More than 700,000 women and girls are held in prisons around the world. The majority are imprisoned for petty, non-violent offences, and frequently as a result, directly or indirectly, of discrimination and deprivation, often experienced at the hands of their husbands or partners, their family and the community.
Typically women prisoners are poor, and from marginalised or minority communities. They often depend financially on male family members, and on their willingness to pay fines, or for bail or legal representation. Without that financial support, women are left vulnerable to being detained.
Prison is an ineffective, and often damaging, solution to offending by women. Prisons and prison systems – from their architecture and security procedures to healthcare, family contact, work and training – have been designed for men. Women prisoners are often at a disadvantage, with few prisons meeting their basic needs or preparing them well for release.
Women offenders are disproportionately likely to have been victims of domestic or sexual abuse. Throughout the criminal justice process, they are at risk of further abuse, violence and humiliation – from police, prison officers and fellow prisoners. For many women, custody means ill-treatment, threats of rape, touching, ‘virginity testing’, being stripped naked, invasive body searches, insults and humiliations of a sexual nature or even rape. There are also cases of women prisoners being forced into a position of providing sex for favours or preferential treatment.
The wider impact of prison can be devastating when women are mothers, especially when they are the primary or sole carer of children. Even a short period in prison may have damaging, long-term consequences for the children concerned and should be avoided wherever possible.
Alternatives to imprisonment – such as community service – have been shown to be much more effective in reducing re-offending and in promoting lasting rehabilitation. However, in many countries alternatives to prison fail to take into account the specific requirements of women offenders. Their caretaking responsibilities, their previous history of domestic violence, are often overlooked, as are gender differences in drug dependency and therefore drug treatment.
Until 2010, international standards provided limited guidance on addressing the gender-specific needs of women in criminal justice or prison systems. The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (‘Bangkok Rules’) adopted in 2010 by the UN General Assembly finally filled the gap. However, the standards now need to be implemented on the ground and there is a long way to go before women can expect to be treated equally within criminal justice systems.