Research from around the globe shows that a high number of women in prison have experienced violence in their lives prior to prison and that it is an indirect or direct cause of offending.
PRI’s Programme Officer, Olivia Rope, says that the five years on since the adoption of the UN Bangkok Rules it is time for legislators and judicial authorities to re-think their policies and sentences to reflect the role this violence has played in these women’s lives, particularly in cases where women have killed their abuser.
This blog is based on part of a presentation given at Cornell University’s Avon Global Center for Women and Justice’s conference on ‘Women, Prison, and Gender-Based Violence’ in Washington D.C. in April 2015.
In December it is five years since 193 countries committed to addressing and meeting the needs of women offenders and prisoners by adopting the UN Bangkok Rules at the General Assembly. While we see a growing awareness of the needs of this minority group, one paramount need continues to be unmet – safety and protection from violence.
The Bangkok Rules provide a strong framework for addressing the violence experienced by women offenders and safeguarding their physical and psychological safety inside and outside of prison. This is critical to their successful rehabilitation and their ability to re-build law-abiding lives.
The statistics on the violence that women offenders and prisoners have experienced are alarming. In Tunisia, almost half of the women PRI surveyed in research undertaken in 2013 had suffered domestic abuse. In Argentina, of the 228 women surveyed by the Avon Center and partners, 38 per cent had experienced domestic violence prior to prison and 31 participants had been raped at least once.
Behind these statistics however are individual stories. Diane, one woman interviewed in a South African study speaks about the domestic violence she faced before prison, simply stating: “My house was actually my prison. I’ve lived in prison all the time”.
Domestic and sexual abuse plays a considerable role in women’s pathways to imprisonment, particularly in cases where women have killed their abuser. Our research has found that a significant proportion of the violent offences committed by women (although very few in absolute terms) were directed against male family members. The reasons given by the women were self-defence and protecting their children.
Such fears are not unfounded. Globally, two thirds of the victims of homicide were female in 2012 and almost half of all female victims were killed by their intimate partners or family members, compared to less than 6 per cent of male homicide victims.
So the question arises – how should these cases be dealt with?
Rule 61 of the UN Bangkok Rules says that courts should have the power to consider mitigating factors – in light of the typical backgrounds of women including their history of violence. Rule 57 requires the development and use of alternatives to prison which take into account the history of victimisation.
Translating this into policy and practice would mean:
- Sensitising the judiciary to the realities of domestic violence: In one case the judge asked the defendant, ‘why didn’t you just leave your husband?’ Victims are too often trapped in the situation – financially, because of children, and out of fear.
- Re-thinking the application of ‘self-defence’: Most jurisdictions apply it in a strict and traditional sense so the attack or threat must be imminent. This usually precludes cases where a woman has killed her abuser in a moment where she has the opportunity without fear of being attacked or being dominated physically, such as while the partner is asleep.
- Re-thinking sentencing policies: Even when prior abuse is applied as a mitigating circumstance at sentencing, long prison sentences often ensue due to harsh sentencing guidelines or legislation on life offences – in response to tough on crime policies.
In England and Wales we see a promising response to such cases – in line with the Bangkok Rules. There is an active push to reform the law in this area, reflected in sentencing guidelines and practice as well as driving amendments to substantive legal defences.
While the cases of women who have killed their abuser show the clear and direct link between violence against women and offending, we should not forget violence has an indisputable role in many women offenders’ pathways to prison, whatever crime they are accused or convicted of.
Legislators and judicial authorities need to provide for a proportionate response to women offenders, taking violence experienced into account.
PRI is currently working with a network of pro bono lawyers via A4iD at the response of criminal justice systems in around 20 different jurisdictions to women who have killed their abusers. Please check back or sign up to our quarterly e-bulletin on women in the criminal justice system by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org