Women's prisons: A feminist issue

Women prisoners are integral in the fight against patriarchy.
Published March 11, 2019

March 8 was International Women’s Day — a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by women throughout the years.

For the estimated 2,000 female prisoners in Pakistan, however, that Friday was just like any other. While other women geared up for marches, the ones in jail wrote off one more day behind bars.

Perhaps they hoped that on this day, someone was talking about them, their stories and the conditions they live in. Discussing how to support them and improve their lives.

Women prisoners are also part of our community, integral to the fight against the system and patriarchy. It is what put them there in the first place, pushed to the margins and dark corners of society that we have been conditioned to look down upon without any thought.

Women by the numbers

In July 2018, it was reported that there are 1,955 female prisoners in Pakistan. Of those, 1,225 are juveniles and 33 are on death row, representing less than 1% of all death row inmates.

There are 33 crimes in Pakistan that merit the death penalty, including non-lethal crimes such as blasphemy, kidnapping and drug offences. Commonly, women are sentenced to death for murder, terrorism and drug trafficking. Women who are members of religious minorities have also been the target of blasphemy prosecutions.

According to a 2018 report by the Cornell Center on Death Penalty Worldwide, female inmates on death row are often from lower socio-economic backgrounds, unable to pay for private representation and mostly illiterate, hindering their ability to advocate on their own behalf.

Caged: Behind the walls of Pakistan's prisons

While capital defendants are entitled to counsel, the quality of representation can be poor because legal aid lawyers lack training and carry heavy workloads. Death sentences imposed are at times reduced on appeal, but often come after years of waiting.

While women and girls remain a minority in prison populations, constituting around 7pc cent of the global prison population, the world’s female prison population has increased by 53pc since 2000.

A study from November 2017 demonstrated that there are now more than 714,000 women and girls in prison globally. The United States, China, Russia and Brazil hold the highest number of women and girls in detention.

A 2017 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasised links between poverty, family roles and drug-related offences committed by women. The report demonstrated women having a secondary role in the commission of crimes or performing low-level or high-risk tasks, often at the request of their partners.

According to a report by Prison Reform Trust, 57pc of women in prison in the UK have been victims of domestic violence, whereas a charity, Women in Prison, reports that 79pc of the women who use their services have experienced domestic violence and/or sexual abuse.

A UN report on Kyrgyzstan noted that 70pc of women convicted of killing a husband or other family member had experienced a “longstanding pattern of physical abuse or forced economic dependence.” Corresponding statistics were found in Jordan, South Africa, the US and Argentina, demonstrating this as a global phenomenon, transcending cultures and levels of development.

The Cornell Center’s report also found that according to Yemen’s Interior Ministry, of the 50 women arrested for killing their husbands in 2012, most of them had been motivated by domestic violence and gender inequality. Similar incidents were reported in Taiwan, Uganda, Morocco, Jordan, Malawi, Nigeria and China.

These global trends also reflect the women prisoners of Pakistan.

After prison: Yearning for home

A study from 2013 conducted in Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore with a sample of 114 women found that poverty, revenge, anger and lack of empowerment were associated with criminal activities of women. The women described feelings of shame, anger, repentance and grief with regard to their offence.

Most women who committed drug-related offences, theft and prostitution were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and became involved in such activities in order to make ends meet. As most of the women were divorced, separated, widowed or single, the financial burden fell on them.

A 2011 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on female prisoners in Pakistan revealed that out of 395 women imprisoned in Pakistan, approximately 40pc were in prison for murder, while 24pc were due to drug-related offences. About 68pc were illiterate and half of them provided some sort of financial support to their families.

In a separate 2013 study, in which 100 women were interviewed from women's prisons in Sindh, 26 were imprisoned for drug-related offences and 23 for murdering their husbands.

Broken spirits, broken bodies

As demonstrated, women in prison are subjected to extreme emotional and physical abuse before they even get there.

Manipulated 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.

Unfortunately, the abuse does not end there.

In 2014, Policing as Torture: A Report on Systematic Brutality and Torture by the Police in Faisalabad and Abuse of Women by the Faisalabad Police, by Justice Project Pakistan in collaboration with the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale University, discovered conclusive signs of abuse in 1,424 cases out of a sample of 1,867 medico-legal certificates compiled by a government-appointed district standing medical board in Faisalabad from 2006 to 2012.

According to the data, out of the 1,424 cases, 58 of the victims were children and 134 were women. The follow-up report, Abuse of Women, contains accounts of interviews from women which were not mentioned in the first torture report.

Also read: Young, innocent, and behind bars

Of the 134 women, 61pc had been sexually assaulted, 81pc had been subjected to cultural humiliation and 61pc had been forced to witness torture of others, often family members. In addition, 82 women suffered sexual violence that did not amount to penetration. From them, 71 were forced to remove all of their clothing — which violates strong cultural and religious norms — while 52 women were subjected to unwanted touching and other physical transgressions.

In the one confirmed case of rape, the victim was a child, a 15-year-old girl.

The 2013 study in Sindh also mentions that 21 prisoners were forced to confess due to physical torture, psychological threats by police and pressure from male relatives and tribal heads who visited them. Seven inmates were forced to sign on a blank paper, leaving it open for the authorities to fill with charges.

The UNODC report found that 12.5pc of the total women interviewed stated that they had faced some form of sexual harassment while in prison (not rape).

Already with broken spirits, detention conditions worsen their mental and physical health. Women prisoners have higher levels of mental disorders and depression than male prisoners. Levels of suicide among women in prison are much higher than among men. Women are more likely to take part in self-harming behaviour as a coping mechanism.

In Pakistan, women prisoners reported depression, stress, mental illness, sleep disorder and generalised anxiety. Women prisoners also tend to have less family support than men, including less contact with family members. About 30pc of the women prisoners from the UNODC study were divorced or separated.

Read more: My brother came home from a Saudi jail. Then I woke up from my dream

While overcrowding is not a problem in women's prisons or wards, issues of hygiene and diseases still exist. Women prisoners have a higher prevalence of tuberculosis and hepatitis than male prisoners.

Many prison authorities globally fail to cope with women's menstruation. Women's prisons do not uniformly provide menstrual products, only dispensing them as part of medical supplies or sometimes even withholding them as a punishment.

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 2019 theme for International Women’s Day was “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change.” It focuses on “innovative ways to advance gender equality” and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure.

The present state of women’s prisons in Pakistan is neither sustainable nor gender sensitive; it reproduces many of the gender imbalances widely present. 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.

Are you examining the lives of Pakistani women? Share your insights with us at prism@dawn.com