In her north-end Halifax home, Martha Paynter’s laptop sits open on the dining room table, which also serves as a makeshift work desk. Her three-year-old daughter plays quietly nearby. Having her child close to her is natural, the way she believes it should be, not just for herself, but for all women.
But Paynter is keenly aware that what is natural, isn’t possible for some women. Women who are incarcerated don’t have a choice. They are separated from their children. After becoming a mother and learning that in the same city she calls home there were women in corrections facilities, pregnant and alone, unable to see their children, Paynter couldn’t sit quietly and do nothing. It was unjust in her eyes. She had to act.
“Imprisonment of women is a huge violation of human rights,” she said in a recent interview at her home. “They have their children taken from them. It’s brutality.”
Paynter is a nurse and an activist. She sees it as her responsibility to use her education and privilege to help those less fortunate, and to fight for change.
“I have a very privileged life,” she said. “I have to use this (privilege) wisely and productively.”
Paynter, who is pursuing her PhD in nursing at Dalhousie University, doesn’t mince her words. She speaks pointedly. Her desire to give back to her community, and to help the incarcerated women she sees suffering, is so strong it is palpable.
“The least we can do is use the tools we have as nurses to address the harm done to these women,” she said.
For her work, Paynter was one of five students at Dalhousie to receive the university’s prestigious student leadership honour, the Board of Governors Award, in March. Having recently completed her first year of her PhD program, Paynter will spend the next few years trying to better understand pre-natal and post-partum health outcomes of women and transgender people incarcerated in Canada. It is an interest that grew out of her volunteer work.
In 2012, she founded Women’s Wellness Within, a Halifax-based non-profit organization that serves criminalized women and supports and advocates for pregnant women in jail during their perinatal period through educational workshops and doula services. In 2014, they provided doula services to their first woman in a corrections facility. Since then, they have served about 30 women.
“Compassion is the first step to providing adequate care,” she said.
“Nothing separates us except our privilege,” she added. “There is no goodness or badness.”
Dedicated and driven, Paynter now dedicates about 15 hours a week to the organization that became incorporated as a non-profit in 2017.
“Everyone involved is a volunteer in the organization,” she said.
I feel very obliged to bring about change. I felt driven…
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