Wednesday to Thursday: Women in Detention

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Wednesday to Thursday: Women in Detention

The conversation leaders will focus on this discussion topic on Wednesday and Thursday.

To help start the conversation and keep the focus of this discussion thread, please consider and respond to the following questions:

  • How have you tried to ensure that these standards are put into practice?
  • What worked well? What didn’t work well?
  • What lessons have you learned? What challenges have you faced?
  • What resources have you found helpful related to this topic?

Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas and questions by adding a comment below or replying to existing comments!

For help on how to participate in this conversation, please check out these online instructions.

Introduction from Andrea and Olivia at PRI

Dear all,

I am Andrea Huber, and I’m working for Penal Reform International as a Policy Director. I will be feeding into this online discussion together with my colleague Olivia Rope, who has been ‘infected’ with the so-called ‘Bangkok Rules’ virus just like myself…

The reason for this is that discrimination of women in criminal justice systems is very present throughout the globe. Yet, even amongst organisations and institutions promoting the rights of women there is little mention of the fact that women can not only be victims of violence, but can also be suspects, defendants – or convicted prisoners.

There is a close link between discrimination in society, and the disadvantages women face when in conflict with the law. Often they depend on the willingness of male family members to spend resources on due process of law for them, and they are often unable to pay for legal representation, fines for petty offences or to meet financial and other bail or sentencing obligations.

Once detained, pre-trial or following a conviction, the minority women prisoners constitute puts them at a further disadvantage. Alternatives to imprisonment are rarely gender-sensitive, and prison systems are almost invariably designed for the majority male prison population – from the architecture of prisons, to security procedures, to facilities for healthcare, family contact, work and training.

As you may know anyway, the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, called the ‘Bangkok Rules’ tackle many of these issues, setting standards and guidance on which measures and safeguards should be (put) in place in national penitentiary systems.

This is why we at PRI we are so excited about them…

However, as with all relatively new standards, the governments, authorities and even monitoring bodies still lacks awareness about the rules.

Penal Reform International is therefore working on a ‘Toolbox’ to support their implementation. As you are particularly interested in monitoring places of detention, you might be interested in the ‘Guide to gender-sensitive monitoring’, which PRI produced together with the APT

Now, after this overflowing introduction… we are dying to hear from you whether you have already worked with the Bangkok Rules and what experiences you have gathered? How did you learn about the Rules? Did the authorities you dealt with know them or looked at you puzzled and said ‘The Bangkok what’?

Let us know!

Best from Andrea and Olivia

How have groups tried to domesticate these int'l standards?

Thanks for starting this discussion, Andrea and Olivia! Creating a 'toolbox' to support the implementation of the Bangkok Rules sounds like a great idea. Is the audience for this resource, the monitoring bodies themselves? Or will the toolbox also be for authorities who are responsible for implementing these standards?

It would also be great to learn more about some of the ideas you've come across for this toolbox. What kinds of tactics or case studies have you identified? How have groups been able to domesticate these international standards?

I don't know how helpful this will be in this context, but New Tactics hosted an online conversation a few years ago on Domesticating International Human Rights Law, which is quite a challenge in and of itself!

I look forward to hearing from you and others regarding the different approaches that have been tried in implementing the Bangkok Rules - thanks!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

What actions have you taken to protect women in detention?

Or, more simply - what actions have you taken to protect women in detention? Share your experiences, stories, challenges and ideas here!

- Kristin Antin, New Tactics Online Community Builder

PRI's Toolbox for Implementing Bangkok Rules


Hi all,

Great to read everyones contributions.  I am working at PRI (as Andrea mentioned in her post) as Programme Officer.

As regards the "toolbox" we have created various things that can be used by all the different actors that need to be involved in implementing the Bangkok Rules. 

For example, we have an Index of Implementation  that is divided into 8 chapters  - each chapter addressing a key actor (e.g. policy makers, prison staff, staff responsible for rehabilitation, prison monitoring bodies...etc). the Index is a comprehensive checklist which goes through each rule in thematic clusters with questions intended to enable an assessment of implementation - and more importantly, to provide a reference to those who are responsible for implementing the rules.  

