Violence against women: A cause, a condition and a consequence of detention

Speech delivered by Jo Baker for DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture, and partners, Amman, Jordan, September 2015.

During the past two and half years, as part of my work with DIGNITY, I’ve visited and spoken with detained women and those who work with them in six countries.

My aim has been to understand the needs, risk and vulnerabilities that relate largely to their sex and their gender – that result from biological differences, social norms, and discrimination.

I’ve had the chance to explore and reflect – through our research and that of others – the role that Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) plays in the experiences of many women in priso, and to an extent, in their route to incarceration. Indeed, as the former Special Rapporteur on violence against women,[1] has well identified – VAWG is often a critical cause, condition and consequence of women’s imprisonment.

My aim here today is to try and give a brief introduction to the scope, the forms and the causes of this violence, as experienced by women detained in the penal system.

Since we don’t have much time, I’ve included on the handout some definitions of VAWG in international law. I will just quickly add that this form of violence is recognised as a type of gender-based violence, which means that it is caused a) by the social expectations/norms associated with a gender and b) the unequal power relationships between genders, in a specific society. It is therefore largely a product of discrimination, and it disproportionately affects women compared to men.

How bad?

So let’s consider scope. Studies suggest that the proportion of women in prisons and pre-trial detention who have survived violence is very high – even higher than among women in the outside community (although under reporting makes this research particularly challenging). In countries around the world, 60, 70, even 90% of incarcerated women have experienced sexual or other forms of gender-based abuse in the past. You’ll find some examples on your handout.

If you consider the profiles of women in prison around the world, this becomes a little more understandable. Women are often from poor backgrounds, with little or no economic independence, low levels of education and primary caretaking responsibilities – which makes it more difficult for them to protect themselves or escape violence.[2]

They are detained most commonly for economic crimes, drug or trafficking related crimes, prostitution, and for killing family members (most often, abusive family members).  These contexts – particularly sex work, organized crime, and abusive families – have strong links with VAWG.

Violence as a Cause…

Among commonly detained groups of women are those arrested for drug crimes, who operate at a minor level but who have coercive or violent partners who play a greater role in the trade.

They include the many women who have used force against their abusers in order to protect themselves or their children, once they decide that the law cannot/will not help them. In many of these cases, the fact of a woman’s long term abuse, notions of self-defence and fearing for her life, do not influence the court’s sentencing decisions.

As of course you know, in Jordan women are detained as a result of experiencing violent and so-called honour crimes – their voices are in the report. And in many countries women have been imprisoned for violating discriminatory laws which particularly affect female survivors of violence. Among these are victims of honour crimes, administratively detained for their own protection; victims of rape; and those who are imprisoned for the crime of running away from home.

So you can see how VAWG operates as a pathway to prison.

Consider how differently these women may be impacted by prison life. Consider a young woman who has been raped, or survived horrific violence from her family members. What physical healthcare might she need in the following days months years? What reproductive and sexual healthcare, or other forms? What psychological care and counselling, in response to post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression? How might she respond to isolation, or to aggressive/invasive search procedures, to so-called virginity testing, shackling, or to being imprisoned in a facility with male guards or inmates? How might she cope, away from children and family?

… A Condition…

Once in detention, women prisoners are particularly vulnerable to gendered forms of abuse, particularly those places that breach international standards by mixing male and female inmates, and allowing male supervision of female inmates.

In these situations, sexual exploitation and abuse – including rape, trading sexual favours for provisions and privileges, so-called virginity testing, and sexual assault during body searches – may take place.

Research has indicated that people with histories of sexual abuse are more vulnerable to being exploited and victimized again. This is a particular problem in a detention environment, where they may face retraumatization, and have few ways to seek protection. As one woman in Zambia told me, “You become confused and so scared, you just submit [to sexual abuse], because you think that maybe this is the end of the world for me.”

Women are also more at risk because in most countries, VAWG is not commonly and effectively investigated – internally or independently – and is rarely prosecuted, which gives the impression of impunity. It is often underreported by women survivors because of this, and because of a lack of legal literacy.

Women are also more vulnerable because they tend to be more isolated. Compared to men, they are commonly detained in prisons that are far away from their families, and they are more likely to be stigmatized. They have fewer people on the outside to turn to for help, for basic provisions or psychological support, and this makes them much easier for abusive staff or inmates to exploit, as a number of detainees told me.

