A Hug to Humanity
Fire-chat with Saskia Niño de Rivera, founder of Reinserta in Mexico
Saskia Niño de Rivera was the first of the Vital Voices Gala evening’s honorees to walk back on stage at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center Opera on April 24th, 2019.
The Mexican activist went straight to Hillary Clinton, and without hesitation, hugged the former Secretary of State and co-founder of Vital Voices, a global foundation launched in 1997 to support women who advance economic opportunity, increase political and public engagement, end gender-based violence and promote human rights across 180 countries and territories.
A few moments before, the audience saw a video of children playing in Lucha Libre disguises (the famous masked Mexican wrestlers). One them, drawing, is heard wishing: “I want to go to the zoo; when I am big, I want to be a fireman; and when I am really big–yeah–if I am really big, I will be The Hulk.”
A childhood fantasy, indeed, except this child cannot even go to a zoo. This child is one the 700 children born and raised in a Mexican jail.
“We call these kids the invisible kids,” Niño de Rivera explains. “The only crime they have committed was being born in prison. They are completely forgotten by the government and the society.”
At 31 years old, Niño de Rivera received in Washington D.C. international recognition for the decade of work done by her foundation, Reinserta, helping the hundreds of children who live until they are six years old in Mexico’s penitentiaries.
“Reinserta was created because we believe in humanity. We believe in social justice. We support the imprisoned, their families, and the invisible children. No one deserves to be left behind, especially those that we have failed to include,” Niño de Rivera said during her Vital Voices Global Leadership Award’s acceptance speech: “I believe it is time to choose humanity over hatred. Do you?” she asked.
When did you get interested in the situation in the Mexican prison system?
Growing up in Mexico, you are always in contact with insecurity; everyone you know has been a victim of a crime. It wasn’t any different in my case. One of my family members was kidnapped. The negotiation process made me realize how the criminal world worked. Studying psychology and criminology—and working for various organizations where I was in contact with the penitentiary system—made me understand that the key to solving Mexico’s insecurity crisis lies in its prison system.
There are approximately 9,626 women imprisoned in Mexican prisons
Prison in Mexico is responsible for insecurity?
It certainly is—it is one of the key factors that promote insecurity in Mexico. There are many prisons that are self-governed by organized crime groups, which operate extortions and kidnappings from within the prison walls. Few people want to accept this reality, yet there are no effective reintegration programs or even humane situations to guarantee that people in prison will not become repeat offenders once freed.
What is the prison situation in Mexico? There is an overpopulation in many prisons that does not provide humane living conditions for inmates whether it is access to spaces or to programs that promote effective social reintegration.
There were horrifying cases of 12-year old children who had never left a prison cell
Your first focus has been imprisoned women. How many of them are jailed in Mexico?
There are approximately 9,626 women imprisoned in Mexican prisons—and 6,306 juvenile offenders, both male and female.
Why are they in prison? These women are very often found guilty of crimes for which they were not the sole perpetrator. In many cases, there was a male relative behind that crime.
How so? Women tend to be the person who feeds the kidnapping victim or assists in the crime. Yet they get the same sentence (sometimes even higher) than the male perpetrator.
Women in prison are highly invisible and are generally doubly punished
Why would the punishment be worse? Women in prison are highly invisible and are generally doubly punished—criminally and socially—for transgressing the limits assigned to their gender role. Committing a crime sentences a woman socially. Their families tend to abandon them—70% of the women in prison are forgotten by their families. This leads to a lack of support networks that would otherwise provide them with legal assistance during trials, hence the reinforced criminal punishment.
Do they also suffer from gender inequality while facing the justice system? Women tend to be judged more severely because judges are often sexist. Due to the cultural and social norms in Mexico, women live under repressive family dynamics, for which they participate in crimes (sometimes without the intention of doing so) in order to maintain their family afloat.
Are women placed in ‘women-only’ facilities? Around 46% of the centers where women are incarcerated are gender mixed. These women and their children are living in ill-suited spaces for their needs inside a male prison.
Surely not the best place for raising a child! Having children living in these spaces where they have to experience violence, drug abuse and crime, are detrimental to their futures and their developments.
Do women get pregnant once they are jailed? Women have a right to become mothers, and it is not different for female inmates: they have the same rights to motherhood as any other free woman. The Mexican law grants the right to conjugal visits for female and male inmates, which promotes the creation of families.
It is our job to make sure the government fully executes the law in all prisons
What happens to the kids once they leave the jails? Each case is different. They mainly go live with other family members (grandmothers, aunts, older siblings); they otherwise join an orphanage. Mexico does not have a foster home system like in the US; nonetheless some organizations host children of incarcerated parents. One of them, which we work closely with—FUNFAI—takes care of the children from the day they leave prison until their 12th birthday.
But these children are not yet completely freed just because they are technically free? These kids often fall back into poverty in violent neighborhoods and in crime-filled families, which makes them more susceptible to criminal activities. This is why it is so important to work with children when they are in prison so we can reduce the risk of them committing crimes, as well as with children in foster homes that are well suited for their developmental needs. And, of course, to follow-up with them until they are adults.
So, how can Reinserta get a greater impact? When we started Reinserta, Mexico did not have a law that mandated that children living in prison receive the most basic necessities. Mexico did not even recognize the existence of children in prison. There were horrifying cases of 12-year old children who had never left a prison cell. We lobbied Mexican politicians to pass the motherhood clause in the National Criminal Enforcement Law to recognize the existence of children in the penitentiary system.
What does that entail? This includes a dedicated budget for children in the penitentiary system so that their basic human rights are respected, and children are allowed to stay with their mothers until they are three-years-old.
Is that applied? It is now our job to make sure the government fully executes the law in all prisons.
You also work with juvenile offenders. Can you tell us a little bit about that? Working with them is a chance to give youth the tools to live a life away from crime, which in the end will prevent recidivism and will improve Mexico’s security as a whole.
How did you get Reinserta up the ground? What were the obstacles? We were lucky enough to have great allies and partners that believed in the cause as much as we did, including important law firms in Mexico, businessmen and women, politicians, other organizations, and the general public that donated their money and time to get our program up and running. There were of course obstacles. I can say that nine out of ten businessmen I speak with do not want to help criminals.
Did the government react positively to your project? There is always some resistance when you are appearing in the media and stating a problem that the government does not have the capacity to solve and sometimes the will to solve. But the government has understood, for the most part, that civil society exists to help them create what they cannot. Government and society should work and be held together accountable.
You are a woman leader and you help and protect women who are in dire conditions. Are you a feminist? Of course, I am a feminist. Every woman should be.
What does feminism mean to you? Feminism, on a strict definition, means ‘fighting every day to achieve social, political and economic equality between sexes.’ It is a very broad concept, which to me is the great because it allows us to fight for many things that are not working.
Which ones? Feminism should be about fighting for those women who can’t. It should be about intersectionality, social justice, and empowerment. We—as women—have to empower each other and bring light into these problems that are otherwise not going away. It is a very unequal world, with a lot of injustice, so we have to create projects that seek to improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable. It is extremely important that society seeks to generate progress, and as women, we must find our way to the decision-making tables so that we can change the world.
Saskia Niño de Rivera is also a Women’s Forum for the Economy Rising Talents