Archived page: may contain outdated information!

International Women's Day: The forgotten plight of women behind bars

07-03-2013 News Release 13/37

Geneva (ICRC) – All over the world, women and girls living behind bars often face particular hardship in terms of protection, privacy and access to basic services, including health care. Consequences can be felt within their families and communities, well beyond prison walls.

It is urgent to recognize the specific needs of detained women and to pay them due attention, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in the run-up to International Women's Day.

"While women held in detention are entitled to the same protections as men, they also have a right to special treatment because of their social, cultural and physiological requirements, and the roles and responsibilities relating to their sex," said Catherine Deman, in charge of the ICRC's activities in behalf of detainees. "But the harsh reality is that their needs often fail to be taken into consideration – perhaps because, in most cases, women constitute a small minority of a prison's population. Prisons tend to be run by men, for men, and attending to women’s needs is rarely given the necessary consideration."

As children may accompany their mothers to prison, and pregnant women may be detained, it is important to take the needs of children and mothers into account. At the very least, the security and safety of detainees must be ensured. In addition, prison premises should be organized to respect the well-being and privacy of women and children.

Owing to the scarcity of prisons catering for women, female prisoners are often held far from their home areas and the vital support of their relatives and friends. In addition, when women are the sole providers for their families, their detention inevitably results in significant hardship for their dependents.

"It is essential that women held in prisons have the opportunity to remain in contact with members of their families, so that they can receive and provide support, and with others who may be able to play a role in their successful return to society once they are released," said Ms Deman.

In a number of countries, the ICRC helps detained women regain their dignity and stand on their own feet. In Paraguay, for example, the ICRC supports the Paraguayan Red Cross, which has been training detained women in marketable handicraft skills in partnership with the National Institute of Crafts since 2009.

"The training enables the women – primarily mothers – to earn an income during their incarceration while providing them with opportunities for a better future. It helps them and their families to cope better – mentally, economically and socially – with their situation," said Ms Deman.

"An alternative to detention should always be sought, but when women do have to be held behind bars it is the responsibility of the detaining authorities to ensure that they are treated with dignity and held in decent conditions, at all stages of detention," said Ms Deman. A range of international legal instruments sets standards for the treatment of detained women with the aim of protecting them, maintaining their dignity and privacy in accordance with the special needs they have on account of their sex.

"Every effort must be made to ensure that the provisions laid down in international humanitarian law and in international human rights law are adhered to," stressed Ms Deman.

All over the world the ICRC visits around 500,000 detainees each year, with the aim of preventing or putting an end to torture, extra-judicial killings, disappearances and other ill-treatment, and improving conditions of detention. On these visits, the ICRC monitors the situation of vulnerable groups with specific needs, including women and children.

New TV footage from Paraguay is available from the ICRC’s Video Newsroom.

For further information, please contact:
Dorothea Krimitsas, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 22 730 25 90 or +41 79 251 93 18