Women in detention

Women in detention face particular risks of ill-treatment and torture. The adoption of the UN Rules on the Treatment of Women Prisoners (the Bangkok Rules) was an important step forward in recognising the distinct gender specific needs of women in the criminal justice system and introducing safeguards to respond to women’s risk of ill-treatment and torture.

Women represent only a small percentage of detainees, which makes them particularly vulnerable in a detention environment. Prisons and other detention institutions are generally perceived as a male universe and make very little provision for the specific needs of women.

Authorities have a duty to protect women detainees against all forms of physical or psychological violence and abuse by staff and other inmates. They must also ensure the protection of their rights by providing adequate facilities to meet their needs, such as appropriate health care services and access to medical specialists (e.g., a gynaecologist).

The fact that women detainees form a minority of the total incarcerated population is also reflected in detention infrastructures that are sometimes inadequate, few in number, and located far from their families. This is particularly problematic for women with children. Special arrangements should be made that take into account the best interests of the child. Authorities also need to ensure the welfare of pregnant detainees and detained mothers accompanied by young children.

While women in general find themselves in a situation of particular vulnerability once incarcerated, some women detainees, such as those from ethnic minority groups, women with disabilities, or lesbians, face an especially high risk of abuse or discrimination.

Gender-based violence

The most extreme form of discrimination faced by women is gender-based violence - violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. Gender-based violence amounts to ill-treatment and, depending on the circumstances and nature of the violence, to torture. One of the gravest forms of gender based violence is rape. Other forms of custodial violence include threats of rape, touching, insults and humiliations of a sexual nature, mechanical restraints on women in labour and virginity testing.


APT resources

In 2013, the APT published, jointly with Penal Reform International, a paper on "Women in detention: a guide to gender-sensitive monitoring".

See also our Detention Focus database, which includes guidance for detention monitors and standards related to women deprived of liberty.