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Webinar on Governance and Human Rights of Women Deprived of their Liberty in the Time of Covid-19

Panama, September 3, 2020. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for Central America and the Caribbean (UNODC ROPAN) and UN Women organized the webinar "Governance and Human Rights of Women Deprived of their Liberty in the Time of Covid-19".
With the objective of analyzing the impact of Covid-19 on the protection and guarantee of the Human Rights of women deprived of liberty in Central America, this event was attended by Juana López, Vice-Minister of Government of Panama, Edgar Vladimir Prado Ortíz, Director of the Penitentiary School in El Salvador, Cecilia Alemany, Deputy Regional Director of UN Women for the Americas and the Caribbean; Muriel Jourdan, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer and Focal Point of Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Prisoners of UNODC and José Vila del Castillo, UNODC Regional Representative for Central America and the Caribbean.

"Even before the pandemic, women prisoners have been recognized as more vulnerable since prisons and regimes are generally designed for men: architecture, security procedures, health and training programs). Thus, in general, prison systems traditionally do not take into account the specific situations of women," said José Vila del Castillo, UNODC Regional Representative for Central America and the Caribbean.
He added that in the world "there are more than 700,000 women prisoners, compared to more than 10 million men. There are also some 19,000 children living in prisons with their mothers. The small proportion of women in the prison population is one reason why criminal justice systems continue to be designed and operated with men in mind, usually under male command as well.
The Regional Representative stressed that "ensuring the health and well-being of prisoners, prison officials, other prison staff and visitors must be at the heart of infection prevention and control measures".
In addition, "the fundamental safeguards described in international and regional human rights standards must be respected, as we will see through the presentations of the speakers".
Edgar Vladimir Prado Ortiz, Director of the Penitentiary School in El Salvador, reported that "El Salvador was one of the first countries to take concrete action since the WHO issued the pandemic announcement in early March of this year. He assured that since then "they began to do a series of actions related to the issue of prisons to ensure the health of those deprived of their liberty, especially for women".
"The institutional policy that we implement from the General Direction of Penal Centers, both for women and men deprived of liberty, places women in the first place and positions them as a priority, especially for all those mothers who have their children inside the penitentiary centers," said the Salvadoran official.
He informed that in El Salvador there are 2,860 women deprived of liberty and 100 children of prisoners. The country has four penitentiary centers for women.
The Vice Minister of Government of Panama Juana Lopez Córdoba thanked UNODC for organizing this event and recalled that "since 2010 this office has been supporting the Panamanian State by helping the authorities to generate numerous successful initiatives. 
"Talking about the reality of our prisons is extremely complex and worrisome due to the conditions in which people are deprived of their freedom, increasing even more their condition of vulnerability. In this international context, the Covid-19 crisis has had an unprecedented impact in most contexts," said Lopez.
She added that "the effects of the pandemic are felt much more strongly in prisons. This pandemic has exacerbated the already chaotic situation in Latin American prisons.
The Vice Minister highlighted that "among the worst situations that this pandemic unveils are the living conditions of women deprived of their liberty". And she called for reflection on "who is in such a situation and how to act to protect their rights".
"The concern is even more pressing for women, since they are one of the most vulnerable groups and face greater challenges within the prisons, exposing themselves to a much greater risk of contagion of this new disease," said the official.
She emphasized that the General Directorate of the Panamanian Prison System has been developing tools, knowledge, and technical skills for women in prison and mentioned the program "Mi voz para tus ojos" (My Voice For Your Eyes); "Integrarte" (Integrate you), the first prison trademark and "Detrás del muro" (Behind the wall), a program of re-socialization consisting of a musical piece.
She pointed out that 77% of the female prison population participates in some kind of social and labor reinsertion program.
For Cecilia Alemany, UN Women's Deputy Regional Director for the Americas and the Caribbean, "training efforts for the social and economic reinsertion of women deprived of their liberty are urgently needed, since they are returning to a Covid world with more unemployment and fewer possibilities to establish networks.
She pointed out that "the risk of relapsing into crime and returning to the prison system is much greater than in the past since the economy does not expect them to have the same possibilities as a few months ago".

She called for "guaranteeing the rights, safety and health of women in detention should include adequate services for sexual and reproductive health, mental health and their links with their families and dependents".
Muriel Jourdan, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer and focal point for the Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Prisoners of the UNODC, expressed the urgency of "adopting measures to reduce overcrowding, including the re-evaluation of cases of pre-trial detention, as well as the possibility of granting alternative measures such as probation, house arrest or early release, particularly for people considered to be in the risk group such as pregnant women or women with children in their care who are ready to serve their sentences.
"It is crucial for women deprived of their liberty to be able to maintain contact with the outside world: for example, to have virtual or telephone contact with family and also with legal representatives and courts so that their right of access to justice is respected".
She stressed that "the principle of the innocence of each person must be respected, assessing the risk of subjecting a woman to pre-trial detention in the context of the pandemic".
Jourdan expressed that "even in the context of an emergency, international law reminds us that measures taken must be limited in time and strictly necessary and proportionate".