And because of gender norms – the ways in which women are raised and expected to behave – they are likely to be more deeply affected by these forms of abuse. Think of the ways in which a woman may feel deeply humiliated, and how this may be tied to their identities in many cultures.

In order to understand this more deeply I urge you to read both our multi-country study, and individual country reports on Women in Detention: Needs, Risks and Vulnerabilities, which illustrate this[3] – and a very good article on sexual abuse in detention in Tunisia, which I have printed for you.[4]

But I should stress that gendered-forms of abuse can also take place at the hands of female staff. In Jordan I found that verbal abuse and shaming took place via the female staff, as a result of the stigma that is specifically attached to women. Here are a few quotes from inmates in Jordan to illustrate.

“They were going through my belongings, my face creams and expensive things from abroad and I was crying. And they asked, ‘from which prostitute house did you come from?”

“[The staff] would say things like, you’re too tired to clean the floor, but you weren’t too tired to get yourself pregnant.”

Both of these women are victims of honour crimes, detained for their own ‘protection’, and were deeply traumatized. One, who had become pregnant, had her baby taken away from her and her parental rights removed.

I also was told of cases in which female staff were violent. Although this violence may not always be ‘gender based’ (although in can be, including in the case of lesbian, transgender and bisexual women) – it does of course constitute Cruel, Ill or Degrading Treatment or Punishment under international law, and shows that female supervision isn’t enough.

Abuse in detention can also be psychological, and may more strongly impact victims of gender-based violence. Consider the use of invasive searches (by male and female guards); the shackling of women while in labour; the excessive use of solitary confinement, including in response to self harm; and the denial of sanitary towels and other hygiene products as a way to control and humiliate.

… and a Consequence

There are various ways that incarceration can increase a woman’s risk of suffering violence after she is released.

The violence may be committed by community members or family members,  including intimate partners, as a reaction to the shame of imprisonment, or the perceived ‘abandonment’ of womanly duties.

But failures in the prison system can also leave women vulnerable to lives of violence and crime. Those who work with women in the lead up to, and after their release, report failures to care for the psychological health of women, especially those who are survivors of violence in prison, or to adequately treat substance abuse. And it includes the discrimination that leads to fewer or no opportunities for women in prison to learn a skill, gain an education, or earn money that would contribute to a livelihood after prison.

This increases the likelihood of such women turning to sex work or criminal activities to survive or feed their children for example, which involves a great risk of rape and violence. Or because of the stigma and poverty, they may find themselves with little choice in the partner they accept – which again, may leave them trapped in an abusive relationship.

This perpetuates therefore, a cycle of violence, that may involve multiple visits to detention.

What can be done?

Various forms of hard law, including against torture and cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment, and against discrimination, create a strong obligation for States to prevent and respond to violence against women, particularly those women under its direct care and control. These include the protection by core treaties of a spectrum of rights, from health to security of person.

The principle of due diligence under international law obliges all States to be proactive in this commitment, to prevent VAWG in all its forms.

The UN’s Bangkok Rules and the Mandela Rules (the newly revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners), provide valuable (though not full comprehensive) guidance on how to do this, and it is important that all States incorporate them into law, policy and practice.

But the provisions with perhaps the most value and promise are the Bangkok Rules’ provisions on non-custodial measures. These highlight the alternatives to detention that could and should be used for the many female offenders who have not committed violent crimes and/or pose no threat to society.

By highlighting the harmful and discriminatory role of state condoned and perpetrated violence in the lives of detained women – as a cause, condition and consequence of detention – among actors in the criminal justice system, and by highlighting the range of measures needed to protect the human rights of such women while in detention, we can start to challenge and change the needless incarceration of many women, in line with human rights principles and for the clear benefit of society as a whole.


Thank you



Related post: Women in prison: The particular vulnerability and risk of abuse, written for the Essex Human Rights Centre. 


[1] UN Special Raporteur on Violence Against Women, its Causes and Consequences (2013) Pathways to, conditions and consequences of incarceration for women

[2] See work by Penal Reform International in Jordan, Tunisia, Uganda, Armenia and Georgia, on Who are women prisoners?


[4] New York Times (2015), Women in Tunisia tell of decades of police cruelty, violence and rape