More than 740,000 women and girls are in prison around the world.
More than 740,000 women and girls are held in prisons around the world. Women continue to make up a minority of the global and national prison populations, accounting for 3% or less of all people in prison in 70 countries and territories worldwide (see Prison populations). For example, in late 2021, women made up 1.6% of the prison population in Pakistan, 3% or less in Georgia, Armenia, and Central African Republic, 5% in Peru, and over 11% in Thailand. Hong Kong, Qatar, and Macau have the highest proportions of women in prison, with 18.6%, 14.7% and 14.3%, respectively.
Most women in prison globally are charged or convicted for non-violent offences, and their imprisonment is often also related to poverty and the inability to pay fines or to afford bail. Many women are serving short prison sentences, despite a wealth of evidence showing that any period of imprisonment is damaging and disruptive for women and their families, especially any children.
Women make up less than one-fifth of the prison population in all countries worldwide.
Over recent decades, however, the number of people serving extreme sentences has increased significantly in some countries, with longer sentences and increases in the overall amount of time spent in custody (see Imprisonment and prison overcrowding), and these trends have also been reflected among women in a few countries.
New research by PRI shows women serving long sentences often lack specialist support. While many of the issues faced by women serving long sentences reflect those of all women in prison, research demonstrates that the lengthy nature of their sentence can intensify the challenges. In Uganda, PRI found that 19% of women convicted for murder and manslaughter had killed a male partner or family member. Despite their history of domestic violence, however, these women receive limited access to psychosocial services due to an absence of qualified health practitioners in women’s prisons.
In the US, the Sentencing Project has highlighted that many women facing extreme sentences have experienced trauma and abuse; most have endured sexual and/or domestic violence, and the legal system has consistently failed to take their experiences into account, with imprisonment often exacerbating their trauma. Research with women serving at least 10 years in custody in England and Wales also identified the impact of previous trauma as one of three core issues that are likely to be significantly compounded by lengthy prison terms due to the increased exposure to repeat traumatisation in the prison environment.
The imprisonment of women for ‘status offences’ which only or disproportionately apply to women have led to fresh calls for reform from international human rights bodies, including the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which specifically recommended urgent reform of laws which criminalise acts such as abortion, adultery and prostitution. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has established for the first time that healthcare staff can no longer refer women to law enforcement who come to the hospital seeking reproductive health care, including abortion. The ruling was in a case involving El Salvador, which was found responsible for the death of a woman who was imprisoned for aggravated homicide after suffering an obstetric emergency that resulted in her pregnancy loss, and died in prison two years later after receiving inadequate medical diagnosis and treatment. The Court ruled that the state violated her rights to life, health, judicial protections and guarantees, freedom from discrimination and gender violence, among others, and ordered El Salvador to reform its policies that criminalise women for seeking reproductive health care.
Elsewhere, a setback in sexual and reproductive rights was seen in Guatemala where a law passed in March 2022 punishes abortion with up to 25 years in prison. Human rights bodies have also criticised a new law enacted in Iran in 2021 which severely restricts access to abortion, contraception, and voluntary sterilisation for women. Under the new law, abortion, in carried out on a large scale, would carry the death penalty.