blind-justiceThis month I’ve been acting as international advisor to a project by Penal Reform International, which is preparing to push for gender-specific reform in Georgia’s criminal justice system. Funded by the Open Society Foundation, the project will advocate on behalf of the 300 or so women in the country’s prison system, and all those who will come after. It will analyse criminal justice policy, practice and legislation and recommend gender-specific considerations during decision-making by judiciary and parole mechanisms, with a particular focus on the use of non-custodial measures for women who aren’t a violent risk to society. It will also raise awareness on women’s gender-specific needs in criminal justice system and the gendered negative impact of imprisonment, for them, their families, and society.

Currently most justice and correctional systems fail to take into account the factors that colour, often harmfully, women’s experiences of criminal justice and detention, including primary care-taking responsibilities, histories of trauma and gender-based violence, the continued and disproportionate risk of such violence in detention, and lower levels of economic independence, among other factors – including outright discrimination in the law. (In Spain, for example, a history of violence may be considered a mitigating factor in a woman killing her husband  – although not a defense – but is often counteracted by the fact that courts tend to consider family ties to be an aggravating factor. Thus the sentence will likely be harsh. Yet in crimes against property and ‘honour’, being kin is an excusing factor. This is all down to judicial interpretation.) Given all this, it does seem bizarre to me that Justice has so often been personified in the female form.

Since the UN Bangkok Rules came into being this has been given growing attention in some countries, but the lack of understanding and the unconscious (and conscious) bias among judges, lawyers, correctional staff and others means that there is a vast distance to cover. These issues are being taken up strongly at the UN however. Check out Pathways to, conditions and consequences of incarceration for women, by the former Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Rashida Manjoo, and the new report by the SR on Torture, Juan Mendez, on gendered forms of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The latter highlights the fact that gender stereotypes have historically seen the downplay of suffering by women, girls and those from the LGBTI community.