In the 21st century, women are catching up to men in all kinds of ways—including one we shouldn’t be proud of. Worldwide, the gender gap is closing fast in an unfortunate social institution: prisons.
Globally, women and girls are getting locked up at historic rates. While overall imprisonment rates have plateaued or declined in many countries, the number of women and girls in prison has surged. According to a new analysis in the Worldwide Prison Report, by researchers at Birkbeck University’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) in London, since 2000, there has been a 53 percent leap in the imprisonment of women and girls.
Compared to their male counterparts, women are more often incarcerated for minor and nonviolent crimes, typically involving property or drug-related charges. The population of women and girls in prison is rising faster overall than general population growth, which rose about 21 percent over the same time period. In the United States in particular, though the overall imprisonment rates have stabilized, the number of women in prison has skyrocketed, so that of the global total of 714,000 imprisoned women and girls, some 212,000 are locked up in this country. Worldwide, the study found that incarcerated female population has also risen in the Americas, Asia, and Oceania at three, four, and five times the rate of regional population growth, respectively.
The driving factors of female imprisonment are often disturbingly uniform, and intersect with other forms of gender-based violence. Central America especially has become a seedbed for violence against women, including sex trafficking, rape, and domestic abuse. At the same time, it is one of the regions where a woman faces the highest risk of imprisonment: The female population in Guatemalan prisons has now soared to more than five times the 2001 level. Similarly, the incarceration rate of women and girls in El Salvador has grown tenfold since 2000. The study charted comparable increases over the same period in South America and Southeast Asia.
The incarceration rate and rising gender-based violence, paradoxically, track the growing levels of freedom and public activity among women. Compared with North American and Europe, the parts of Asia, Latin America, and Africa where globalization has had its most severe effects have also undergone significant social changes: Young women face unprecedented pressures in education and work, including migration from rural areas and poor countries for jobs, while the expectation remains that they will still care for their families and children.
But civil-rights advocates wonder why, in a world of expanding freedom and inclusion for women and girls, they are simultaneously being disproportionately dragged down by incarceration.
In poor communities around the world, criminalization and abuse go hand in hand. A girl growing up in a refugee camp might be pressured to exchange sexual favors to avoid homelessness. Perhaps supporting a child as a single mother means serving as a drug mule for an abusive boyfriend. As economic exploitation deepens, the line further blurs between victim and perpetrator, especially when women get picked up by police or framed for partners’ offenses,
At a recent conference hosted by the ICPR in London, where activists and scholars discussed the imprisonment experience for women and girls around the world, Teresa Njoroge of the Kenya-based NGO Clean Start, discussed her own experience in a women’s prison. As Njoroge lived among the inmates, she realized all had been systematically socially isolated, stripped of family ties, reduced to identification numbers: “I understood their hurt and pain, and I learned that crime is not what really brought these women to prison. Far from it. It started with a lack of education, whose supply and quality is not equal for all. It starts with a lack of economic opportunities, which pushes these women to the petty survival crimes. The broken health system, the broke criminal system, the broken social-justice system. If any of these poor women fall through any of these cracks, the bottom of that chasm is a prison.”
Women also suffer from a lack of social support before and after prison. According to Catherine Heard of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme, women in prison “are often primary carers for one or more children or older family members. This surely suggests that the economic and social costs of imprisoning women will, in most cases, outweigh the supposed benefits.”
In the United States, for example, the mass incarceration of women is correlated highly with racial segregation, poverty, mental-health problems, and childhood abuse. Moreover, women are also disproportionately burdened by childcare responsibilities and so require targeted support to restore their family lives post-release.
Today rising imprisonment is the bleak upshot of women’s growing presence in the economy and in public life. But liberation should not lead to added risk of criminalization. Why should a sex worker be criminalized for struggling with economic hardship and exclusion from other avenues of employment? Why is a woman who steals to feed her family given a prison sentence instead of food assistance? Gender segregation across society imposes a criminalization tax on women simply pursuing the right to lead independent, self-sufficient lives.
According to UK prison-reform advocate Edwina Grosvenor, the links across the globe in female incarceration amplifies the need for “trauma-informed” rehabilitation. Grosvenor argues that confronting incarcerated women’s cross-cutting needs to maintain family connections and address social factors like childhood trauma demands a more holistic model of justice across divides of gender and class.
“If we’re all facing and fighting the same battles, then surely as a collective…we can probably move more than if we were just working in isolation.” That’s often impossible for the women who are trapped behind bars. But that makes it all the more imperative for others to help raise up the voices of women on the inside, who point the way to shared struggles and common ground for building a global movement.