Africa has the lowest proportion of women in prison, but in 15 years the number of women imprisoned on the continent has grown by 22%
The third edition of the World Prison Brief focused on the World Female Imprisonment List puts the global number of women and girls in penal institutions at an estimated 700,000 (it could be higher). This analysis indicates that the rate at which the population of women in prisons has grown is significantly higher than that of men, at a 50 percent increase since the year 2000. Among this category of female criminals are detainees awaiting trial, and those that have been convicted and sentenced.
These figures are produced from all 219 penal institutions of independent countries and dependent territories worldwide, with the exception of seven countries; Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Gabon, North Korea, Somalia and Uzbekistan, for which data is presently not available. The United States occupies the first position in numbers with 205,400 prisoners. Next in highest totals is China with 103,766, not including the unknown number of women and girls in pretrial detention or ‘administrative detention’.
African countries have the lowest proportion of women and girls within the total prison population. Also, per 100,000 of the national population, the levels in Africa are the lowest. This is considering the variations between countries, regions and continents within that proportion.
Notably, compiler of the World Female Imprisonment List, Roy Walmsley, implies that policy making in Africa concerning female imprisonment is heading in the right direction.
“The astonishingly sharp rise in recent years in the number of women and girls in prison… should prompt policy makers in all countries to consider what they can do to limit the number of women in custody. Female imprisonment has a high financial and social cost and its excessive use does nothing to improve public safety.”
However, according to Listverse, even though the conditions of prisons worldwide are less than habitable, prisons in Africa are worse. Some of the worst women’s prisons in the world can be found in South Africa, where conditions have been described as ‘shockingly inhumane’. Dozens of people cram into a cell with one shower, sink, and toilet, and there are frequent violent outbreaks.
According to research by Lisa Vetten, a Social and Economic research analyst at the Wits Institute, access to pads is not provided for female inmates, in Malawi and Mozambique. In Zimbabwe, women settle for their blankets or uniforms and newspapers as alternatives, and in Ethiopia they are expected to wash and reuse cloths provided to them. Horrifically, in Nigeria there are instances where two women shared one pad, while Ugandan inmates didn’t even have underwear.
Their small numbers notwithstanding, female prisoners have specific needs, mainly in terms of reproductive health and childcare. There are numerous cases where female prisoners are pregnant at the time of their incarceration, and because the system no longer respects their rights as mothers, they are often prevented from seeing their children after birth.
Dr. Jessica Jacobson, the Co-Director for the Criminal Policy Research, University of London (compilers of the World Prison Brief), states,
“These women and girls make up a small but growing minority of the total world prison population; they are an extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged group, and tend to be victims of crime and abuse themselves. The approximately 50% increase in numbers of imprisoned women and girls over the past 15 years should be of profound concern to governments, prison administrations and all who are committed to justice and penal reform.”