At an event organised on the side-lines of the 32nd Human Rights Council, the various human rights issues faced by women in conflict with the law were addressed by a panel of experts from member states, UN bodies and Penal Reform International.
The Ambassador of Denmark, Carsten Steur, noted in his opening remarks that while women do not constitute a vulnerable group, being held in prisons places them in a vulnerable situation, and moreover women who are already marginalised face multiple and intersecting discrimination when they get into conflict with the law. Ambassador Steur made the critical point that while gender equality stands at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is key to remember that SDG5 on gender equality is not just about the equal treatment of men and women, but about creating equal opportunities for men, women, girls and boys. This is why a differentiated gender-informed approach to prisoners and offenders lays at the foundation of the Bangkok Rules – which essentially set out to ensure that women and girls are given an equal respectful and dignified treatment to that of men.
One of the primary reasons the number of women prisoners globally is rising at a faster rate than for men is the disproportionate impact of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ on women who are often involved in the petty, low-level activities of the drug chain. Maria Luisa Silva, Director of the UNDP Office in Geneva, highlighted some of the human rights issues faced by women imprisoned for drug-related offences including the high rates of violence at the hands of partners and police and the fact women have less access to harm reduction services. To ‘leave no one behind’ in delivering on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Ms Silva called for Member States to review their drug policies and undertake reforms so they are gender-sensitive, ahead of the 2019 General Assembly Session on Drugs. Read PRI’s Briefing on why criminal justice reform is essential to the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The links between violence and imprisonment, and specifically practices that amount to torture or ill-treatment, was outlined by Juan Méndez, the Special Rapporteur on torture in a video message (watch here). Historically, the legal framework on torture and ill-treatment has largely evolved in response to situations that affect men and also, prison systems are designed for men and thus the distinct needs and typical pathways of women require different measures. The Special Rapporteur explained that women in prison face multiple forms of discrimination in accessing gender-specific services across the prison regime, including to education and rehabilitation opportunities, healthcare and even visiting regimes.
Measures amounting to ill-treatment, such as the use of shackles on pregnant women during labour and after childbirth, is “particularly telling of the failure of the prison system to adopt protocols to unique situations faced by women”, stated the Special Rapporteur. Inappropriate touching during searches is common and has a disproportionate impact on women particularly when conducted by male guards. In calling for the swift and full implementation of the UN Bangkok Rules, the Special Rapporteur stated this would contribute significantly to reducing torture and ill-treatment of women in custody. Furthermore, their implementation would gender specific circumstances in sentencing, including in cases of women convicted of killing abusive domestic partners.
PRI’s Programme Officer, Olivia Rope, delved into this particular issue: namely the responses by criminal justice systems to women who kill their abusive intimate partners, a subject covered by a new report jointly published by Linklaters LLP and PRI, Women who kill in response to domestic violence: how do criminal justice systems respond?. The multi-jurisdictional study shows that while there are some promising practices to provide a more nuanced approach which take account of the often prolonged and serious violence experienced (e.g. in Australia), there is a gender-bias with systems failing to reflect the realities of domestic violence. Self-defence, for example, usually requires the act to be in response to an imminent attack and thus is ill-adapted for women who suffer from ‘battered women syndrome’ and the ‘slow-burn reaction’. Both of these phenomena are common in such cases and which explain why women often stay in abusive relationships and do not respond immediately to abuse.
In concluding remarks, the Deputy Permanent Representative of Canada, Catherine Godin, commented that the human rights violations faced by women in conflict with the law are complex and multi-layered. She stated that this vulnerable group needs more attention, including at the Human Rights Council.
Ending on a positive note, Sasiwat Wongsinsawat, Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Thailand shared some of the measures taken by Thailand to implement the Bangkok Rules. The Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) have begun to develop a guideline on the prison design for female facilities, based on research in Southeast Asian countries and in recognition that many facilities are designed and built for male prisoners.
Secondly, the TIJ are hosting its first flagship training course for senior correctional staff in the ASEAN region on the Bangkok Rules in August 2016. The Ambassador reiterated the need to prevent violence from the pathway to imprisonment through to the reintegration of women offenders “to stop the vicious cycle of those women who come into contact with the criminal justice system”.
Laurel Townhead of the Quaker UN Office moderated the panel. The event was co-organised by PRI and the Quaker UN Office and was co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions of Denmark, Canada and Thailand.