The Women, Incarceration and Drug Policy in South East Asia project aims to increase engagement of community and civil society organisations in advocacy for drug policy reform in Southeast Asia, to result in improved outcomes for human rights, the rule of law, and ultimately reductions in the numbers of women in prison, detention and on death row for drug offences.
In its Global Prison Trends 2015 report, Penal Reform International found that while women comprised 6.5 per cent of the world’s prisoners (over 660,000 women as of 2013), they constitute the fastest growing prison population with particularly high rates of imprisonment for drug offences. The proportion of women incarcerated for drug offences is significantly higher than that of men, with the highest levels of incarceration of women to be found in Southeast and East Asia.
Although women continue to be a minority in the prison system, the gendered dimensions of this issue require special attention and consideration. Incarcerated women suffer a triple stigma. First, the justice system condemns them, and then punishes them in prisons that are poorly equipped to meet their gender-specific needs, putting them at increased risk of abuse, violence, and health problems. Secondly, society condemns them for betraying their gendered social role as caregivers and passive, private space occupants. It should be recalled that drug use is also highly stigmatised across Southeast Asia, particularly among women. Third, their criminal record stigmatises them by thwarting their opportunities to gain decent work in the licit economy upon release from prison. The incarceration of mothers and caregivers in particular can have devastating consequences for their families and communities.
In 2014, the International Drug Policy Consortium partnered with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), civil society organisations in Latin America (including DeJusticia in Colombia and ACEID in Costa Rica) and the OAS Inter-American Commission on Women to launch a project aimed at addressing the issue of women incarcerated for drug-related crimes and developing recommendations for policy reform to address the gender dimensions of the “war on drugs.” The overall objective of the project is to open a dialogue with policy makers in Latin America on how drug policies and practices can be reviewed to reduce the use of prison for women in vulnerable situations.
The Women, Incarceration and Drug Policy in South East Asia project seeks to build upon the concept, modus operandi, successful outcomes and lessons learned of the ongoing project in Latin America. In accordance with UN standards including the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders ('the Bangkok Rules') and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures (‘the Tokyo Rules’), this project aims to promote reforms towards reducing the levels of incarceration of women for drug offences, by achieving the following outcomes amongst government agencies and civil society organisations whose work relate to this issue:
- Increased civil society engagement in supporting proportionate sentencing, and reductions in incarceration and death penalty sentences for female drug offenders, especially for low-level, non-violent offences
- Increased understanding of the extent and profile of women incarcerated for drug offences, and its wider socio-economic consequences
- Increased understanding of sentencing practices and alternatives to incarceration (eg. referrals to drug treatment programmes for people dependent on drugs), that could help ensure proportionate sentencing, and reduced levels of incarceration and use of death penalty sentences for female drug offenders, especially for low-level, non-violent offences
The project also provides an opportunity to engage with drug policy reform more generally and to make recommendations that could influence policies affecting other groups.