic security - political change bad news for the women in Albania’s prisons

Op-Ed: Dynamic security - political change bad news for the women in Albania’s prisons

Open Democracy, 11 October 2013

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (61) [Article/photo story] Albania has been leading the Balkan region in its management of women’s prisoners – a complex group to detain and rehabilitate. Now, as a new government is sworn in and politically motivated staff changes look likely, this progress – and the wellbeing of its female inmates – is at risk. 

The formation of Albania’s new left-wing coalition this June signalled change for the country on many fronts. Yet one old fashioned tendency will likely pose unintended problems for a small minority – the women in its prisons.

[Click here for the original article; scroll down for photo story]

“Of course we are pleased with the democratic process,” says Erinda Bllaca, a lawyer with a local human rights NGO that makes regular monitoring visits to the country’s prisons. “But a change in government here unfortunately still means administrative change too. And when staff appointed by the previous regime are let go or redistributed, this can mean a lot of good progress going to waste.”

Wedged tightly among the low-rise flats of Albania’s capital, Tirana, the Ali Demi medium-security women’s prison is a case in point.  Run for five years by a female director with a background in social work, the small communist-era complex has managed to become an example of how – with limited resources – to imprison women ‘well’.

Women are a complex group to detain and rehabilitate. Historically out-of-focus in both prison management and international standards, research and advocacy has only recently begun to make a visible difference, thanks to campaigning organizations such as Penal Reform International, state-sponsored reviews (including Baroness Corston’s groundbreaking 2007 report for the UK Home Office and more recently, Dame Elish Angiolini’s recommendations to the Scottish government), and the UN’s long overdue Bangkok Rules: standards on the imprisonment of women released in 2010. Each has helped highlight the damage done to women, their families and their communities when their needs in prison are overlooked.

This is certainly relevant for Albania. Though the country is developing fast, its women are still less likely to be economically independent, more likely to face family violence, more likely to take on the responsibility of caring for children, and are at risk of much stronger stigma than men if imprisoned – particularly in rural areas where customary law has a stronghold.

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (39)

An inmate plays with her child in Tirana’s women’s prison, Ali Demi. The prison accommodates children under the age of three and their mothers in a special wing, with around the clock child care assistance.

This resonates strongly among those in Ali Demi. “Our research in Albania’s prisons has found that many of its women have faced layer upon layer of violence and deprivation, at the hands of their husbands, family and the community, and they will suffer differently inside prison because of it,” said Therese Maria Rytter of Dignity – the Danish Institute Against Torture, which is conducting a study into global conditions for women in prison. “Many are cut off completely by their family, without news or contact with their children, and they dread the future that awaits them when they leave. The mental toll can be much greater.”

Irena Celaj’s approach as a new director took its cues from her social work background, but also very much from Albania’s new openness – in its pursuit of EU membership – to advice and training from international organizations, as well as local NGOs such as Bllaca’s  employer, the Albanian Rehabilitation Centre for Trauma and Torture (ARCT).  The team of ten care staff that Celaj has built at the 52-women prison, including a female head doctor, psychologist and head of social welfare, and seven other nurses and social support staff, has worked closely with the prison service and outside help to counter the gender-specific damage done by detention.

“Many of the women are abandoned because they killed someone within their families,” notes the prison’s Head of Social Welfare, Ingrid Balluka. “But most also did so after a lot of abuse. Some here also took the blame for killings done by their children. They need an extra amount of care, kindness, psychological and social support to heal, to join and face the community again.”

Ali Demi’s social workers spend much of their time mediating with and encouraging visits from women’s families and children, and checking up on children in homes and foster care. Group and individual therapy is often directed at the experiences of gender-based violence, or abandonment. When asked confidentially, many of the detainees’ spoke positively about the emotional support on offer.  “You can heal here,” said one woman, in her seventh year.

Irena Celaj

Irena Celaj

New flexibilities have also proven successful. Visiting hours are much longer than the standard 30-minute regulation; and most women can be released on leave toward the end of their sentence for days at a time as they start to re-establish their outside life. A busy vocational programme and an open door policy for trainers has seen inmates become busier throughout the week, say inmates and NGO workers, with languages, computer skills, cooking and handicrafts.

The morale of the women, as a result, not only appears visibly higher, but translates into an extremely low rate of violent incidents, depression and recidivism.

Bllaca, who works in prisons across the country, calls Ali Demi a ‘happy island’. Its director prefers to term it a place of ‘dynamic security’.

