Why has the biggest forum on Gender Equality in 25 years overlooked incarcerated women?

Photo: Boaz Reisel/ AdvocAid

The Generation Equality Forum, convened by UN Women, was the largest forum on women’s rights in the last 25 years. The forum culminated in Paris from 30 June to 2 July 2021 and launched a series of ambitious actions to progress gender equality.

Despite these grand statements and ambitions, a key group of women and girls have been left out of this process — women affected by the criminal justice system.

Women’s incarceration is increasing at a faster rate than men’s. The female prison population has increased by over 100,000 in the last ten years, despite international rules aimed at reducing it.

Women’s incarceration is closely linked to gender-based violence, poverty and discriminatory laws. In the UK, 57% of women in prison were found to be survivors of domestic violence. In Sierra Leone, 72% of women in prison had suffered intimate partner violence. Punitive drug laws have disproportionately impacted women, ignoring the poverty and coercion that often exists behind women’s involvement in drug offences. 35% of women worldwide are imprisoned for drug offences compared to 19% of men.

Despite these glaring statistics, women’s incarceration was not a feature of any of the six Generation Equality Action Coalitions — key thematic action areas chosen for the global community to focus on for the next 5 years — including ones focused on Gender-Based Violence and Economic Justice and Rights.

Women with lived experience of the criminal justice system were invisible throughout the forum, despite the sixth Action Coalition being focused on feminist movements and leadership. Formerly incarcerated women are leading important movements against the over-incarceration of women: from Debbie Kilroy, who qualified as a lawyer upon release and leads Sisters Inside in Australia; to Andrea James, who founded the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women in the USA; to Theresa Njoroge who leads Clean Start Kenya, supporting women who have been released from prison.

Billions of dollars were pledged at the Generation Equality Forum, from philanthropists such as the Gates and Ford Foundations, to governments, such as Canada. Melinda French Gates, Co-Chair of the Gates Foundation, said, “The beauty of our fight for gender equality is that every human being will gain from it. We must seize this moment to build a better, more equal future.”

In order to truly be a “rallying point to finally achieve the human rights of all women and girls”, the Generation Equality Forum needs to be open to issues impacting all women, particularly women on the margins, and to foster a broad and inclusive feminist movement that cuts across silos. For too long women’s incarceration has been left out of mainstream feminist movements. We can no longer leave out women who do not conform to gender-stereotypes of “victims”. We must engage with the complex underlying issues that face women who are “defendants”.

Women Beyond Walls, launching today, is a solidarity effort in response to the invisibility of women affected by the criminal justice system. We are a movement-building platform amplifying voices, building collective power and resourcing resistance in order to end the over-incarceration of women.

Join us.