Responding to the specific needs of women in prison

The rise in the global female prison population, women’s unique vulnerabilities to HIV infection and insufficient provision and inequitable access to HIV services places gender-responsive services in prisons high on the agenda of HIV prevention among key populations.

Approximately 7% of the world’s prison population are women, with over 714,000 women and girls held in prisons and other closed settings. This number has increased by about 53% since the year 2000 compared with 20% for the male population, and is rising on all continents.

The same challenges that lead to women becoming incarcerated are often those that lead to their increased risk of HIV infection, and include punitive laws such as those which criminalize sex work and drug use, prolonged detention, and high rates of pre-trial detention. Their situation is exacerbated by stigma, gender-based violence and inequality, discrimination, and HIV risk behaviours.

In prison, women’s specific health care needs, including access to sexual and reproductive health, treatment of infectious diseases including sexually transmitted infections, as well as nutrition and hygiene requirements, are often neglected. The limited access for women (and their children) to ante- and postnatal care, labour and delivery services and antiretroviral therapy poses a serious challenge to prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. This leads to infants born in prisons being at high risk of contracting HIV during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding.

What we do:

Supporting the revision, adaptation, development and implementation of effective legislation, policies and strategies

UNODC engages national key partners and community-based organizations to identify best practices and determine how national policies can be strengthened to ensure that the right to health for women and their children in prison is protected and respected.

Development and dissemination of normative guidance on HIV

UNODC together with UN partners developed the Technical Guide on Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV in Prisons that provides a framework of standard operational procedures to ensure implementation of comprehensive HIV and sexual and reproductive health care services for women and their children in prisons.

Capacity building

Subsequently, a training was held in Nigeria, and regional trainings in Namibia and Minsk with participants from 13 countries in total, to sensitize decision makers and prison authorities on the importance of women in prison having access to HIV and sexual and reproductive health care, and to teach health care providers how to implement measures to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis and syphilis.

Technical assistance

UNODC supported an initiative involving the Ministry of Health and the Malawi Prison Service to screen women in prison, prison staff and spouses of prison staff for cervical cancer in Malawi. UNODC also supported a new child-friendly facility for women in Namibia, by fully furnishing its health clinic.


UNODC promotes human rights-based, gender responsive, public health-centered and evidence-based approaches, elimination of stigma, discrimination and violence.