In November 2020, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) found Kyrgyzstan in violation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Convention) in the case of R.G. v. Kyrgyzstan. It is only the second time that in the Committee addressed torture and ill-treatment in detention.
The petitioner, who was convicted for murder, was detained in five different facilities from the date of her arrest in 2013 until her conditional release in 2016. The Committee found that the petitioner was subject to gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, and gender-based violence because
(i) staff working in detention facilities were exclusively male who had unrestricted visual and physical access to women prisoners
(ii) in most detention centres, toilet facilities and showers were open and visible to male guards
(iii) necessary hygienic supplies were not provided and there were no facilities to properly wash clothing including underwear
(iv) in one facility she was touched inappropriately and called belittling names.
The Committee stated that the fact that detention facilities do not address the specific needs of women constitutes discrimination within the meaning of Article 1 of the CEDAW Convention and consequently the respect for women prisoner’s privacy and dignity must be a high priority for prison staff. The Committee further reiterated that “gender-based violence, which impairs or nullifies the enjoyment by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms”, including the “right not to be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”, constitutes discrimination within the meaning of article 1 of the CEDAW Convention.
The petitioner’s lawyer was Sardorbek Abdukhalilov who is a member of OMCT's Asian Litigators Group and the director of our SOS-Torture Network member Spravedlivost. The OMCT submitted an amicus curiae highlighting international law obligations in the context of female detainees, in particular the need for female prison staff, the right to privacy in the context of surveillance and body searches, and the need for gender-specific health care services.
This case is the first case of the CEDAW Committee against Kyrgyzstan and only the second time that the Committee addressed torture and ill-treatment in detention. It is a strategic case as it addresses detention conditions of women, a generally neglected area.
Women detainees have specific health related needs (e.g. hygienic needs, needs connected to pregnancy, particular needs of women who have recently given birth, needs of breastfeeding mothers, etc.) and can find themselves in gender-specific situations of vulnerability. These include the fact that women detainees have a greater statistical likelihood than men to suffer from physical and sexual trauma; detained mothers isolated from their children; mothers detained with their small children; greater stigma for women in detention and therefore less family support; complete financial and social dependency on men to receive necessary supplies as well as to hire a lawyer and submit complaints, etc.
Because globally the prison population of women is much smaller than that of men, prisons are designed for men. Prison administrations and detention facilities lack a gender-sensitive approach. As there is an increase of women in prison globally, challenges for women will further grow in the near future. The decision by the Committee addressing gender-specific needs and challenges of female detainees is therefore a landmark decision setting important standards.