Women in detention are a particularly vulnerable group for multiple reasons. Discrimination against women at all levels and in all strata of society is reflected and even exacerbated in prison settings. Prisons, designed by men for men, often fail to take into account the specific needs of women, who represent a hardly visible minority of the global prison population (between 2% and 9%, depending on estimates). Policies regarding women in detention also tend to be developed by men and, as a result, insufficient consideration is given to the distinctive needs of women.

Female detainees can be vulnerable even before they enter prison because of the violence or discrimination they have suffered. Many have a past marked by domestic violence, exploitation, drug use, drug trafficking and poverty. Stigmatisation of women detainees can be particularly strong and lead to family rejection, resulting in isolation that reduces their prospects of reintegration into society after release.

Authorities must protect women detainees from physical and mental violence and abuse by prison staff and fellow inmates. Supervisory staff should therefore be predominantly female. Invasive body searches should only take place as a last resort, in order to avoid potentially traumatic humiliation.

Women from indigenous or ethnic minority groups, women with disabilities, lesbians, and women living with HIV or AIDS are often proportionally overrepresented in prisons. They face additional challenges and risks of abuse and discrimination once incarcerated.

The fact that women detainees are a minority of the total prison population is also reflected in infrastructures that are sometimes inadequate, few in number, and located far from their homes or those of their families. These elements can in themselves constitute discriminatory treatment vis-à-vis women detainees. Decisions on placement in detention should therefore take into account the geographical proximity of the prison to the family, especially children, and give preference to alternatives to detention where possible. Where long conjugal visits are allowed for male detainees, they must also be allowed for women.

Female detainees have specific needs and must have access to gynaecological check-ups and screening for diseases such as breast cancer, based on the principle of equivalence of care. The authorities must ensure that these requirements are adequately provided for, including through an adequate health service and regular distribution of sanitary towels in sufficient quantity. In view of their life experiences before being imprisoned, female detainees, especially those who have suffered sexual violence, often require specific psychological support. Special arrangements should be made for pregnant inmates and mothers of young children, taking into account the best interests of the children. Young mothers must be able to breastfeed in conditions that are as normal as possible. Detainees forced to give birth in prison should not be inconvenienced either during or immediately after delivery.

All prison policies related to women should be based on the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules).

Legal standards

Further reading