Educational opportunities and rehabilitation programmes that take the specific needs of women into account are needed in Uganda in order to break the cycles of poverty among women and ensure that they are not left behind, says PRI’s Africa Programme Manager Doreen N Kyazze.
There is a growing number of women and girls entering the criminal justice system in Uganda today. This is a reflection of global trends: the fourth edition of the World Female Imprisonment List, published in November 2017 by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, showed that the world’s female prison population has increased by approximately 53 per cent since the year 2000. In 2017, there were 2,579 women prisoners in Uganda, compared to 1,592 in 2013. Research shows that the majority of women and girls engaged in the criminal justice system come from poor or very poor backgrounds, are facing poverty-related crimes (street vending, prostitution and petty theft), and are unable to afford bail, meaning that they are therefore detained while awaiting trial. Most are aged between 21 and 40 years old, illiterate or semi-illiterate, and the majority have children.
Despite this background, women and girls’ needs are routinely overlooked in the criminal justice system, because they are fewer in number. For instance, the Uganda prison service provides both formal and vocational training programmes for prisoners, but, due to resource constraints, these programmes mostly target men – a trend that is seen around the world. Pre-release preparation and post-release support policies and programmes are typically structured around the requirements of men, and rarely address the gender‑specific needs of women offenders. There are usually fewer educational and training opportunities for women, and those that are available are less varied and of poorer quality than those offered to male detainees.
Women prisoners barely participate in formal education, as evidenced by the 2017 O Level examinations where there was no female prisoner candidate.
In Uganda, women prisoners barely participate in formal education, as evidenced by the 2017 O Level examinations where there was no female prisoner candidate. The vocational training programmes offered to women and girls have been constructed around the traditional role of women in society, and include handicrafts, hairdressing and weaving. Learning these skills is a positive development, but there is a very low market demand for such skills, which limits women’s employability after release. The income is also not lucrative enough to lift these women out of poverty, thereby increasing the likelihood to reoffend. The ‘feminisation of poverty’ has been identified as a likely cause for the increase in the female prison population at a faster rate than men. While some women are employed at the time of their arrest, engagement in the criminal justice system often leads to loss of employment, placing a series of severe financial and social strains on individuals and their families that can lead to inescapable poverty, especially where the woman is the main provider.
The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) pledge to leave no one behind. Goal 10, which focuses on inequality, includes empowering and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, race, ethnicity, or economic or other status. One of the goal’s targets is to ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services. Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, including ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere. Goal 4 ensures inclusive and equitable quality education for all, including equal access for girls and boys to free and quality primary and secondary education.
Since the majority of women and girls in the criminal justice system have histories of poor access to education and are from very poor backgrounds, female offenders represent a group with specific educational, social and economic needs that have to be addressed if Uganda is to achieve Goals 4, 5 and 10. Criminal justice reforms (including sanctions and rehabilitation programmes) that take into account the specific needs of women and which incorporate the UN Bangkok Rules – a set of standards that give guidance on the treatment of women prisoners – have the potential to break the cycles of poverty among women and ensure that they are not left behind.
PRI’s UN Bangkok Rules toolbox includes a range of resources that provide guidance for putting the Rules into practice.
The Special Focus section of PRI’s 2017 Global Prison Trends report includes an overview of international criminal justice standards that are relevant to the SDGs.
Photo: Kampala Women’s Prison, 2012