In 2012, a small but innovative, participatory study with women prisoners in South Africa found that 38% of participants reported physical abuse as a child, with 29% reporting sexual abuse, and 67% experiencing physical or sexual abuse as an adult. The study also found a strong link between childhood sexual abuse and rape and violent offending by women.
In the sixth blog in our anniversary series, the author, Dr Lillian Artz, Director of the Gender, Health & Justice Research Unit at the University of Cape Town, looks at the results of study and says that we still need to know much more than we do about women in prison and in particular about why – and how – so many incarcerated women have travelled a similar road from childhood abuse to abusive adult relationships and into prison.
It goes without saying that that the experiences of women, not to mention their pathways to prison, are remarkably different than those of men. Yet, policy reform and prisoner advocacy initiatives – not to mention actual programmatic and security considerations within prisons – continue to be based almost entirely on research evidence and theories that have been developed to explain the experiences of men. Women continue to be referred to as a “special category” of offenders, often bundled (and bracketed) with other vulnerable groups such as children, the mentally ill and people with disabilities; categories of offenders who have very distinct health, mental health and institutional needs and requirements. Women prisoners are also largely unobserved in broader debates surrounding prisoners’ human rights, sentencing practices and prison reform.
This is not to say that there are no special mentions ‘of women’ in mainstream prison advocacy and reform projects, but it is the inclusion of critical and substantive engagement ‘about women’ that is sadly overlooked. It would be difficult to argue against the suggestion that the domain of “prisoners’ rights” is really in reference to “male prisoners’ rights”, with the remaining populations of prisoners treated as peripheral to, or too exceptional to be included within, mainstream prisoners’ advocacy and research initiatives. The needs of women are both similar and different, hence the importance of promoting legal and institutional parity when it comes to accessing certain rights, services and privileges as well as the need to have cognisance of different rights, services and privileges based on gender differences.
Our knowledge of women in prison, who make up about 5% of the global prison population, shows that the impact of imprisonment on women, their children and other extended members of the family is hardly insignificant. This is particularly true on the African continent. While regional activism surrounding torture prevention, humane prison conditions and sentencing practices are gaining traction at the regional human rights level, little has been reported or published about the demographics of African women in prison, the conditions and circumstances which lead them to imprisonment, the impact of imprisonment and the needs that women as a prison population require. Similarly, little is known about how female offenders experience prison life, or the impact of their incarceration on their health, well-being, and their connections to people in their lives.
In South Africa, the starkly different experiences and concerns of women as well the corollary impact of their incarceration were first documented in a study called Hard Times: Women’s Pathways to Crime and Incarceration. This was an innovative, multi-method project designed for women’s prison settings, culminating in 55 in-depth narratives of incarcerated women. The ‘theoretical aim’ of the project was to highlight the distinctive nature of female criminality and therefore to shift attention from the all-male focus on crime and imprisonment that has characterised most South African criminology to date.
The study aimed to generate new knowledge around women, crime and incarceration through a design that would move beyond the obligatory in-depth interview. The project took place in two prisons and had a number of distinct phases, including focus group discussions, ‘life-mapping’, journal writing, mural painting and the creation of a prisons dictionary. The life-mapping activity, for instance, was artistic at its basis and involved having women identify important turning points in their lives and to represent these visually on a ‘life map’, including the impact that these experiences had on their life course(s) and inevitable paths to imprisonment. The second phase consisted of a brief demographic and life history survey of female prisoners, followed by one-on-one in-depth interviews. Our commitment to the prisoners was to create an environment where they could tell their own stories, in a private space, in their own words, uninterrupted, apart from a few questions for clarification.
There were several important findings from this work – too many to fully articulate and do justice to here. Each of these findings has a context and accompanying narratives, so it is worth reading the study. With that in mind, the demographic data, profoundly articulated within the narratives, reminds us of the particular burdens that women in South Africa face: 75% of the participants reported having children, 45% of which had their first child between the ages of 16-19. The majority of these children were fostered, in the child welfare system or with relatives. The majority of women offenders never got to see their children as the distances from home and the costs of travel for guardians were too costly for many of those just barely living over the poverty line. Most women received no support from the fathers of their children. Only 50% reported having a ‘regular’ income prior to incarceration. Three quarters of the women had never been in prison before. Almost three quarters (73%) never finished school. Half had used drugs and/or alcohol for the first time before they were 15 years old. A striking 47% of the women reported that they had family members who had previously been incarcerated.
