In this blog to mark International Women’s Day celebrated on Sunday 8 March 2020, Penal Reform International’s Executive Director, Florian Irminger, reflects on why women find themselves in prisons from Central African Republic to Afghanistan.
Simone de Beauvoir did not have criminal justice on her mind when writing, in the first chapter of the section about Myths in The Second Sex, ‘representation of the world, like the world itself, is the opération of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth’. Yet, this explanation perfectly describes the reality of criminal justice systems; men designed, built and now generally run these systems for other men. In other words, criminal justice systems continue to be designed for a homogeneous population.
Not so long ago, one could still say that it was remarkable how few women were actually in prison; that becomes more and more difficult to affirm, as the number of women in prison globally has grown to over 700,000, which represents an increase of 50% over the past 20 years (the male prison population grew by 20% over the same period). The United States is facing a problem of mass incarceration of women, with close to 200,000 women and girls in on pre-trial detention or in prison, as reported by American Civil Liberties Union and Prison Policy Initiative. Other countries in the region are following suit imprisoning an increasing number of women and girls year-on-year.
Numbers matter, but so do the reasons for which women are actually in detention. Very few women are sentenced for violent offences. When I last visited the prison in Bimbo in Central African Republic I was told that of the 30 women there was only one serving a sentence for a violent crime – she had killed her husband. We do not know the circumstances of her particular case, but our research shows these cases have similar stories, often involving desperate fatal acts, after years of life-threatening domestic violence. These personal circumstances should be taken into account; too often, they are not. Women prisoners do not have the same pathways as men, and that should be taken into account. At PRI, we studied who women prisoners are, in Uganda, in Jordan and Tunisia, in Armenia and Georgia, as well as in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Furthermore, criminal justice systems in a discriminatory manner tend to ignore the low threat to society that many women offenders and prisoners present, focusing on the act, not the context.
Most women are held on charges in pre-trial detention or sentenced to prison for crimes committed in a context of poverty and violence. Common offences are theft, drug-related crime or another type of illegal business they engage in because of financial need. They also continue to be imprisoned for ‘morality’ offences such as failing a ‘virginity test’ and for suspected abortion, such as in Afghanistan or El Salvador. The impact of these overtly discriminatory offences were clear also on my visit to Bimbo’s prison, where many of the women detained are awaiting to get to a court room or were charged of ‘witchcraft’, an offence that carries strong cultural heritage related to colonisation, and is designed to target women.
We also see that harsh enforcement and sentencing policies for drug offences, particularly for low-level trafficking offences, have a disproportionate impact on women. PRI just recently published a global review ‘Sentencing of women convicted of drug-related offences’, thanks to a cooperation with Linklaters LLP and the International Drug Policy Consortium. In Asia and the Americas especially, we had already documented that high rates of women find themselves in prison for drug offences, mostly for use, possession for personal use or for being ‘mules’, trafficking drugs. Now this new research shows that drug policies are generally blind to the factors behind women’s involvement in drug crime, such as poverty, vulnerability to violence and coercion.
At PRI, we recognise that all persons are vulnerable when they come into contact with criminal justice systems – at the time they face criminal proceedings, held in detention, or re-enter society after time spent in prison. Yet, we often see so much unnecessary suffering of women who should in the first place not be in detention. Prison is usually an ineffective, and often damaging, solution to offending by women, hindering their social reintegration and ability to live productive and law-abiding lives following release. The international community recognised this too in the Bangkok Rules which call for alternatives to imprisonment, and particularly for women who are pregnant or have children.
After the International Women’s Day and as we look to mark the 10th anniversary of the Bangkok Rules, it is worrying to have to recognise that every word one of PRI’s founders wrote two decades ago remains true: ‘In every country there is a prison system for men, and women are everywhere tacked on as an awkward afterthought; in the same sort of buildings as men, only often worse; with the same sort of rules and regulations, though often more strictly applied; with the same sort of prison activities, though frequently more poverty-stricken.’ (Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future, 1998).
Positive examples of systems that have adapted to meet the needs of women do exist around the globe and PRI will intensify its work, in cooperation with Thailand Institute of Justice, to document best practices and replicate these. These are wide ranging from PRI’s work to support a fairer system for women in Yemen by building the capacity for female police officers to the provision of a whole host of support and rehabilitation opportunities for women in prison who had suffered violence in Georgia.
Such concrete projects must allow us to challenge the deeper roots of discrimination at all stages of the criminal justice system. Turning back to the words of Simone de Beauvoir, many criminal justice systems indeed see men as the default offender or prisoner to structure themselves – or they ‘naturalise sex and gender discrimination’ to borrow an expression used by Caroline Criado Perez in conclusion of Invisible Women (2019). We must try to tackle the laws and the practices, from laws on ‘witchcraft’ and the blind eye turned to domestic violence by sentencing authorities as part of our work.
For PRI, however, it is not enough to solely work on protection human rights of women in criminal justice systems. We gave equality, including gender equality, as a value for ourselves; we value diversity and the talents of our staff members – and I have brilliant colleagues, women and men, leading activities across the globe to promote equality in criminal justice systems. We are guided by equality; and as an organisation we want to be held accountable to our increased focus on gender discrimination and violence in criminal justice systems and gender equality within our organisation.