As a minority in national prison populations, women are often at a disadvantage compared to men in prison, with few prisons meeting their basic needs or adequately preparing them for release or reintegration. Women have also faced increased hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of changes to prison regimes that fail to account of their specific needs.
Women Beyond Walls’ recent exploratory report found that work with and for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and girls is desperately underfunded. In this expert blog, Isabella Cordua and Sabrina Mahtani discuss current funding gaps and how to mobilise resources to support women in prison and after release.
This piece was originally published in Inside Philanthropy on 7 February 2022.
There are currently more than 741,000 women in prison worldwide. The past two decades have seen the global female prison population grow at an alarming rate. The number of women in prison is estimated to have increased by about 59% between 2000 and 2020 – a much faster rate than that of men. Poverty, prior victimization, discriminatory laws and punitive drug policies are the main drivers behind the alarming increase in women’s incarceration. While these factors have undoubtedly been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, two-thirds of countries that carried out emergency releases to reduce overpopulation did not explicitly include women.
The detention of women has a devastating impact on them and their families. For example, studies have found that imprisoned women – the majority of whom are mothers – are more likely to self-harm in prison than their male counterparts. Despite these concerning statistics, Women Beyond Walls’ recent exploratory report found that work with and for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and girls is desperately underfunded.
A vibrant area of activism
Our report, Forgotten by Funders, draws on interviews with a total of 34 small-to-medium-sized organizations working with and for incarcerated women and girls, from 24 countries across five continents, mostly in the majority world. More than half of these organizations have women with lived experience of the justice system involved or leading their work.
These organizations are creating vital change in the lives of women and girls and are reshaping the criminal legal system through their work. They face various challenges, such as accessing prisons and working in restricted civic spaces, all while tackling stigma against incarcerated people. These challenges have been exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, but these organisations have tried to adapt and continue their work via new means, such as telecommunications technology.
Despite operating in very difficult political and social environments, they provide essential legal services and peer support to women who have been impacted by the criminal legal system. They also conduct participatory research to better understand the causes and consequences of women’s incarceration, and lobby for key changes in the criminal system, including the introduction of gender-responsive policies and the abolishment of the death penalty. This is a vibrant and innovative area of activism that deserves to be better resourced.
26% [of organisations] may not be able to operate next year due to lack of funds
However, the majority of these organizations are facing precarious funding situations. 26% said they may not be able to operate next year due to lack of funds, and 30% said they will have to make cuts but will survive. 79% had reserves or savings of less than six months of their annual budget.
Leave no woman behind
The majority of organizations surveyed felt that addressing women’s incarceration was not a priority for most donors who are seeking to fund human rights, women’s rights or access to justice. Available funding opportunities did not sufficiently align with their strategies or areas of work, making it challenging to access funding and sustain their vital efforts . According to one respondent, “Working with currently or formerly incarcerated women is not a priority topic for many donors though, and this does make securing funding extremely challenging. If we try to fit into their ‘economic empowerment’ or ‘poverty’ or ‘SGBVH’ interventions it means we design whole new programmes that pull a large number of staff away from our core mandate.” Another said, “[There is] lack of interest by funders in issues related to women’s incarceration; those funders that are doing this work in the USA are not interested in supporting such work internationally.”
A large proportion of organizations rely on individual donations and fundraising events, which results in precarious funding streams. According to one respondent, “Engaging individual donors is particularly difficult as women in the criminal justice system is often an unpopular cause in a ‘tough on crime’ political climate.”
Our report also found that 71% of organizations interviewed do not receive funding from foundations that identify as women’s rights or feminist funders. One organisation surveyed said, “Foundations that fund feminist organisations are not interested in incarceration issues – and there is a conflict in terms of carceral feminism.”