Within the prison context, child and adult experience of abuse is probably the single, most important factor that distinguishes female prisoners from male prisoners. McCartan & Gunnison’s (2010) study on Individual and Relationship Factors that Differentiate Female Offenders With and Without a Sexual Abuse History, makes the important point that the link between prior sexual abuse and female offending is one of the most consistent findings within the etiology – or causes – of female offending. Our Hard Times study found that 38% of respondents reported physical abuse as a child, 29% of the women reported being sexually abused as a child and 67% had experienced physical or sexual abuse during their adulthood. The majority of the perpetrators of childhood sexual violence study were “father figures” or “care takers”. The average age of victimisation by sexual assault and/or rape was 7 years old, with the earliest age of victimisation being 3 years old and the highest (of those under the age of 18) was 16 years old.
It is important to note that many of the women were sexually assaulted over a period of time during their childhood (62%), with several being sexually assaulted by different men over the course of their childhoods (31%). One third were sentenced for economic crimes, another third for murder, usually as a result of abusive contexts.
Examining the impact of sexual abuse on female offending by exploring the differences between female offenders with and without histories of sexual abuse, McCartan & Gunnison found that offenders with a history of prior sexual abuse were significantly more likely (than those who did not have a history) to end up in abusive relationships and to have friends who have also been arrested and to have been incarcerated for three primary types of offences: violent offences, drug-related offences and property-related offences (presumably meaning ‘economic offences’, such as robbery or theft). Our study found remarkably similar findings. Of those who experienced sexual assault and rape during their childhood, 56% were convicted for murder and 38% for theft/robbery/fraud. These were the most likely forms of offending committed by victims of child sexual abuse or rape.
Our study was exploratory and methodologically experimental to some extent. While the sample for this study is admittedly small, the frequency data does provide a cursory representation of the more in-depth engagements and narratives that emanated from this project. Most importantly, the research put women at the centre of the research, and later, the advocacy process. The unconventional and participatory design behind the work could have produced very little scientifically, but was designed to have relevance for the participants themselves. In other words, it had to be “worthwhile” for our participants. Both the methodology and the subsequent findings provide the basis for a more focused project on the etiological factors that began to emerge in this work. We have seen that history of abuse, for instance, as a statistically significant predictor of female offending in a number of international studies, particularly in relation to what has been termed as ‘atypical female offending’ such as armed robbery.
However, by all accounts, the link between child sexual and/or physical abuse and violent offending (attempted or actual murder, serious assault or sexual offender) has not received much attention, even internationally. This may be because of the significantly smaller number of female violent offenders in international contexts. However, with over one third of South African women in our prisons sentenced for murder, the connection between early sexual victimisation and adult violent offending is worth examining in detail.
About the author
Prior to establishing the Gender Health & Justice Research Unit in 2004, Lillian spent 10 years as a Chief Researcher and Lecturer at the Centre for Criminology (Faculty of Law) at the University of Cape Town. Lillian has published widely on domestic violence, sexual offences, feminist legal theory and women’s rights to freedom and security in Africa and has worked on criminal justice and health care reform in Southern and East Africa over the past 17 years. Artz is the Vice President of the Criminological and Victimological Society of Southern Africa and has worked as a technical consultant to a wide range of parliamentary structures, law commissions, criminal justice institutions and international donors in Southern and East Africa. She is on the editorial board of Agenda and Acta Criminologica , is co-editor of Should we Consent?: Rape Law Reform in South Africa and co-author of Hard Time(s): Women’s Pathways to Crime and Incarceration (2012). In 2013 Lillian was awarded a Distinguished Women Scientist Award by the Department of Science and Technology.
For more about Lillian and the Gender Health & Justice Research Unit, click here.
About this blog series
To mark our 25th Anniversary and prepare for the Crime Congress in Qatar in April 2015, PRI is running a series of monthly expert guest blogs, addressing interesting current trends and pressing criminal justice challenges in criminal justice and penal reform.
Blogs will be available here on our website and as podcasts on the 25th of each month from May 2014 to April 2015.