Indeed the only sense of state-led neglect for the women is in their housing – crumbling former military blocks that stand in stark contrast to the new facilities being built for men, but which the women have managed to warm with flowers, paint and handicrafts.

With a change of director almost certain however – along with other staff –  a note of discord has entered the daily life of the prison. The General Director of Prisons has already been replaced, and Celaj has been told to prepare for a handover – to a likely male director.  “I worry about keeping our programmes going. But above all, I worry for the trust we’ve built,” said Balluka. “These relationships are particularly important to women, and many have no one else. They are nervous.”

“I also wonder,” adds Celaj, “if a new prison direct is male, or has a police or a law background, how well he could really understand the needs here; the importance of the small details, and the outreach we’ve been building?”

Through a series of garden courtyards, in a bright, well kept library, inmates spoke privately about their friendships with staff and their dislike of change. “Without these staff I’m not sure how it would be, but not good. I think perhaps that we would fight more with each other,” said one 23-year old. “We even miss them at the weekend, when they’re off,” another woman volunteered. “They have become friends. Our environment is more peaceful with them here.”

Nevertheless, as Albania moves into the twenty first century and closer to Europe, old practices may no longer be renewed, and the change may well be handled differently than in the past.  “Maybe the new administration will see the value of keeping on those who do their job well, and all the training we’ve put into the last five years,” says ARCT founder, Adrian Kati.  “We certainly hope so.”  52 incarcerated women appear to agree.

Life Inside: Images from 325, Ali Demi women’s prison, Albania

Ali Demi prison is physically inadequate for its fifty or so female inmates. Yet despite this, the past five years have seen the prison – under the leadership of a director passionate about rehabilitation –  become a forward-looking place of hope and healing.

325 Womens Prison Tirana Alb 13 (3)

Male security staff are only allowed to work outside the prison, in line with international standards.


Though the buildings are old and inadequate, staff have helped the women to create a village atmosphere.

The communist-era buildings are old and inadequate, but staff have helped the women to create a village atmosphere.


Four women share each room, and many use their handicraft sessions to make homey furnishings. The doors of the cells are never locked, even at night.

Four women share each room, and many use their handicraft sessions to make furnishings. The doors of the cells are never locked, even at night. Women often wait until the weekends to pay each other social visits for tea and conversation.


Some find quiet sanctuary in the workshop. This woman, soon at the end of a 15 year sentence, is making a new wardrobe with material donated by staff and well wishers. She's been able to leave the prison for up to a week a number of times, to acclimatize to the outside world.

Some find quiet sanctuary in the workshop. This woman, soon at the end of a 15 year sentence, is making a new wardrobe with fabric donated by well wishers. In the past year she’s been able to leave the prison for up to a week, on a number of occasions. “It helps us understand how to behave, and prepare for release,” she says. “You can easily lose connection with the outside world.”


Women take turns to work in the kitchen as part of a daily work programme. Those who are able work 5-8 hours each weekday day, mostly a rotation of cleaning, gardening, cooking. Most prefer to be busy.

Women take turns to work in the kitchen as part of a daily work programme. Those who are able work do so 5-8 hours each weekday, generally rotating between cleaning, gardening and cooking. Most prefer to be busy, though they earn only 100 lek (1 USD) per month. “Being employed makes everything bearable,” said one woman, 14 years into her sentence. “I feel away from my problems. It keeps them away.”


There's a single public phone, but women can make or receive unlimited calls throughout the day. They must pay for outgoing calls using a phone card.

There’s a single public phone, but women can make or receive unlimited calls throughout the day. They must pay for outgoing calls using a phone card. This can be a problem for those abandoned by their families, and without funds of their own. Such abandonment is more common among female inmates, than male.


Attempts have been made to make the small visitors' room welcoming, but it doesn't allow for much privacy. Staff have no alternative.

Attempts have been made to make the small visitors’ room welcoming, but it doesn’t allow for much privacy, and staff have little alternative. Conjugal visits can be arranged occasionally though, in a small room nearby.


The library features a bank of donated computers

The library features a bank of donated computers. The women’s perspectives vary when it comes to their opportunities after prison, but many with less education prefer to learn vocational skills common to women here: kitchen work and hairdressing, handicrafts and child care. Many still take English or Italian lessons though.


Things are changing for women in Albania," said this young woman, who was arrested while finishing a degree in political science. "It's easier for women to be educated. But I'm sure when I leave there will be prejudice. We need to change the mentality of people."

“Things are changing for women in Albania,” said this young woman, who was arrested while finishing a degree in political science. “It’s easier for women to be educated. But I’m sure when I leave there will be prejudice. We need to change the mentality of people.”