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, a universe generally conceived by men for men, often do not 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 in their elaboration.
Frequently, female detainees are 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 or 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 and 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 respective families. These elements can in themselves constitute discriminatory treatment vis-à-vis women detainees. Decisions on placement in detention should therefore always 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).
- United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
- Report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel,inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment on the applicability of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in international law to the unique experiences of women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons, A/HRC/31/57, 5 January 2016
- Pathways to, conditions and consequences of incarceration for women, Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, A/68/340, 21 August 2013
- Women deprived of their liberty, Extract from the 10th General Report of the CPT, published in 2000, CPT/Inf(2000)13-part
- European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Women in prison, Factsheet 2018, CPT/Inf(2018)5
- Recommendation CM/Rec(2018)5 of the Committee of Ministers to member States concerning children with imprisoned parents, Council of Europe, 4 April 2018
- African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 30
- Women deprived of liberty; Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, 15 May 2019, A/HRC/41/33
- Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Anti-Torture Initiative, Gender Perspectives on Torture: Law and Practice, Washington University, Washington College of Law
- Women in detention: a guide to gender-sensitive monitoring, APT/PRI, 2013
- International Committee of the Red Cross, Women in detention, International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 92 Number 877, March 2010
- OSCE/ODIHR, Preventing and Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Places of Deprivation of Liberty. Standards, Approaches and Examples from the OSCE Region, Warsaw, 2019
- Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, Gender and Security Toolkit – Tool 5: Places of Deprivation of Liberty and Gender, December 2019
- OSCE/ODIHR, Integrating the Issue of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Detention Monitoring: A Guidance Note for Oversight Mechanisms, January 2021
- HM Inspectorate of Prisons for England and Wales, Expectations: Criteria for assessing the treatment of and conditions for women in prison, April 2021