This Index accompanies the Guidance Document which offers detailed and practical guidance to key actors - as well as explains the rationale behind each Rule, drawing on international standards, practical examples, discussions in drafting the Rules, etc.etc.

Both of these tools are excellent resources for anybody that is working with women in detention. Do not be put off by the length, as the contents page can be used, so you can go directly to what you need!  Oh, and I should mention both are available in English, Arabic and Russian. They are both working documents, to be finalised this October. 

As a lot of the rules do not require additional resources, but a change in awareness and attitude. So the main investment needed is training and a sensitisation of criminal justice actors in relation to the typical background of women offenders. These two tools seek to inspire and generate new thinking, new solutions, and give very concrete steps that can be taken to implement the rules - without needing extra financial resources!

We hope everyone checks them out... and feeds back to us!


Some more thoughts on the Bangkok Rules

Dear all,

I am Gabriele and I am heading OMCT's Office in Tunis.

Many thanks to the organisers for having initiated this conversation. Monitoring prisons to prevent abuse is an important topic that ultimately will improve the conditions and protection of hundreds of thousands. In Tunisia, we are in the midst of seeing different initiatives grow based on an explicit need to improve prison conditions. This is a good sign and bears as many benefits as challenges.  I will be happy to engage on this in the course of Friday's conversation. 

In the meanwhile I wanted to share parts of a presentation of my colleague, Carin Benninger-Budel, who has been working on the implementation of the Bangkok Rules for many years. I find her remarks very useful, therefore had a hard time shortening the text -- please take a moment to read it.

Salam, Gabriele*



The violence and treatment women and girls face in prison should be understood as part of a continuum of violence they experience, as taking place within a broader context of disadvantage and discrimination. OMCT’s research and shadow reports to the treaty bodies on violence against women show that it is widely pervasive and structural, in the sense that the main causes of gender violence lie in patriarchal and unequal power relations between men and women. The violence reflects culturally dominant gender stereotypes, which contain ideological messages about the roles of men and women in life, or about ‘proper’ behavior. And this is part of the reason why the situation of women in prison and other places of detention is often neglected. Precisely because they are detained, women in prison are stigmatised in many societies as their condition is at odds with their expected roles and responsibilities in the family and community. They are forgotten by their families and by society and politics show little interest in their situation. Since imprisonment may have a disproportionate harsh impact on the lives of women and her child or children, the Rules emphasize that states should use it as a measure of last resort and should promote women’s access to non-custodial measures as an alternative. 

The question is how we can bring the Bangkok Rules to the women prisoners and offenders by assuring their urgently needed implementation at the country level by prison authorities and criminal justice agencies.

In view of the fact that prison conditions and violence against women in prisons is related to the human rights violations women face in society as a whole; a holistic approach is most effective for protecting women prisoners and offenders. Responses of the State to violence against women must, according to the obligations under international human rights law, prevent the violence, punish the perpetrators and assist and compensate the victims. To accomplish the preventive obligation, a State has to comply with its formal legal commitments as set out in international instruments, but should also seek to transform women’s inequality into women’s empowerment. 

As ways to implement and spread the standards, the Rules themselves stress the importance of research, planning, evaluation, and public awareness raising and sharing of information. It is important that these activities are not carried out in a narrow sense, but that they are part of a broader strategy: thus to research the underlying causes of the violence to improve women’s actual and legal position in society and to address the persistence of gender-based stereotypes. 

The Bangkok Rules are a non-binding instrument. It is thus important that the Rules are going to be integrated in the women’s human rights debate as well as in the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment debate. This integration method has for example been very successful in bringing clarity to considerations that should apply when dealing with the right of women to be free from torture.     

Since the year 2000, OMCT has worked to integrate a gender-dimension into the work of the Committee against Torture, in particular through shadow reporting in collaboration with our members in the field. We have showed the Committee important parallels between violence in the private sphere and violence perpetrated by state officials and we advocated for an interpretation of the right to be free from torture that also takes into account women-specific harms including the right to be free from domestic violence, genital mutilation and sexual abuse by non-state actors. Over the years, the Committee against Torture has become a vital instrument in the fight against violence against women. The Committee has broadened the protection provided by the Convention against Torture by systematically discussing violence against women in all spheres of life with the respective governments and civil society. Their interpretation of torture has helped to move the global discourse on violence against women from a private issue to the obligation of states to prevent it and to bring those responsible to justice.  

