Women languishing in prison for up to 25 years for possession of 15 methamphetamine pills, women being low-level hostages between the drug trade and law enforcement agencies, women taking the blame for their husband’s drug possession – these were some of the stories presented at the “Dialogue on women, limited freedom and drugs” held in Bangkok on 30th June 2014. The event aimed to address the problem of Thailand having amongst the world’s highest rates of imprisonment of women, most of them being detained for drugs offences. The seminar was opened by Dr. Kittiphong Kityarak (Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Justice) with government officials, senior judges, scholars, members of civil society and NGOs, including IDPC, in attendance.

The seminar opened with high-level statements on the failure of the war on drugs and the need to reduce the numbers of women in prison by improving their access to justice and socio-economic circumstances. Almost every speaker advocated for a change in Thailand’s drug control policies towards low-level, non-violent drug offences, to address socio-economic deprivation, prison overcrowding and unbalanced budgets for drug control (which emphasise suppression over health and social inclusion), and to better target serious crime. Professor Dr. Amara Pongsapich, Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, spoke of the need for a “paradigm shift” from being growth-centred to human-centred, and from being needs-based to being rights-based. Constitutional Court Judge Charun Phakdithanakun spoke about the frustration felt by judges who had to sentence women in possession of as little as one tablet as drug producers, and the court’s inability to take into account socio-economic circumstances and other mitigating factors in sentencing drug offences. He suggested the consideration of changes in the law.

Other speakers highlighted the vulnerability of ethnic minority groups, for example women from Muslim communities in the south who are often forced to be involved in drug supply activities, the need for Thailand to ensure its drug control laws are aligned with its commitments under international human rights treaties, and proposed alternatives to imprisonment for low-level offences, such as fines.

IDPC referred to recent developments in Latin America and the United States where governments are trying to address harsh, disproportionate sentencing and over-incarceration in relation to drug offences, and initiatives in other parts of the world aiming to improve proportionality of sentencing by taking into account:

  • the type of drug activity involved
  • the type and amount of drug involved
  • the person’s role and motivation
  • other mitigating factors such as socio-economic circumstances and the low amount of financial gain to be made, and
  • aggravating factors such as the involvement of minors, violence and organised crime.

This seminar is part of a series of seminars organised by the Kamlangjai Project (which means “support and encouragement” in Thai), with the next to be held on 17th July 2014 in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The Kamlangjai Project is a Royal Initiative established in 2006 by HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha of Thailand. The Kamlangjai Project aims to help those in need in society, and particularly targets female inmates and their children, juvenile delinquents and other groups of under privileged people in the justice process.

Lam Nguyen, Intern, IDPC, Bangkok, Thailand

Gloria Lai, Senior Policy Officer, IDPC, Bangkok, Thailand