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.