Download a PDF of the Women in Prisons report “Cause for Alarm”

Inaugural study reveals that more than one in four women in European and Central Asian prisons locked up for drug offences

Up to 70 percent of female prisoners incarcerated for drugs in some countries

Russia incarcerates over twice as many women for drug offences as all EU countries combined

Monday, 12 March 2012 (Vienna, Austria)– Over 31,000 women across Europe and Central Asia are imprisoned for drug offences, representing 28 percent of all women in prisons in these regions, according to a new report by Harm Reduction International.(1)

The report, ‘Cause for Alarm: The Incarceration of Women for Drug Offences in Europe and Central Asia, and the need for Legislative and Sentencing Reform,’ the first to  calculate the total number of  females in prisons on drug offences in  Europe and Central Asia, was launched on the opening day of the annual meeting of the  UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which is taking place in Vienna March 12-16.

The report collected data from fifty-one European and Central Asian countries between August 2011 and February 2012 through government agencies, including national prison services, ministries of justice and drug agencies; as well as academic researchers and civil society organisations. Drug offences include possession, preparation, production, purchase and sale of illicit substances.

In some countries (Latvia, Tajikistan) more than half of female prisoners, are imprisoned for non-violent drug offences. Moreover, in Russia, almost 20,000 women are imprisoned for drugs, for more than double the amount of women in prison in the countries of the European Union combined.

“Women are disproportionately facing prison for non-violent drug offences, often as a result of poverty and social marginalisation,” said Eka Iakobishvili, Human Rights Analyst at Harm Reduction International, and author of the report, who is attending the CND meeting. “These are mostly women many of whom have problems with drug and alcohol dependency and who are in need of support, not punishment. This research points to an over-reliance on criminal laws to address social and economic problems in many countries” – she added.

The report also confirms that (2) (3):

  • The average rate of incarceration of women on drug offences in  Europe and Central Asia  is 1 in 4, that is some 31 400  women of a total of 112 575 presently incarcerated in that region;
  • Just over 33% of  countries in the Europe and Central Asia region have higher incarceration rates than the regional average;
  • The highest incarceration rates occur in both  northern Europe (50% of countries above the regional average) and Eurasia (70% of countries above the regional average);
  • In Spain, 10 times as many women (2,935) are incarcerated compared to France. In Portugal where decriminalisation was introduced in 2001, 47.6 per cent of female prisoners are incarcerated for drug offences.

A recent UN Women report found that ‘most offences for which women are imprisoned are ‘crimes of poverty’ and are nonviolent, property or drug-related. Globally, women are imprisoned for drug offences more than for any other crime.’(4)

Harm Reduction International estimates there to be over 112,000 women in prisons across Europe and Central Asia, with over 31,000 imprisoned for drug offences, based on official data from prison services, and research conducted by local civil society organisations and academic scholars. According to Harm Reduction International, incarceration for drug offences is driving the increasing female prison population in the region, especially in Russia.

“Casting women into prison for non-violent drug offences routinely ruins lives, breaks families apart and puts children at serious risk,” said HRI’s Deputy Executive Director, Damon Barrett who is attending the CDN meeting. “Numbers as high as Russia’s represent a tremendous failure in public policy. It and other governments need to shift their focus away from arrests, prosecutions, prison and, if at all possible, the criminal justice system and into sentencing reforms.”

Globally women represent a small proportion of all prisoners – between 2 -10 per cent, depending on the country. Harm Reduction International’s research suggests that this low proportion of all prisoners hides the role of drug enforcement in driving the imprisonment of women.

In its report Harm Reduction International recommends the following:

  • the decriminalisation of personal possession to divert minor possession offences from the criminal justice system;
  • presumptions against incarcerating mothers, with authorities acting always in the best interests of the child;
  • national reviews of laws and regulations relating to thresholds and quantities;
  • the establishment of clear guidelines on mitigating factors, including where exploitation is evident.


Notes for editors:

(1)  ‘Cause for Alarm: The Incarceration of Women for Drug Offences in Europe and Central Asia, and the need for Legislative and Sentencing Reform,’Eka Iakobishvili, Harm Reduction International, March 2012.

Data were collected from fifty-one European and Central Asian countries between August 2011 and February 2012, and obtained from government agencies, including national prison services, ministries of justice and drug agencies; as well as academic researchers and civil society organisations. Data providers were asked for the most recent, available numbers on national female prison populations – both the total number and the number for drug offences, defined as: Crimes committed within the functioning of illicit drug markets, as part of the business of drug supply, distribution as well as drug law offences (crimes committed in violation of drug (and other related) legislation). This encapsulates a range of offences including possession, preparation, production, purchase, keeping, shipment, transfer or sale, illegal import or export, international transit shipment, illicit growing or cultivating of illicit plants. But it excludes acquisitive crime to obtain money for drugs; and crimes other than drug law offences committed under the influence.

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(4) Report on the progress of the World’s Women 2011-2012: In Pursuit of Justice, UN Women, July 2011