• 08 March 2024


    Category : Opinion


    Rethinking Gender-Sensitive Justice: Women, Drugs and Criminal Alternatives

    On International Women's Day, we reflect on the unique challenges women face in the criminal justice system, especially when it comes to minor drug offences


    With a rate of 30 women deprived of liberty per 100,000 inhabitants, the female prison population rate in Latin America is the highest in the world[i]. Deprivation of liberty for this type of crime has a profound and often devastating impact on the lives of thousands of women deprived of their liberty, both personally and in their families and communities.

    In recent times, criminal policy on drug trafficking has been characterised by a maximisation of criminal law, what does this mean? A greater use of criminal law as a tool to combat crime and guarantee social order, which in this case is materialised in the lack of proportionality in the treatment of minor drug offences, the excessive use of pre-trial detention, and a clear commitment to prison as the main retributive strategy; a space in which criminal alternatives are significantly reduced.

    This approach has also permeated the general population, conditioning their understanding of the drug phenomenon and associated crimes, leading to demands for more control and security that ultimately translate into a reinforcement of drug interdiction policies and, of course, greater punitiveness and penal populism.

    As for women, who represent 8% of the prison population in Latin America, their incarceration is on the rise, with a reported 56% increase of women in the prison population between 2000 and 2022, compared to a 24.5% increase in the overall prison population in the same period.

    The consequence: a vicious circle that needs to be broken.

    Differential impacts

    Women imprisoned for minor drug offences experience a range of differential impacts compared to their male counterparts. In addition to the social stigma associated with prison, many women face the loss of custody of their children, which can have lasting emotional and psychological consequences. Furthermore, the lack of adequate access to mental health services and drug rehabilitation programmes for women with problematic drug use within prisons exacerbates existing problems and hinders successful reintegration into society upon release.

    Incarceration does not address the structural causes that lead women to engage in drug-related activities. Poverty, social exclusion, lack of access to services, resources and meaningful opportunities are underlying factors that drive many women to enter the lowest rung of the drug trade as a means of livelihood. These determinants of criminal behaviour are, in turn, factors of recidivism, which confront us with a panorama of inequalities and social asymmetry.

    In this context, it is urgent to move towards a new criminal rationality in terms of proportionality and the search for alternatives to imprisonment for these crimes and, in particular, for women. To advance in a policy dialogue between the powers of the State and institutions at all levels, involving the perspective of civil society and generating ways of working that comprehensively address the inequalities that are at the root and root of the problem.

    International Women’s Day is a good time to reflect on and re-evaluate our policies and practices in relation to women in the criminal justice system, particularly with regard to minor drug offences. Adopting a more humane and community-centred approach not only benefits individual women, but also contributes to building more just, equitable and sustainable societies for all.

    The COPOLAD III Programme is working in this direction, that of improving the response capacity and proportionality of penal frameworks in the face of drug-related challenges, as well as in the development of alternatives to detention or imprisonment aimed at reducing recidivism. On this path, COPOLAD has been accompanying national processes (Costa Rica; Paraguay; Trinidad and Tobago and, soon, the Dominican Republic), while generating articulations with regional organisations that work along these lines, and that have the potential to leverage changes on a regional scale and guarantee the sustainability and scaling up of the results that COPOLAD supports, as is the case of COMJIB and AIDEF.

    Beatriz López Lorca

    Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Castilla-La Mancha has been mobilised by FIIAPP (Spanish Cooperation) to support the European programme on drug policy COPOLAD III.

    Mario Germán Sánchez González

    Drug Policy Expert at FIIAPP (European COPOLAD Programme)




    [i] IACHR. Women Deprived of Liberty in the Americas, 2023. In this regard, the prison population rate in a region or country is obtained by calculating how many persons are deprived of their liberty per 100,000 inhabitants in that region or country. See: UNODC, Custodial and non-custodial measures – Criminal Justice Assessment Toolkit, 2010, p. 6.

    The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the sole responsibility of the person who write them.

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