The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Andean Information Network (AIN) have published a new report today, titled Promoting Gender-Sensitive Drug Policies in Bolivia. AIN Executive Director, Kathryn Ledebur, and WOLA Senior Fellow, Coletta A. Youngers, are co-authors of the report.
In the Plurinational State of Bolivia, women account for 8 percent of the country’s more than 17,000 people behind bars. In only three other Latin American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Chile) do women comprise a larger share of the overall incarcerated population. Almost 40 percent of the women behind bars in Bolivia are held for low-level drug offenses, often as a result of structural socioeconomic conditions, such as poverty and the pressures of single parenting. These women are typically poor, have limited education, and do not have access to stable jobs with decent pay; a startling percentage have been victims of domestic and sexual violence. They are often driven into the drug trade out of economic necessity. High rates of pretrial detention have also contributed to severe prison overcrowding. Indeed, according to the online database the World Prison Brief, Bolivian prisons are ranked as the eighth most congested in the world.
In response to extreme prison overcrowding, between 2012 and 2018 the government of President Evo Morales enacted six prison pardon, sentence reduction, and amnesty initiatives, leading to the release of almost a third of Bolivia’s total incarcerated population. Specific gender-sensitive clauses benefited mothers and caregivers. These gender-focused initiatives, paired with poverty reduction and increased state support for mothers, contributed to an 84 percent decrease in the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses between 2012 and 2017, going against the trend of increasing female incarceration for drug-related offenses in most Latin American countries.
But Bolivia’s considerable progress in reducing the incarceration of women for drug offenses could stall without the enactment and implementation of broader judicial reform efforts. Promoting Gender-Sensitive Drug Policies in Bolivia concludes with a series of concrete reforms that are needed to significantly advance the implementation of gender-sensitive drug policies in Bolivia. Of particular importance, the voices of women impacted by drug policies must be included in the debate, in order to develop and implement more effective, humane, and inclusive initiatives, grounded in public health and human rights.