“You are surrounded by men and powerless. There are no women to talk for you. They want to win as men.” ― Inmate, Zambia
Despite international commitments by governments to make their prisons secure, safe and well-organized, this is aspiration (if that) rather than practice across much of the world. Sealed away from society ― its sight, and often interest or empathy ― prisoners are among the world’s most vulnerable groups. But what of the vulnerable groups among them?
With the rising number of women in custody, it has become increasingly important to acknowledge the different safety and security needs of women, and the way in which the pervasive violence and discrimination in our societies can reach through and be magnified by prison walls. This vulnerability colours women prisoners’ experience of security measures and discipline, their sense of mental insecurity and fear, as well as their ability to respond, achieve change or justice, as our conversations with women prisoners in five countries last year found.
Key among these was the deep sense of degradation they would feel around the times of personal searches, often invasive and carried out in breach of international standards in some of the countries. “You queue, strip, lie down on the floor, spread your legs and they ask you to insert a finger in your vagina,” said a woman in Zambia, years into her remand, noting that young, aggressive female cadets were often used for the procedure, in front of other cell mates. “We find this very hard. Our self esteem dives.” In Jordan a former detainee cried as she recalled being ‘screamed at’ to squat and jump by multiple staff while naked and menstruating.
Others spoke of the stigma. In two countries women who had broken certain codes and gender norms in their societies (other than their arrest), appeared to be treated with disdain as a default by female staff. “They were going through my belongings, my face creams and expensive things from abroad and I was crying,” said one survivor of a brutal honour, in Jordan. “And they asked, ‘from which prostitute house did you come from?’” An inmate in Zambia told me that she had been whipped and slapped years earlier in custody, but she found the verbal abuse more painful. “They say, ‘you’re criminals, that’s why you live like animals’. They look at us like animals.”
Our report also details the impact of harmful disciplinary measures on female inmates, among them excessive isolation and confinement, and callous responses to self-harming (a much more common practice among imprisoned women than men). In Jordan an ex-inmate recounted her own series of increasingly desperate attempts to self harm. She concluded: “Finally, so that I wouldn’t do anything to myself they put me alone behind a fence with one police woman. I tried to hang myself with the prison clothing. Then the punishment is that they take away your visits: you can’t buy anything from the supermarket, and no phones. Or they put you in the Cell, a very small room.”
And while NGOs in most countries reported that cases of sexual abuse in prison were much rarer now, thanks to the stricter separation of male and female staff and inmates, our team occasionally heard quiet whispers from inmates of sexual relationships with male staff ― usually women who have the least support on the outside. “Some women are forced into that kind of situation because they feel desperate,” said one NGO worker. “We have a phrase in the Philippines: it’s like holding onto a knife for your life.”
While it was heartening to hear almost unanimously that outright violence now is much rarer in the visited prisons (largely credited to human rights trainings and international intervention) – along with an example in Albania of commendable gender-sensitive management — this was not the case for police custody, where women more reported a much greater degree of vulnerability, and a lack of female staff. In Zambia, in particular, our researchers were told of brutality, humiliation and rape taking place, of women forced to barter rights such as food, contact with family, even visits to the toilet for sexual favours. One inmate who had killed her husband was taunted, whipped and beaten by policemen. “As they beat you they said things like, ‘one man is entitled to 18 wives and you have taken a man out of this world – so you have deprived 18 women’,” she told me. “They think they are above women.”
And, contrary to international standards, gender barriers were often indicated along avenues of complaint and protection, from complaint books/boxes kept in male sections, to the absence of medical screening for abuse on arrival at prison, to overt discriminatory attitudes. “When you report abuse in Zambia, as a woman you will be blamed more than the man,” I was told by a researcher in Zambia. “The rule in places like [prison] is which battles to pick, and who with.”
As now clearly stated by the UN’s Bangkok Rules for women prisoners, a raft of measures are needed to eliminate violence and abuse of women in these places, in which they are completely in the hands of the State. These range from gender-sensitive admission, complaint and investigation processes, to the training of staff in gender-sensitive communication and security approaches, in line with human rights obligations. Yet where attention is given, it often remains too shallow, as our report reveals. When UN treaty bodies cover this issue in their reports to States the nuances of women’s experiences and the role of discrimination are rarely highlighted. It is time for all of us, but particularly the UN system and prison systems around the world, to become champions for the Bangkok Rules and those who they serve.