By Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

We estimate that at least 500 women are currently on death rows around the world. While exact figures are impossible to obtain, we further estimate that over 100 women have been executed in the last ten years—and potentially hundreds more. The number of women facing execution is not dramatically different from the number of juveniles currently on death row, but the latter have received a great deal more attention from international human rights bodies, national courts, scholars, and advocates.
This report aims to shed light on this much-neglected population. Few researchers have sought to obtain information about the crimes for which women have been sentenced to death, the circumstances of their lives before their convictions, and the conditions under which they are detained on death row. As a result, there is little empirical data about women on death row, which impedes advocates from understanding patterns in capital sentencing and the operation of gender bias in the criminal legal system. To the extent that scholars have focused on women on death row, they have concluded that they are beneficiaries of gender bias that operates in their favor. While it is undeniable that women are protected from execution under certain circumstances (particularly mothers of infants and young children) and that women sometimes benefit from more lenient sentencing, those that are sentenced to death are subjected to multiple forms of gender bias.  

Most women have been sentenced to death for the crime of murder, often in relation to the killing of family members in a context of gender-based violence. Others have been sentenced to death for drug offenses, terrorism, adultery, witchcraft, and blasphemy, among other offenses. Although they represent a tiny minority of all prisoners sentenced to death, their cases are emblematic of systemic failings in the application of capital punishment. 

Women in conflict with the law are particularly vulnerable to abuse and other rights violations, either at the police station, during trial, or while incarcerated. Women are more likely than men to be illiterate, which affects their ability to understand and participate in their own defense. For example, of the 12 women on India’s death row in 2015, six have never attended school. Illiteracy also increases their vulnerability to coercion,
heightening the risk of false confessions. In certain countries, particularly in the Gulf states, most death-sentenced women are foreign migrant workers who are subject to discriminatory treatment.  

Mental illness and intellectual disability are common among women facing the death penalty. In Pakistan, Kanizan Bibi has been on death row since 1989, when she was only 16-years-old. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, she cannot care for herself in the most basic ways and has lost all awareness of her surroundings. Although she is now confined in a psychiatric hospital, she remains under sentence of death.  

Many women enter prison as long-term survivors of gender-based violence and harsh socio-economic deprivation. We have documented several cases of women convicted of crimes committed while they were minors, often in the context of child marriage. These factors receive little attention from lawyers and courts. In many death penalty jurisdictions, gender-based violence is not considered at sentencing. Few lawyers present such evidence, and even where they do, the courts often discount it. In mandatory death penalty jurisdictions, a woman’s prior history as a survivor of physical or sexual abuse is simply irrelevant, since the death penalty is automatically imposed for death-eligible offenses without consideration of the offender’s background or the circumstances of the crime.  

Our research also indicates that women who are seen as violating entrenched norms of gender behavior are more likely to receive the death penalty. In several cases documented in this report, women facing the death penalty have been cast as the “femme fatale,” the “child murderer,” or the “witch.” The case of Brenda Andrew in the United States is illustrative. In her capital trial, the prosecution aired details of her sexual history under the guise of establishing her motive to kill her husband. The jury was allowed to hear about Brenda’s alleged extramarital affairs from years before the murder, as well as details about outfits she wore. The trial court also permitted the prosecutor to show the underwear found in the suitcase in her possession after she fled to Mexico, because it showed that she was not behaving as “a grieving widow, but as a free fugitive living large on a Mexico beach.” As one Justice of the Court of Criminal Appeals of Oklahoma noted, Brenda was put on trial not only for the murder of her husband but for being “a bad wife, a bad mother, and a bad woman.”  

Death row conditions around the world are harsh and at times life-threatening for both men and women. In China, for example, all death row inmates, including women, are shackled at all times by their hands and feet. Women face certain deprivations, however, that do not affect the male population to the same extent. Some death sentenced women must also care for infants or young children who are incarcerated alongside them. Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced to death in Sudan for apostasy in 2014, was shackled to heavy chains in prison while eight months pregnant and caring for a young child. In Thailand and Myanmar, inmates have reportedly given birth alone in prison. In many countries, it is challenging or impossible for women to access sanitary pads or other menstruation products. In Zambia, for example, women must make do with rags that they struggle to clean without soap. 

The social stigma associated with women who are convicted and imprisoned, paired in some cases with restrictive family and child visitation rules, means that many female death row inmates around the world suffer an enduring lack of family contact, contributing to the high levels of depression suffered by women prisoners. Women on death row may also be denied access to occupational training and educational programs. For instance, the general female prison population in Thailand has access to work programs, but death row inmates do not. One woman in Ghana explained, after being denied educational opportunities while on death row: “I don’t do anything. I sweep and I wait.” 

Our country profiles aim to provide a snapshot of women facing the death penalty in several major regions of the world. The stories of women on death row provide anecdotal evidence of the particular forms of oppression and inhumane treatment documented in this report. It is our hope that this initial publication, the first of its kind, will inspire the international community to pay greater attention to the troubling plight of women on death row worldwide.