Being a woman in detention is to suffer twice

Chanceline was pregnant when she was wrongfully imprisoned in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After being freed, she miscarried. Kinshasa, July 2022 ©Ley Uwera

Women are particularly vulnerable when in prison because of their gender. They face specific forms of gender-based violence, including rape and other forms of sexual violence, touching, being stripped naked, invasive body searches, insults and humiliations of a sexual nature, virginity testing, and threats of rape and other sexual violence.

While situations vary according to the country, there are common reasons for this heightened risk of torture and ill-treatment, including a high level of mental health care needs, often as a result of domestic violence and sexual abuse; disproportionate levels of sexual or physical abuse prior to detention; the likelihood of having caring responsibilities for children and other family members; and stigmatisation and abandonment by their families when in prison and once released.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, imprisoned women suffered further hardship as they were mostly excluded from release schemes, and contact with their children was cut off. Since many women enter prison pregnant, have recently given birth, or are drug users, they are at greater risk for complications when contracting Covid-19.

Over recent years, the number of women in prison has grown rapidly and, over the past decade, at a disproportionately higher rate than that of men. The increase has been 50% in Asia, 19% in Central and South America, and 24% in Africa.

Numerous governments take a harsh approach towards women who commit crimes in the context of poverty, violence, and discrimination. Additionally, there are activities for which only women are punished, like abortion or prostitution. Most women in prison globally are charged or convicted for non-violent offences, and their imprisonment is often related to poverty and the inability to pay fines or afford bail. At the same time, women face particular challenges accessing the justice system because of financial and social barriers.

The torture of women in detention is a continuum of violence experienced by women and girls in society and takes place within a broader context of disadvantage and discrimination. In places of detention, existing inequalities and patterns of discrimination against women are further exacerbated.

Since there are still far fewer women in detention than men, there is also a lack of specific policies, measures or programmes for women. Many facilities are ill-equipped to meet the gender-specific needs of women, including pregnant women or women with infants, which runs counter to the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders ('the Bangkok rules'). Moreover, women have been systematically overlooked in strategies for prison reforms.