Considering the plight of women prisoners


By Masud Khabeki

More than 700,000 women and girls are held in prisons around the world. It is important to know that why women are becoming part of criminal activities. Majority of the women prisoners are in jail due to the consequential criminal activities of males. Women 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.Furthermore,it is observed that women prisoners are poor, and hailed from marginalized or minority communities. Women offenders are disproportionately likely to have been victims of domestic or sexual abuse. It is also observed that women had a secondary role in the commission of crimes or performing low-level or high-risk tasks, often at the request of their partners. Most of the time women offenders are induced to commit crime, for instance, 57% of women prisoners in UK were the victims of domestic violence while according to another report 79% of women prisoners experienced domestic violence and/or sexual abuse. While, in Kyrgyzstan 70% of women convicted of murder had a history of physical abuse or forced economic dependence. While in Yemen 50% women convicted in killing their husband in 2012 were motivated by domestic violence and gender inequality. Corresponding statistics were found in other countries like Jordan, South Africa, the US, Argentina Taiwan, Uganda, Morocco and China.

These global trends also reflect in the women prisoners of Pakistan. A study conducted in 2013 involving 114 women confirmed that poverty, revenge, anger and lack of empowerment were the causes of criminal activity. Women in Pakistan are generally involved in drug-related offences, theft and prostitution, the women offenders have economically disadvantaged background. Among women prisoners mostly are divorced, separated, widowed or single in fact they succumbed to criminal activities when the economic burden fell heavy on them.  According to a report by UNODC in 2011, among the 395 women prisoners, 40% committed murder while 24% were imprisoned due to drug-related offences. It is pertinent to mention that 68% of them were illiterate and 50% of them were the bread winners of their families. Women prisoners 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.Obviously, women in prisons are subjected to extreme emotional and physical abuse before they even get there. Manipulated, humiliated and coerced, they are caught in a vicious cycle. Whether it is decades of abuse that she cannot take any more or someone whispering sweet things into her ear, manipulating her to carry out illicit activities, or financial burdens of a family, she is backed into a corner by a system that creates obstacles for her, but also expects her to survive and succeed in it, blaming her for the failures.


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, as prisons are unable to meet their basic needs or have no infrastructure to prepare them well for release. In fact, 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 favors or preferential treatment. Eventually, 80 per cent of women prisoners have an identifiable mental illness, and women prisoners are more likely to harm themselves or commit suicide than male prisoners, according to the World Health Organization.While overcrowding may not be a problem in prisons for women, issues of hygiene and diseases still exist.


These places are not built to accommodate women prisoners and naturally are not considered as women sensitized places. Prisons and prison regimes have almost invariably been designed for the majority male prison population – from the architecture of prisons, to security procedures, to healthcare, family contact, work and training.Women prisoners have a higher prevalence of diseases than male prisoners. The prison authorities globally fail to cope with women’s need even their basic care during menstruation and the situation is even worst in Pakistan. Women’s prisons are not provided any menstrual products or medical supplies badly needed by them. Prisons also fail to provide nutritional support to pregnant prisoners and nursing mothers, which severely impacts the health of incarcerated new mothers and their babies.The present state of prisons holding women in Pakistan is neither sustainable nor gender sensitive, it reproduces many of the gender imbalances. For our society to be more equitable, women’s prisons and the criminal justice system that puts them there are sites that would need serious intervention.


The wider impact of prison can be devastating when women are mothers, especially when they are the primary or sole guardian of children. Even a short period in prison may have damaging, long-term consequences for the children concerned and should be avoided wherever possible.Children becomes the hidden victims of a parent’s imprisonment. Apart from the obvious separation and associated suffering that a prison sentence can cause, it is not uncommon for a woman to lose custody of her children after just a short time in prison. Many countries make provision for babies and young children to stay in prison with their mothers up to a certain age. However, a childhood spent in prison can damage a child physically and emotionally.In such cases, alternative to imprisonment of such offenders must be considered. Their caretaking responsibilities, their previous offending or history of domestic violence must be taken into consideration before sentencing decisions. 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 may help to find alternative to imprisonment sentences. These standards need to be implemented on the ground in true spirit, women have to be treated equally within the criminal justice systems without any further delay. It is pertinent to mention that these Rules oblige governments to develop non-custodial sanctions and to ensure gender-sensitive treatment in prisons. These rules are the only international instrument which addresses issues faced by children imprisoned with their parent. Furthermore, these 70 Rules provide guidance to policy makers, legislators, sentencing authorities and prison staff to reduce the imprisonment of women, and to meet the specific needs of women in case of imprisonment.


Masud Khabeki is adjunct faculty, Criminology at Arid Agriculture University, Rawalpindi