By Isabella Oliver and Josefina Salomón

The first time Patricia Tévez went to the district prosecutor’s office in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to demand that the system do something to protect her husband, who was being tortured and beaten inside a prison, she felt lost and alone. With her two young children beside her, she was left standing in the office with no support and no idea as to what to do next. What she did know is that if she didn’t do something, her husband could be killed. The authorities told her everything was fine.

It was then that Patricia met Andrea Casamento, the mother of a young man who had been in a very similar situation. She had received calls from her son, who was being held in the Penitentiary Center of Ezeiza, a department 20 kilometers south of the country’s capital, saying that all he had to wear was underwear, and that he had gone many hours without eating. He told her that if he didn’t find a way out of prison soon, he would take his own life.

Patricia remembers the feeling well: “Our family members tell us ‘go to the Ombudsman’s office, say this or that’ but they explain things to us using words that we don’t understand. Family members aren’t lawyers. It’s because of this that family members don’t go, don’t ask, and don’t claim their rights.”

Andrea and Patricia have faced the reality of thousands of women whose relatives are in prison: coming face to face with an intricate maze of institutions, mechanisms, and vulnerabilities that systematically violate the rights of their loved ones, as well as their own.

“The narrative of human rights surrounding prison systems across Latin America has largely been centered on those on the inside of the bars,” explains WOLA Senior Fellow, Coletta Youngers. “But we also need to take into account, from a gender perspective, who is left behind when people are detained and how their lives change virtually overnight.”

Women make up the majority of people who care for those in prisons across Latin America. They are often responsible for securing food, medicines and other essential needs States fail to provide. They suffer from abusive searches and other forms of violence when visiting their loved ones behind bars.