A security guard at the gates to Yarl’s Wood. Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are pregnant women being detained in Yarl’s Wood?

New evidence from the charity Medical Justice shows that some pregnant women in detention are receiving sub-standard medical care, putting the life of both mother and child at risk.

When the Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre opened its doors in November 2001, it was billed as an extension of an airport waiting lounge, but for some of those who have passed through its barbed wire fences, it feels more akin to a prison. And a secretive prison at that. Just last year, the United Nations special rapporteur for violence against women was denied entry. Cameras are prohibited within the facility.

Rather than a short “transit”, some detainees will spend months and even years in detention. And despite the hotel-like description on its website (“All bedrooms have en-suite wet room and toilet and are tastefully decorated with floral curtains”), two former detainees I spoke to, a husband and his pregnant wife, described their experience as “worse than in the third world – the UK says it has the best human rights, but as someone who’s been through the system, I didn’t experience this”.

Yarl’s Wood has become notorious for a number of controversies since its opening, including the detention of children until as recently as 2010. Over the years, campaigners have pointed to consistent allegations of abuse within its walls, including racist taunts and “improper sexual contact” with female detainees. And in 2011, the treatment of pregnant women at the centre hit the headlines when it was revealed one pregnant detainee collapsed after enduring a four-day journey from Belfast to Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire via Scotland and Manchester. In a recent case, a pregnant detainee miscarried after collapsing at the facility.

New evidence from the charity Medical Justice now shows that some pregnant women in detention are receiving sub-standard medical care, putting the life of both mother and child at risk.

A Home Office investigation is currently pending into claims against Serco, the private company contracted to run the centre, made by the couple I spoke to. The allegations include the manhandling of an expectant woman, despite it being unlawful to use force on pregnant women to achieve removal, and accusations medical staff ignored serious symptoms including abdominal pain and vaginal bleeding. The woman, who is currently five months pregnant, complained: “I kept being told everything was normal, but I knew something was wrong.” Upon release, she was treated for an infection that can cause miscarriages and stillbirth.

A recent investigation by Channel 4 News highlighted the abuse and harassment of women within the centre and the devastating consequences for their mental and physical wellbeing, particularly when many have been victims of sexual assault, trafficking, and various forms of violence in their countries of origin. The consequence of this abuse is even more precarious for pregnant women who – according to the government’s own guidelines – should only ever be held in exceptional circumstances. In damning evidence to an inquiry by the all-party parliamentary group on refugees and the all-party parliamentary group on migration into the detention of pregnant women, team inspector at HM Prisons Inspectorate Hindpal Singh Bhui stated: “…we haven’t found those exceptional circumstances in the paperwork to justify their detention in the first place.”

Serco claims it provides “a comprehensive primary care service for all of our residents” but Medical Justice, a charity whose volunteer clinicians visit and assess detainees, has observed that the standard of care within the centre often falls short of NICE Guidelines and comparable recommendations. One volunteer midwife said:

I've seen women who need urgent medical and obstetric care, who I would have admitted immediately to hospital if I'd seen them in my normal practice, be denied access to hospital, one had an ambulance they called turned away at the gates and many have been denied pain relief and other symptomatic treatment. The delay in getting them to an obstetrician was sometimes over a week. Some of these women had risk factors for life-threatening conditions.”

The UK Border Agency claims not to know the exact number of pregnant women detained, but over a ten-month period beginning in March 2013, Medical Justice saw 21 detained pregnant women, one of whom was held for 122 days. Their case review showed that the detained pregnant women were around 7 times more likely to experience complications in pregnancy and for Phoebe Pallotti RM, a registered midwife and academic who volunteers with Medical Justice, the reasons are all too clear: “I've seen women with serious complications of pregnancy been forced to miss vital appointments because of their detention and recommendations from previous treating doctors and advice given by myself be routinely not acted upon and urgent care seriously delayed.”

For Pallotti, stories of pregnant women’s concerns about their and their child’s health being ignored by medical staff at Yarl’s Wood are all too common. In the majority of the cases she documented, medical staff seemed to flout standards of care applied in the wider community, including basic procedures such as informing patients about the medications they were being given and their potential side effects: “I’ve seen very vulnerable pregnant women with documented histories of depression or presenting with symptoms of depression and PTSD been given medication for preventing malaria (so that they could be removed) which we never use in the NHS for anyone with mental health problems because it can and does cause psychosis and suicidal ideation. In some cases their mental health seriously deteriorated.”

One former detainee charged midwifery staff from a local trust with falsifying information in her pregnancy records – she says she was denied routine consultations, including the standard testing for down-syndrome. She also accused the nurses at Yarl’s Wood of being complicit in the abuse she says she suffered: “They [the guards] were pulling me by my (pregnant) stomach and the nurses were just watching on even though I was calling for help.”

The primary purpose of detention is removal, but according to the most recent review by Medical Justice, of the 21 pregnant women they visited, none were actually removed and all but one were released back into the community. One woman left the UK voluntarily.

In response to the allegations made by Medical Justice, a Home Office spokesperson said:

Home Office detention policy is that pregnant women should not normally be detained. However, pregnant women may be detained when their removal is imminent and medical advice does not suggest the baby is due before the woman's expected removal date. Women who are less than 24 weeks' pregnant may also be detained under the fast track asylum process.

All detainees have access to healthcare facilities and medical advice at all times. There is a complaints system for anyone who feels they have not been treated in accordance with our standards and all complaints are investigated thoroughly.

The former Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, Stephen Shaw, is undertaking an independent review of detainee welfare and will pay particular attention to detainees who may be especially vulnerable, including pregnant women.”

As debates on immigration heat up close to the elections, the cost of detention to the tax payer is a hot topic. But the charity points out that detaining someone is around £30,000 more expensive annually than supporting them in the community and that contrary to popular belief, not only do pregnant women rarely abscond, but where deemed necessary, they can be removed from the country after the child’s birth. For Pallotti, this just confirms her view that the policy of detaining pregnant women needs reviewing. “Regardless of one’s views on immigration,” she noted, “the detention of pregnant women may not often be successful at achieving deportation, costs a lot of unnecessary money, and can be very damaging to the pregnant mother.” 

Myriam Francois is a writer, broadcaster and academic with a focus on current affairs, the Middle East, Islam and France. She currently works as a broadcast journalist for TRT world, a global news network, and was the presenter of documentaries including BBC One's “A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited”.

She is a Research Associate at the Centre of Islamic Studies (CIS) at SOAS University, where her research focuses on British Muslim integration issues. She also undertakes the centre’s media outreach and research dissemination in relation to its work on British Muslim communities.
Myriam is currently a PhD (DPhil) researcher at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco. 

She tweets @MFrancoisCerrah

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
Show Hide image

Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.