THE REBECA LAN FOUNDATION: HELPING WOMEN REDISCOVER THEIR FREEDOM
By Alejandra Aguirre and Andrea Flores
August 7, 2020
Rashel Cohen Lan is a social activist, founder and current president of the civil association Fundación Rebeca Lan, a non-profit organization committed to the social reintegration of women deprived of liberty, and their children, in Mexico founded in 2015. She began her activist work by participating in the creation of an area for children from 0 to 6 children who lived with their mothers in the Santa Martha Acatitla Social Reintegration Center. It was at that moment that, as a result of the empathy she felt, the desire to create the Rebeca Lan Foundation arose. Rashel learned that a person in prison also loses his self-esteem, the sense of control of his life and the positive outlook on his life. Rashel's passion and conviction has led both individuals and businesses to join his cause. Her work has been recognized with the 2019 Regional Human Rights Award and the 2019 National Award for Voluntary and Solidarity Action. She has also been named a Woman of Courage by L’Oréal. It is her firm conviction that providing more and better tools inside and outside the prison promotes the social reintegration of women deprived of liberty, helping not only them, but also their families and society as a whole.
July 1st of the present year, we conducted an interview with Rashel Cohen, founder of Rebeca Lan, in order to get to know more about her work with the foundation and learn about the problems faced by thousands of women incarcerated in Mexico. The foundation was created by Rashel after being inspired by her mother and the great work she carried out throughout her life, helping people to progress and be happy. That is why the foundation is named Rebeca Lan, in honor of Rashel´s incredible mother. After it was created, it has been able to expand to a large number of prisons in Mexico City, State of Mexico, and Baja California.
Within each of the penitentiary centers, Rashel and other members of the foundation work hard for the benefit of the incarcerated women, focusing on 4 areas: dignification in penitentiary centers, healing in emotional intelligence, family and maternal ties, and labor inclusion. In order to improve the lives of these women, they have activities and centers such as: libraries, toy libraries, orchestras, programs, workshops, therapies, family reunions, and outings for children living in prison with their mother. Fundación Rebeca Lan, during its short but important existence, has had very good streaks but has also faced various difficulties. It has not been easy for Rashel and the members of the foundation to inform society about their project and win their support, as well as to gain support from companies and prisons themselves. Despite these difficulties, Fundación Rebeca Lan is currently working to help the reintegration of incarcerated women into society, as individuals and mothers, as well as implementing a project focused on the job market of women.
Women deprived of their liberty in penitentiary centers generally live in isolation, in solitude, with lack of food, medical and hygiene care, as well as the lack of tools necessary for their reintegration to society after serving their sentences. They even lack basic things such as toilet paper and pads. 7 out of 10 women are abandoned by their families and this is unlike men. Women suffer from abandonment while men receive visits from their wives, mothers, grandmothers, etc. Prisons are designed by men and for men. 1/3 of the centers have spaces for women, which involves a gender problem or issue.
Once I had to be at communal weddings in one of the prisons, 3 incarcerated women were getting married and 54 incarcerated men. It was very hard because they were not allowed to wear white because they are deprived of liberty, white could only be worn by those who came from outside. Outside the prison there were 54 women dressed as brides waiting to get married and the only thing that came to my mind was: ´If you were the ones in there, would they be here waiting to marry you?´ My conclusion was no, and the difference between the 3 women and the 54 men is too noticeable, as is the abandonment experienced by incarcerated women.
The foundation´s project was started to promote women's work because only 5% of the women who recover their freedom find a job. Leaving prison with a criminal record is a factor that affects the job opportunities of 95% of women. 86% of the women in prison have at least 1 child living with them and 60% of the children are minors. Women have to provide for their children in prison and if they live with a relative, they have to find a way to provide things. They have to meet their own needs and those of their children. That is why Fundación Rebeca Lan Seeks to help imprisoned women, giving them the necessary tools to be able to progress personally and professionally after serving their sentences.
Once we did an activity to deliver instruments to the Tijuana orchestra at its prison and to celebrate we brought an orchestra of children from an orphanage. At the end of the day, the director spoke with me and let me know that one of the girls from the orphanage was in the same place, under the same roof as her mother, both without knowing this because they were separated at birth and did not know how to find each other. Upon learning of this, it was very hard, but the authorities decided not to tell the mother of her daughter due to emotional and legal problems. We have worked with both of them to strengthen them emotionally so that in the future they can have a relationship as mother and daughter.
Rashel has many long and short-term purposes for her foundation, such as continuing programs to continue to improve women's lives and provide them with new and good opportunities. She also wants to grow its alliances with companies and institutions so that they provide women with a job opportunity when they get out of prison, influence public policies, and be able to build a halfway house. Today, thanks to the worldwide contingency for COVID-19, all annual activities were suspended. It has been very hard for these women and their families not to have family visits or calls, etc. This new reality is more difficult because they face true confinement. It is very desperate for them but with efforts we have been able to collect donations to send them personal hygiene products and offer them online workshops to adapt to the new reality while supporting them.
For Rashel, it is important that Fundación Rebeca Lan and the members and readers of Raise Your Voice unite and rise up in one voice for the invisible, the forgotten, the marginalized, for all the vulnerable population that needs us and to achieve an impact together, not only in the imprisoned women and their families, but also in the country's security. We must not complain about what is happening, we must act and attend to this problem that is real and that exists. Someday the women will get out, no matter what they got in for. It is of great importance that these women are helped in order to progress, to be strong, to be emotionally healthy and to be better in our society.
I invite you to join the cause and get to know the stories of these women. Each woman has a story behind them that is not easy. You can help at any time at www.fundacionrebecalan.org with any donation, volunteer service, social service or professional practice. We want the relationship between Fundación Rebeca Lan and Raise Your Voice to be more than this interview, because there are so many women who need to raise their voice.
To end the interview we asked Rashel: “What is freedom?” Her responses put us to reflect a lot on the value we give it and the meaning we have for it. It could be concluded that for Rashel freedom is something that is within us; women can be imprisoned but the mind can be free. There is a feeling, the most important tool for human beings, not only physical but also mental. Having freedom of voice, being able to say the things you want to say. When we are physically free we do not realize the great value of being free as well as having emotional freedom, if one is not emotionally well, one may feel prisoner.
Freedom for me has no name, it has no name to see a woman when she gets out of jail, to see her empowered, to do well. Being free myself, after working with women in prison, when I leave, I value life in every way that can exist, my relationships, children, being able to have that kind of contact, having the freedom to love, of being able to tell people you love her. There are many who do not have the freedom to say I love you, here I am for you, or I am having a hard time too.
There are many types of freedom such as the physical and the mental, but from these come branches such as freedom of choice, choosing whether you are going to do something or not, whether you are going to say something or not, or when we want to say yes and when we want to say no. Freedom is an important word for each human being and that is why the “I Value my Freedom” campaign was created, a continuous and stable campaign. It is important that we value ourselves, that we know how and where we are through freedom. The objective is to create awareness in people's lives through this campaign, when they go with Rashel and foundation members to jails, etc. Freedom has a different meaning for everyone. Rashel Cohen has an opinion on this that may be totally different from ours or from anyone else´s. That is why today we ask you: “What is freedom for you and what value do you give it?”