Putting justice on the agenda for all women this International Women’s Day

Published: Friday, March 8th, 2024


This is a blog by Laura Cook, volunteer Communications Consultant with Women Beyond Walls, a global movement focused on ending the over-incarceration and over-criminalisation of women worldwide.

 

Every year, as International Women’s Day approaches, our collective strides towards gender equality come into sharp focus. While we must acknowledge the progress made, the excessive imprisonment of women and girls worldwide continues to cast a long shadow over our discourse. It’s a topic that may not traditionally make the headlines, but it’s one that cuts to the core of what International Women’s Day should symbolise – the need for a world that upholds the rights and dignity of all women, not just the chosen few. 

I volunteer as a communications specialist with Women Beyond Walls because I believe we need to challenge injustices at their roots, amplify voices that go unheard, and shape policies that pave the way for true reform and healing in society. Many women who find themselves behind bars are victims themselves – trapped by cycles of poverty, violence, and systemic inequities that limit their choices and opportunities.

An invisibilised epidemic behind bars

The over-incarceration of women has risen alarmingly in the last decade but is often overlooked in broader criminal justice debates. The women and girls who find themselves behind bars are not faceless numbers or silent statistics; they are mothers, daughters, wives, sisters and friends.

Poverty is a major driver of incarceration globally and this is mirrored in the UK where the majority of women who are incarcerated have been convicted for theft from shops, fraud by misrepresentation or other non-violent crimes. More than half of prison sentences given to women in the UK in 2022 were for less than six months. Women in Prison reports working with women who have been sentenced for the theft of essential items, including bread and baby’s nappies. Other women in the UK have been sent to prison for failing to pay monthly bills, an issue highlighted in the second series of the BBC drama ‘Time’ in 2023. Working Chance found that, of the women who are sent to prison, 81% were unemployed before entering custody. Women Beyond Walls and Penal Reform International are currently conducting global research into laws and practices which criminalise women due to poverty or status. 

On International Women’s Day, while we should celebrate the progress that has been made towards gender equality, the true measure of our progress on women’s rights is how we treat the most vulnerable among us. For most women in our world’s prisons, it is not a standalone event that led to their incarceration, but the culmination of a lifetime of societal neglect and personal tribulation. For example, the Prison Reform Trust reports that in the UK, 53% of women in prison have been on the receiving end of domestic violence, and an equal proportion report having faced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse during childhood.

The official United Nations theme for International Women’s Day 2024 is ‘Invest in women: Accelerate progress’. Women Beyond Walls carried out research published in 2021 that found that organisations working with and for incarcerated women and girls were simply not being invested in. If we truly want to address the root causes that funnel women into the criminal justice system, then we must fund the organisations doing the work on these issues. After all, the over-incarceration of women reflects broader societal issues that we must confront. As we advocate for gender parity, we must remember that women’s empowerment is incomplete if it doesn’t reach the corridors of our nation’s prisons and detention centres.

Restoration both sides of the walls

In doing my research for this blog, I was struck by a sentence on the Why me? website that highlighted the way victims of crime often feel sidelined by criminal justice processes. Interestingly, this is also often the experience of women who are convicted of a crime. On a powerful episode of the Women Beyond Walls podcast, Brenda Birungi, best known as author, poet, mentor and broadcaster ‘Lady Unchained’, speaks of how difficult she found it to navigate the criminal justice system in the UK, both before, during and after her conviction. Her experience is not isolated. The NHS England ‘National Women’s Prisons Health and Social Care Review’, published in 2023, reflected in its findings the experiences of 2,250 women incarcerated at the time of completing the research survey. Their responses reveal the profoundly destabilising effect of imprisonment. The review noted that for most women, the initial phase of custody was marked by trauma, deep distress, and “bewilderment”. The report also shed light on the frequent incarceration of women with severe mental health issues. 

In the spirit of this year’s International Women’s Day theme, we are called upon to invest in women. I believe this must include investing in the gender-specific needs of women in the criminal justice system. I believe this means listening to, and learning from, women with lived-experiences of criminal justice systems.  We also need to invest in the societal changes needed to prevent the cycles of disadvantage that lead to incarceration in the first place. If Restorative Justice is founded on the understanding that punishment of individuals harms the wider community and on valuing our human interconnectedness, then surely we must extend that approach to all caught up in so-called ‘justice systems’. For me, Restorative Justice must encompass not just the act of repairing harm but also the pursuit of equitable pathways for women entangled in the criminal justice system, ensuring their experiences and the injustices they’ve faced are acknowledged and addressed too.

 

Laura lives in Essex in the United Kingdom, and she is a communicator, project manager and PhD researcher. Laura started volunteering with Women Beyond Walls as the producer of its first podcast series, motivated by her belief in the power of storytelling to shift stereotypes and assumptions. 

 

 

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