Life behind bars: Latin America must tackle the over-incarceration of women


By Stephanie Petingi

As women around the world continue to fight for their political, social and economic rights, the high number of women incarcerated in Latin America must overcome another obstacle: unfair treatment within the justice system. In order to disrupt the drug trade, Latin American governments have imposed punitive drug laws that threaten Security, public health, and human rights. Organizations such as the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA) consistently call on governments to address the problem by changing drug laws from a human rights perspective to ensure women’s safety and rights. Given the extreme impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin American governments must change these laws and address the inequalities that have led to the economic and social downturn in the region. Therefore, it is the responsibility of Latin American leaders to address the disproportionate, inhuman and abusive treatment of women by enacting and implementing drug policy reforms.

The nearly impossible task for women to advance in their communities is nothing new, but anti-drug laws have created another set of obstacles. Latin American governments have developed policies providing for extreme penalties for cultivation, production, transportation and possession of drugs. As Latin American leaders have provided law enforcement and the military with more ammunition and authority to drug enforcement, the criminal enterprise maintains its power by increasing its production of illicit drugs and replacing recruiters during arrests. As a result, the incarceration rate for women increased by 51.6% from 2000 to 2015, compared to 20% for men. The participation of most women is one smaller scale, such as possession, but many are still serving maximum sentences, ranging from fifteen to forty years. To demonstrate the extreme penalties of drug trafficking, WOLA, and EQUIS Justice for Mujeres produced a film with stories of women imprisoned for minor drug offenses. All the women shared the same socioeconomic context of extreme poverty, violent households, limited education and coercion by a partner or family member to participate in drug trafficking. To reduce the involvement of disadvantaged women in the drug trade, Latin American governments must first address gender inequality and the unequal distribution of wealth through anti-corruption efforts and policy change. punitive drug laws, including sentencing, remand and seriousness of the crime. Involve civil society organizations, such as Mexican Transparency, are essential in the decision-making process by providing oversight of the legislative process and ensuring that law enforcement is held accountable for the abuse of its authority.

In many Latin American justice systems, women are disproportionately charged with possession with intention to sell and threatened with the possibility of a maximum prison sentence. In contrast, men are more likely to be accused of simple possession and suffer only the prescribed minimum sentence. For drug-related crimes, custody is one of the main factors of over-incarceration of women, as women are often detained for years before their trial. As these women are punished for small-scale drug offences, criminal enterprises easily replace them and continue to operate. Meanwhile, individuals in high-level positions within the criminal organization, mostly male, often escape imprisonment. Thus, the gender-based disparity in convictions and pretrial detention further deprives them of their liberty, their right to a fair trial and treatment.

The harsh treatment of women for simple drug-related offenses also poses a threat to public health and human rights. Numerous reports of sexual and physical assaults by law enforcement officials against female detainees demonstrate clear and repeated violations of international human rights law, particularly under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) treaty and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Women are often seen as disposable, making it easier for the justice system to inflict abuse. Women also do not receive sanitary products or necessary medical care. From a public health perspective, the COVID-19 pandemic is giving impetus to Release many women incarcerated immediately to prevent the spread of the virus.

Statistical data, countless abuse complaints and the negative impact of COVID-19 call for immediate action. Authorities must pursue new and more humane approaches to tackling low-level, non-violent drug offences. WOLA recommends that sentencing laws for drug offenses be amended to prescribe sentences that are more commensurate with the seriousness of the crime. Governments must also enforce policies that enforce strict protocols in which law enforcement is held accountable for the mistreatment of detainees, restricts their use of force, and requires institutions to follow up on reports of abuse. Outside the criminal justice system, strengthening the role of development programs, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Program, will help address the socio-economic problem by establishing regional projects that integrate support in other sectors. , including the participation of women.

Latin American governments must guarantee the human rights of all women, including incarcerated women, as the foundation of a prosperous country. Current drug laws overwhelm the prison system and make it too easy for military personnel and police to inflict pain and suffering on women without consequences. Women are often neglected in these societies, leading to a general apathy towards victims of physical and sexual abuse and the suppression of primary medical care. The pandemic has only exacerbated these conditions. Latin American governments must tackle the unequal distribution of wealth and gender inequality by involving civil society organizations in policy decisions, investing in development efforts, changing existing laws on drug convictions and the authority of law enforcement. Until the region’s leaders pass gender-responsive laws, women will continue to face adversity and unwarranted threats to their human rights and well-being.

Stephanie Petingi is a second-year master’s candidate in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, specializing in foreign policy analysis and international law and human rights. Stéphanie is Associate Editor and Social Media Associate for the Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. Previously, she was an intern for the Uruguayan government and observed several national and international policies that affected domestic politics and human rights. Stephanie received her undergraduate degree from Montclair State University in 2017.


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