We are pleased that the Committee against Torture already started in 2011 to refer to the Bangkok Rules in their Concluding Observations while discussing the conditions of women in detention. This is important as they have the capacity to make the Rules into law through authoritative interpretation.

Against the backdrop of the increase in the number of women in prison worldwide, and their specific needs and requirements, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women should pay more attention to the issue of violence against women by State officials and should recommend governments and other relevant actors to take steps to promote and protect the human rights of women in prison in line with the Bangkok Rules. A focus of the CEDAW Committee on women in prison and women offenders would at the same time challenge the prevailing gender relations and the persistence of gender-based stereotypes.

Women in detention and the UN treaty bodies

Hi all

I am Therese Rytter, Head of International Legal Affairs, at DIGNITY - Danish Institute agaist Torture (formerly RCT).

Before moving into the substance - notably the application of the Bangkok Rules in detention monitoring -  I would like to share some research that we have made over  the past year concerning the awareness and application of the Bangkok Rules by the UN Treaty Bodies. We are curently conducting a research study on women in detention and this includes a review of the concluding observations of central UN treaty bodies (HRC, CAT, CEDAW and SPT) since 2008 as well as country studies. The study will be published later this year. Our findings clearly indicate that although the UN treaty bodies have increased their focus on violence against women and other HRV committed against women, the overwhelming part of their attention is still on issues OUTISIDE places of detention (except for the SPT). Central concerns are domestic violence, human trafficking, female genital mutilation and discrimination within the criminal justice system. When it cones to focussing on violations vis-à-vis women who are deprived of their liberty the scope of themes/concerns is still relatively limited and many gaps in protection that one finds in the field seem not to be captured by the HRC, CAT and CEDAW. 


Best regards


Research on Women Offenders

Hi all,

Therese, that research sounds excellent and will be hugely useful - look forward to seeing it published later! 

As Gabriela wrote (quote copied below) there is a real need for researching (see Rule 67 promoting result orientated research) to understand the broader issues that contribute to the fact that there are more and more women imprisoned every year (and at a faster rate than their male counterparts) AND what the needs are for women offenders.

"As ways to implement and spread the standards, the Rules themselves stress the importance of research, planning, evaluation, and public awareness raising and sharing of information. It is important that these activities are not carried out in a narrow sense, but that they are part of a broader strategy: thus to research the underlying causes of the violence to improve women’s actual and legal position in society and to address the persistence of gender-based stereotypes."

In fact PRI is planning to undertake research in 3 regions over the coming year (in line with Rule 67) - on the typical characteristics of female offenders. This along with other research projects we know of - including by the Thailand Institute of Justice and UNODC - will hopefully help policy makers nationally and internationally design and deliver smarter strategies that address women's needs... rather than 'squeezing' them into the system designed for the majority male prison population.

I will finish with a quote from an author of an article covering the case of Julie Bilotta in Canada: “Because the vast majority of lawbreakers are male, the prison as a primary tool of punishment has always had an, “add women and stir” strategy, assuming that men and women are interchangeable when it comes to incarceration.”


CEDAW's Role

In response to your colleagues comment, Gabriela, regarding the role of the CEDAW Committee, you  may be interested in a blog we wrote 'Popular as a victim, forgotten as a defendant' from the CEDAW Day of Discussion on Access to Justice... 


Decarceration and the Bangkok Rules

It is also interesting to consider how the prevention of harm can be carried out through implementing policies which divert women from custodial settings. 

National standards to implement the Bangkok Rules

Dear all

Thank you to Andrea and Oliver for starting such an important conversation. Your new resource Women in detention: a guide to gender-sensitive monitoring is excellent - easy to read, and links really well the provisions of the Bangkok Rules with their broader context.

