Turn the tide




Women in prison settings

Globally, female prisoners represent about 5 per cent of the total prison population, but this proportion is increasing rapidly, particularly in countries where levels of illicit substance use are high. Women prisoners present specific challenges for correctional authorities despite, or perhaps because of the fact that they constitute a very small proportion of the prison population. 


The profile and background of women in prison, and the reasons for which they are imprisoned, are different from those of men in the same situation. In particular, women who inject drugs and women sex workers tend to be overrepresented. Many have also been victims of gender-based violence or have a history of high-risk sexual behaviour. All these factors make women especially vulnerable in prison. Drug use, violence, stigma and discrimination, poor nutrition, early and unwanted pregnancies, that the women might have been exposed to, will require a different set of psychological, social and health care approaches than those needed by men.

In prisons, women are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse, including rape, by both male staff and other male prisoners. In women's prisons, just like in that of their male counterpart, HIV risk behaviours will continue to occur.  Many women will continue to inject in prisons and some may initiate drug use in prison as well. Like men, women will get tattooed in prison and do so with the use of a variety of unsafe tools that are sometime shared.

Some women in prison are young and many are mothers whose children either live in prison with them or are cared for by others outside. They may also be pregnant or become pregnant during imprisonment; some give birth while in prison. Often, very limited reproductive and pre and post-natal care services are available for women in prisons. In addition, antiretroviral therapy is often not available to prisoners and as a consequence neither to HIV-positive pregnant women to prevent mother-to-child transmission. Children born in prison, especially to HIV-positive mothers, need particular care and attention. Prison diets often fail to provide the level of nutrition required by pregnant or breastfeeding mothers.

In addition to the 15 recommended HIV interventions in prisons, UNODC recommends, among others, women-specific interventions such as access to reproductive health and family planning services, as well as care for children, including those born to HIV-infected mother.  UNODC supports countries to ensure equitable access to evidence-based health services for women prisons, but also supports a broad variety of programmes that also have an impact on the health outcomes of women in prisons, such as supporting the development of alternatives to imprisonment.  To learn more about women and HIV in prison settings, click here.

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