An estimated 741,000 women and girls are held in prisons around the world, an increase of 17% since 2010. Women are always a small minority in national prison populations – only 2–9 per cent on average, and women and girls made up just 6.9 per cent of the global prison population in 2017. However, their numbers are growing every year, and at a faster rate than men.
Offences committed by women are often closely linked to poverty, and frequently a means of survival to support their family and children. Harsh drug policies have disproportionately affected women, who often take part in low-level but high-risk activities, frequently as a result of coercion or driven by poverty. The fact that they receive a prison sentence is often also related to poverty and the inability to pay fines for petty offences or to afford bail.
The increase in women’s imprisonment is also an indication of some countries taking harsh approaches to women who commit offences in a context of violence, coercion, poverty or discrimination. In some countries, women are imprisoned for ‘status offences’, which criminalise specific behaviour, including adultery, sexual misconduct or prostitution. In other countries detention is used as a form of ‘protection’ for victims of rape – to protect the victim and to ensure that she will testify against her rapist in court.
Gender roles and cultural expectations mean that women in prison face greater stigma than men. In many countries women invariably visit their husbands in prison, but husbands rarely visit their partners. When women return home, they are often rejected by their communities and even by their families, and struggle to rebuild their lives socially and economically.
Children are often the hidden victims of a parent’s imprisonment. Apart from the obvious separation and associated suffering that a prison sentence can cause, it is not uncommon for a woman to lose custody of her children after just a short time in prison. Many countries make provision for babies and young children to stay in prison with their mothers up to a certain age. However, a childhood spent in prison can damage a child physically and emotionally.
Girls (under 18) in prison, though few in number, receive even less attention and are less likely to have access to suitable education and vocational training than adult women or juvenile male prisoners. Pregnant girl prisoners are especially vulnerable: they face particular stigma, will be inexperienced at dealing with pregnancy and may not have access to suitable pre- or post-natal care. They are also unlikely to have access to healthcare or counselling for physical or sexual abuse they may have suffered before imprisonment.