I work with DCAF's gender and security programme. We support gender mainstreaming within the security sector - most often working with police, armed forces, ministries, parliaments and women's civil society.  As part of our work on gender and penal reform, we have produced a short guide to the Bangkok Rules, which is available in French, English, Russian and Ukranian:

One of the examples it includes is of the Inspector of Prisons of the Republic of Ireland publishing a supplement to the Standards for the Inspection of Prisons in Ireland “to give guidance to the Irish Prison Service and prison management on the most important aspects of best practice in relation to the detention of women prisoners and the management of women’s prisons". You can see these here:

These supplemental standards on dealing with women prisoners have been significantly informed by the Bangkok Rules, and explicitly recognise that a gender-specific approach is required for women in prison. The 33 standards are organised under the following nine headings: basic principle; admission to prison; accommodation; health and welfare; pregnant women and mothers with babies in prison; contact with children and family members; education, training and rehabilitation; safety; and staff. During inspections of prisons, the conditions and treatment of women prisoners, and the management of the two women’s prisons in the Republic of Ireland, are to be benchmarked against them.

Do others have any examples of national-level monitoring bodies explictly writing standards to implement the Bangkok Rules? Does anyone have any documented examples of how such standards have been implemented?

DCAF are also doing a project with OSCE that will produce guidance for security sector monitoring bodies on integrating gender. So, less focused on detention than PRI's resource, but a wider focus on, for example, building institutional capacity to address gender. I hope this will be useful to the penal reform community also.

Best wishes


On alternatives to imprisonment (comment by roganmo)

Dear all,

it’s Andrea again from PRI, and I’m pleased to see the new postings! So not only we are in that topic -phew!

I’m glad roganmo raised the diversion of women offenders from imprisonment to begin with.

Indeed, a considerable proportion of women offenders do not pose a risk to society and their imprisonment may not help, but hinder their social reintegration. The Bangkok Rules do address this topic and in fact, go beyond women prisoners but there is a whole chapter and set of rules dedicated to non-custodial alternatives. Rule 57, that ‘[g]ender-specific options for diversionary measures and pretrial and sentencing alternatives shall be developed within Member States’ legal systems, taking account of the history of victimization of many women offenders and their caretaking responsibilities.’

Currently, also alternatives to prison are tailored to men and don’t meet the specific requirements of women offenders.

To just give an example, when sentencing a woman offender, the sentence should provide assistance to help them overcome the reasons that led to the criminal behavior, and a large proportion of women have mental healthcare needs, are drug-and/ or alcohol-dependent, or suffer from the trauma of domestic violence or sexual abuse, but at the same time it is recognized that there are gender differences in, for example, substance dependence and related complications that require different treatment approaches.

But also non-custodial sanctions must take into account the possible care-taking responsibilities of a woman, otherwise mothers cannot participate in community-based programmes.

The role as sole or at least primary care-taker of children reminds me to stress that it is - finally - also increasingly recognized that even a short period in prison may have damaging, long-term consequences for the children concerned and should be avoided, unless unavoidable for the purposes of justice.

By keeping women out of prison, where imprisonment is not necessary or justified, their children may be saved from the enduring adverse effects of their mothers’ imprisonment, including their possible institutionalisation and own future incarceration.

Rule 64 of the Bangkok Rules stresses that non-custodial sentences for pregnant women and women with dependent children should be ‘preferred where possible and appropriate, with custodial sentences being considered when the offence is serious or violent or the woman represents a continuing danger, and after taking into account the best interests of the child or children, while ensuring that appropriate provision has been made for the care of such children.’

Much of this really is about awareness - and change of attitude!


Women in detention

Dear all

Mari Amos from SPT will join the conversation with a brief remark as well.

According to my knowing SPT has not used that much BRs in its work and findings. We have and will in the future too address the issue of vulnerab le groups in all kinds of detention. This includes women. What I have noted is that for some reason women tend to suffer from more harsh conditions in the detention facilities. And I do not mean harrassment, gender-specific needs etc. But just living conditions, type of work they have to do etc. This is an aspect that needs to be looked at closer.

Now coming back to BR - this is extremely useful tool specially together with comments and all other aid prepared by PRI et al. Our counterparts in states - NPMs - should benefit from this hugely. Also other monitors that come accross the issue of wonem in detention and not only from the point of view of torture etc.

I see need for further training in this field - this is certainly need in my organisation. From international players to the institutions in states checking details in PoD. How this should be done exaclty need to be thought through of course. But only through general, equally distributed and overall raising of knowledge, explaining the working methods and providing real help in implementing those rules difference could be made.

Mari Amos


Topic locked