If feminist donors truly want to address intersectional issues, then they must go beyond the negative public perception around incarceration and fund work that supports all women and girls, despite their often complex realities.
incarcerated women and girls are far too often left out of mainstream women’s rights and human rights convenings and movements
This lack of prioritization is a reflection of how incarcerated women and girls are far too often left out of mainstream women’s rights and human rights convenings and movements. A prime example was the recent Generation Equality Forum, billed as the biggest convening on women’s rights in the last 25 years. Women’s incarceration did not feature in any of the six key thematic action areas chosen for the global community to focus on for the next five years. This happened in spite of the issue’s relevance to ending gender-based violence, economic justice and rights, and feminist movements and leadership.
The Generation Equality Forum garnered $40 billion in pledges to support a bold strategy for gender equality. For example, Open Society Foundations pledged at least $100 million over five years to fund feminist political mobilization and leadership, with a signifbeicant amount going to feminist funds. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $2.1 billion over the next five years to promote women’s economic empowerment, sexual and reproductive health, and women’s leadership. However, while the Forum aimed to foster an intersectional, intergenerational, and intersectoral approach to gender equality, attention to incarcerated women was notably absent.
This moment – with more global attention being placed on funding gender equality – presents a critical opportunity to address the longstanding neglect of work with and for incarcerated women and girls. Feminist and women’s rights funders, as well as other donors, should listen to the views and challenges of organizations working in this space, especially to women with lived experience, and consider how they plan to address issues around incarceration within their women’s rights and gender justice strategies.
Quantity AND quality of funding
Our research also highlighted an urgent need to improve the quality of funding to organizations working with and for incarcerated women and girls. It found that the majority of organizations interviewed received less than 25% of core funding in the last two years.
It is well documented that with flexible, unrestricted funding, organisations can self-determine their agendas, respond to changes, seize opportunities, cover their operating costs and invest funds where they are most needed. Providing flexible and sustained core funding is a tenet of feminist funding principles to support the impact and sustainability of women’s rights organizations.
Organizations working with and for incarcerated women and girls receive insufficient support to fully implement their strategies. 88% percent of participants said there were strategies they would like to implement but could not do so effectively because of a lack of funding. 56% of participants said they would like to undertake strategies that donors will not fund. In particular, post-incarceration support was challenging to fund. According to one respondent, “Sometimes we have to be committed to what donors decide to support even if we have the ability to identify the priority/ies of work in terms of women and girls’ issues as we are the ones who are working on the ground and have the ability to reflect the real need to be worked on.” Another said, “It is challenging to find high calibre staff who will accept the salaries we can offer with the low funds we have – international NGOs make this all the more challenging with the packages they can offer and causes a constant brain drain for the organisation. Even with the right salaries/packages, some skills are just very challenging to find – including business development/fundraising and Monitoring Evaluation and Learning.”
What can funders do better?
Our report offers some key recommendations:
- Resource a global mapping of organizations and unregistered groups working with and for women and girls impacted by the criminal legal system. Listen to organizations working in this area and women with lived experience of the criminal legal system, to shape funding priorities and interventions.
- Dedicate new funding for work with and for women and girls impacted by the criminal legal system. Ensure that the funding is accessible. [a) Create explicit open call processes; b) Simplify funding requirements; c) Partner with women’s funds and public foundations that have the capacity and expertise to work with small and/or unregistered groups.]
- Increase and prioritize feminist funding for work with and for women and girls impacted by the criminal legal system.
- Improve the quality of funding for organizations working with and for women and girls impacted by the criminal legal system. [a) Provide flexible and unrestricted funding that allows organizations to pursue their own agendas; b) Build multi-year partnerships that allow organizations to do long-term strategic work; c) Support organizations to build reserves to allow for sustainability.]
- Increase non-financial support to organizations working with and for women impacted by the criminal legal system, contributing to their sustainability.
- Invest in movement-building, networking initiatives and shared learning between organizations working with and for women and girls impacted by the criminal legal system, as well as with the wider women’s rights movement and human rights movement. In particular, support learning with and from women with lived experience of the criminal legal system.