Harm Reduction International is working closely with its partners on researching and analysing underpinning problems of gender biased criminal justice systems and drug treatment services as well as advocating for the respect and protection of right to health for women who use drugs.
In many parts of the world, drug laws and policies over the past twenty years have had specific, devastating, and disparate effects on women, and particularly on women of minority backgrounds.
More than 500,000 women and girls are held in penal institutions around the world either in pre-trial or post trail prisons. Women represent between 2% and 9% of the global prison population. Even though this number is relatively small, the rate of increase in the number of women for drug crimes in prison is much greater than for men. Many women in prison have high levels of mental illness related to drug or alcohol dependence as well as more experiences of sexual and physical abuse and violence. Issues arising from gender-specific health care needs are frequently neglected and although women represent a small percentage of the total prison population services that have gender specificity are lacking.
A dramatic increase in women's incarceration for drug offences is also determined by patterns of women's drug use, barriers to women seeking and obtaining treatment, a lack of effective and appropriate treatment for women, the nature of women's involvement in the drug trade, and patterns of prosecution and sentencing of women for drug offences. There is also a very strong connection between women's experiences of violence and economic and social pressures, and women’s drug use or involvement in the drug trade. Often women who are parents and the only caregivers to their dependent children lose custody as a consequence of conviction for drug offences or being identified as a drug users. Moreover women who use drugs may suffer from denial of public housing and other benefits as well as discrimination from employers, doctors, courts, and educational institutions.
Although the total number of women who use drugs varies from region to region, country to country, it is estimated that in Eastern Europe and Central Asia women may represent 20-30% of injecting drug users. The European Union also reports increasing numbers of women and especially young women who use drugs.
These figures suggest that there is an urgent need for a sophisticated criminal justice policy for those who have committed petty drug offences and/or are primary caregivers for their children. Treatment programmes and harm reduction services need to be developed in accordance to the needs of women and young girls who use drugs.
In the next few years Harm Reduction International will be working to raise the profile of these issues, to advocate for change and to develop and support best practices for women who use drugs or are accused of drug offences.
For more information contact: Human Rights Analyst - Eka Iakobishvili; on twitter - Eka_ia
Alternative report to the UN Committee Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women on the Sixth periodic report of Italy: 2011, ‘Women, drug dependence, HIV/AIDS and the criminal justice system’ (With Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Itaca Association, Associazione Antigone, Associazione Nazionale Giuristi Democratic)
Briefing on the UN rules for the treatment of women prisoners and non-custodial measures for women offenders (‘Bangkok rules’), PRI and UN Quaker Office briefing on 'Bangkok rules’, 2011
Caught in the Net: The Impact of Drug Policies on Women and Families; American Civil Liberties Union, Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs, The Brennan Center at NYU School of Law, 2011
Kiev Declaration: Women’s health in prison; WHO and UNODC, 2009
Making Harm Reduction Work for Women: The Ukrainian Experience; Open Society Institute Public Health programme, International Harm Reduction Development Program, 2010
Women and drug policy in Eurasia; Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (2010) Women and drug policy in Eurasia
Women, Harm Reduction, and HIV; Open Society Foundations International Harm Reduction Development Program, 2007
Women and HIV in prison settings; UNODC and UNAIDS, 2010