By the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Penal Reform International (PRI)

The 65th Session of the CSW has as its review theme, “women’s empowerment and the link to sustainable development.” 2020 marks 5 years since the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted; and 10 years from when they should be achieved. Yet the gender-related SDGs are far from being attained, especially for women in situations of vulnerability, including women deprived of liberty and women who use drugs, two groups that are largely ignored in policy debates.

Women’s incarceration is rising, particularly across Latin America, and is growing at a much faster rate than that of men, with devastating consequences for the women deprived of liberty, their families, and communities. According to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, between 2000 and 2017, the global female prison population grew by 53%, compared to 19% for men. Harsh drug laws are the driving force behind women’s incarceration. In most Asian and Latin American countries, non-violent drug offenses are the primary cause of women’s incarceration. They are usually arrested for low-level but high-risk activities, such as selling small amounts of drugs or transporting drugs within or between countries.

Most incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women face seemingly insurmountable odds in their lives – now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They come from situations of pervasive poverty and inequality, have low levels of education and are either underemployed or unemployed. Many have histories of trauma and abuse. And most are responsible for providing for their children and other family members. According to a 2018 survey by the Inter-American Development Bank in eight Latin American countries, 87% of women in prison in Latin America are the primary caregivers for dependent children or the elderly.

Prison only serves to worsen this situation further, as criminal records limit chances of finding decent employment and housing after release from prison. All face stigma and discrimination long after their sentences are served – and women face far more stigma than men deprived of liberty, as they are seen as defying the gendered roles assigned to them by society.