For centuries, criminal laws, justice systems, and prisons have been designed for, and by, men. The 2010 United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders, also known as the “Bangkok Rules,” break away from this history by establishing the first set of international human rights standards that focus on the specific needs and experiences of women deprived of liberty.
Our new joint report, Punitive Drug Laws: 10 Years Undermining the Bangkok Rules, analyzes the concrete ways in which punitive drug laws and policies have negatively impacted the achievement of the Bangkok Rules.
Ten years after the adoption of the Bangkok Rules by the 193 countries represented at the UN General Assembly, states across the world have largely failed to implement them, while the number of women in prison has continued to rise dramatically. By 2020, an estimated 741,000 women were incarcerated worldwide, compared to 636,000 in 2010. The global female prison population is estimated to have increased by about 59 percent from 2000 to 2020.
This worrying trend has been fueled by the punitive drug laws adopted at the end of the 20th century. In many countries in Asia and Latin America, drug offenses are the main cause of the incarceration of women. In most cases, women are detained for carrying out low-level drug activities, such as selling small amounts or transporting drugs, that are characterized by high risk, a high degree of replaceability within illegal drug organizations, and little financial reward.
Although theoretically gender-blind, punitive drug policies such as the disproportionate use of pretrial detention, mandatory minimum prison sentences, and the dearth of harm reduction services and evidence-based treatment in prisons, have disproportionately impacted women. They have also ignored the causes for women’s involvement in illegal drug activities, which include the intersection of poverty and caretaking responsibilities, and sometimes coercion or influence at the hands of a male relative or partner. In other words, present drug policies have undermined the application of the Bangkok Rules.
For advocates across the world, the 10-year anniversary of the Bangkok Rules is an opportunity to remind states that policies to promote gender equality—alongside more just criminal legal systems and drug laws—are not isolated from each other. If states want to implement a genuine agenda for gender equality, they need to review the laws and policies that undermine it— including drug legislation.
The report concludes with concrete policy recommendations aimed at significantly reducing the number of women in prison and entering the criminal legal system. In the context of COVID-19, it is especially urgent to release women with health risks, and women in situations of vulnerability, such as older women, disabled women, pregnant women, women with children, and women responsible for other dependents, among others. Women who remain in prison should have access to strictly voluntary evidence-informed, rights-based, and gender-sensitive drug services, including drug dependence treatment, harm reduction, and additional support services focusing on addressing past histories of trauma, gender-based violence, and mental health. Ultimately, countries around the world need to reform drug laws to stop the unjust flow of people into prisons.