Denice Labertew spent the past few months taking a critical, legal look at the impact U.S. policies have on the health care provided to women and girls being held in immigration detention facilities.
The California State University, Northridge criminology and justice studies lecturer was preparing a report, “Women’s Rights Violations at the U.S.-Mexico Border: Motherhood, Menstruation and Sexual Violence,” that was submitted to the United Nations late last month. It was one of more than 30 reports and summaries submitted by the US Human Rights Network as part of the U.N.’s periodic review of the United States.
“The reason the U.N. periodic review is so important right now, to put it simply, is that it is very difficult to get any policy headway, particularly at the federal level and especially when it comes to issues related to women,” Labertew said. “This is a mechanism that allows for some accountability. To have someone else, in this case members of the U.N., say ‘This is what you are saying is happening in your country, but your own people say it is not.’”
As a member of the United Nations, the United States undergoes a Universal Periodic Review — in which members of the U.N. hold a member nation accountable for actions within its territories — every five years. The next one for the United States is in 2020. As part of the review, the U.N. invites a country’s stakeholders to submit reports about issues they feel need to be addressed in that country.
The collective report submitted by the US Human Rights Network covered a wide range of topics, including human rights violations of sex workers, the consequences of Islamophobia, the abuse of asylum seekers, abortion rights, failure to protect voting rights, access to health care and food insecurity, among others.
Labertew, a CSUN alumna who trained as an attorney and has spent more than 25 years working as an advocate for women’s rights, used a legal framework — from international treaties to U.S. laws — to examine the impact U.S. policies have on the availability of health services to migrant women and girls being held at immigration detention facilities. She wrote her report on behalf of the Women LEAD Network, an organization Labertew founded that sees the leadership of women as central to the health of communities around the world.
Among the laws and treaties, she found the U.S. violating was the U.N.’s Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women. Described as an international bill of rights for women and adopted in 1979, it, among other things, requires equality in family planning and that countries ensure women have access to appropriate services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period. The U.S. did not sign on to the convention.
“The U.S. has rolled back such commitments in practice and policy by preventing women’s access to information about family planning, including abortion, in detention,” Labertew said. “Additionally, the U.S. has developed barriers to health care, including menstrual hygiene materials, for migrant women, girls and other menstruating individuals in detention.
“The practice of detaining pregnant women and limiting their access to health-related services is, in itself, a violation of international norms,” she added.
Labertew noted the U.N.’s New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted in 2016, expresses the collective will of the international community and includes commitments to protect human rights of all refugees and migrants — regardless of status — and prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence.
“The U.S.’ inhuman treatment of all migrants, especially women and girls, violates international commitments,” she said, noting that the United States has yet to effectively address reports of sexual violence committed against women and girls being held in immigration detention settings.
Labertew also pointed out that the United States is violating several of its own laws designed to protect migrant women from abuse during immigration detention, including the 1994 Violence Against Women Act and the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act, which identifies specific obligations of detention facilities to prevent abuse and harm to those under their supervision.
“However, the U.S. has attempted to avoid its responsibility to immigrants under this act by arguing that immigration detention does not require the same obligation,” she said.
Labertew said the U.S. also is violating the 2010 Patient Protection Affordable Care Act by denying women and girls in immigration detention access to such basic health care as reproductive care, including abortions, as well as menstrual hygiene materials.
She noted a recent lawsuit filed by 16 states against the U.S. government documented the experiences of several girls who were left in immigration detention without access to a shower and with only one menstrual pad a day. While the guards were aware that the girls were menstruating, the girls were not provided with showers or a change of clothes and were left to visibly bleed through their pants.
Labertew said contributing to the US Human Rights Network collective report was “a simple matter of integrity.”
“You can’t hold other countries accountable to standards that we, ourselves, are not willing to meet,” Labertew said. “Acknowledging that we aren’t the perfect country we like to think we are actually helps establish a level of trust when we ask other countries to hold themselves to a higher standard. We can say ‘Look, we have these things going on that we need to address; we know when these things happen in your country it’s a problem, but one that can be addressed.’”