Australian governments should end the routine strip searching of women in prison the Human Rights Law Centre has told the UN Human Rights Council in a statement delivered in Geneva overnight.
The statement responds to a major report on the situation in Australia, delivered by the UN expert on violence against women. Her report raises a number of concerns about women’s imprisonment, including "excessive incarceration, prison overcrowding, strip-searching, solitary confinement [and] lack of alternatives to custodial sentences".
The report finds that "imprisoned women have commonly experienced domestic violence and sexual assault" and concludes that "the continued practice of strip-searching women within prisons exacerbates this trauma".
Australian governments are imprisoning women, and in particular Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, at record rates. Vickie Roach, an Indigenous advocate and former prisoner, said that governments need to respect women’s dignity, not take it away
"We should be helping women to heal, not harming them further. What earthly purpose do strip searches serve other than to degrade and humiliate and assert control over our bodies, our naked bodies?" said Ms Roach.
Ruth Barson, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that routine strip searches are an archaic and humiliating, yet everyday practice for thousands of women behind bars in Australia.
"Being forced to remove every last item of clothing in front of two prison guards again and again, strips women of dignity and hope. Australian Governments can and should end this degrading practice today."
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Across Australia, strip searches are conducted on a regular and routine basis, including upon entry to the prison, when family or friends visit, when leaving the prison to see a doctor, or to attend court.
"When a mother wants to hug her visiting child; when a pregnant woman has a check-up with her doctor; when a woman has to attend court – she is subjected to a damaging strip search. There are far less intrusive scanning technologies that governments could choose to use right now to spare women this harm," said Ms Barson.
The UK and the ACT have both changed their prison policies and adopted less invasive methods, such as pat-downs, scanners and x-rays.
This is the Australian Government’s second session as a newly elected member of the Human Rights Council. The Government was elected to the Council last year on a promise to uphold women’s and Indigenous peoples’ rights.
In its incoming pledge to the Council, the Australian Government promised to approach its three year term "in a spirit of self-reflection with a view to improving our own human rights situation".
"Our Government cannot just say one thing on the world stage and do the opposite at home. For the Australian Government to have any credibility, it must get its house in order. Women in Australia suffering injustice right now need action, not just hollow words," said Ms Barson.
This Human Rights Council session runs until 6 July. The Human Rights Law Centre will attend every day of the Council session and provide regular updates on the Australian Government’s actions.
For interviews or further information please call:
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519