Wednesday 26 September 2012

When Help is Anything But

You may already be aware of the recent prostitution consultation in Ireland, which closed at the end of August. At the forefront of campaigning was 'prostitution and trafficking NGO' Ruhama, which produced their own submission to the process (a submission that was, incidentally, highly reliant on numbers created by Melissa Farley, whose testimony on similar issues has already been deemed not good enough for Canadian court).

Data aside, however, it is worth asking the question of who Ruhama actually are. It would seem they have form on wanting to "save" fallen women, for according to the Irish Times Ruhama is run by two of the orders involved in running the infamous Magdalene Laundries. (Here is their list of trustees and directors.) The Magdalene Laundries were institutions where women and girls were separated from their families, subjected to slave labour, mentally and physically tortured. Some even died unrecorded in their care.

Even decades after the worst of the Magdalene abuses, the scandal is still ongoing: a recent submission to the committee investigating the laundries includes some shocking facts.

JFM describes from testimony how the women suffered abuse of various kinds — their hair was forcibly cut, they were beaten with belts until they bled and once the door to the outside world was shut on them, they were referred to by number not by name ...

...the State used the laundries as a way of dealing with births outside marriage, poverty, homelessness, promiscuity, domestic and sexual abuse as well as youth crime and infanticide. It chose to enslave women with the nuns rather than develop a female borstal.

"It repeatedly sought to funnel diverse populations of women and girls to the Magdalene Laundries and in return, the religious orders obtained an entirely unpaid and literally captive workforce for their commercial laundry enterprises," they wrote.

Survivors and witnesses told JFM how the women washed, ironed and sewed from dawn to dusk, were regularly beaten, not allowed to talk to one another and punished if they laughed. There was no regard whatsoever for their health or medical needs. If they stepped out of line, they were "put down the hole".

"This was a four by four room… There was nothing in it, only a bench — no windows. You were put in there; your hair was cut, more or less off completely. Your hair was cut, and you were there all day without anything to eat," one woman recalled.

Before you start imagining this is a tale from some sepia-tinted past, know that the last Magdalene laundry did not close until 1996. I have heard from people by email and Twitter about women being institutionalised in the 1970s. It is also interesting to read the Wikipedia talk page on the subject. The fallout from the fates of the estimated 30,000 women in Ireland subjected to this "help" is still a real wound. This all continued to happen well into living memory.

Now I do not doubt there will be people who say, well yes, but this was a different generation and things have changed. Have they? Have they really? Who has been held to account for the systematic abuse of thousands of women and girls with the tacit approval of the Church and the government?

Jane Fae over at Huffington Post makes an excellent point that in the Hillsborough tragedy, when we consider the scale of denial and coverup, simply saying 'it was a different generation' is not good enough.

Well the Magdalene Laundries were scandal on a scale far greater than the HIllsborough tragedy, for many more years. So I think the same arguments hold. The people who did this should not be in any way involved with women and young people, ever. Could you imagine if the South Yorkshire police branched out and started a private security firm specifically for football matches? They'd be laughed and shamed out of town. Carry that thinking through: we should be laughing and shaming Ruhama far, far away from anything to do with the welfare of vulnerable women and children.

We still do not know the truth about what happened in the Laundries, nor who exactly was responsible, how many families it affected. To even consider letting Ruhama be involved with the prostitution consultation, much less any policymaking or aid, should be scandalous.

And yet it somehow is not. Anyone wish to explain exactly why?


(mega hat tip to Wendy Lyon and FeministIre for bringing this to my attention in 2010.)