Policy Briefs

Justice Is Setting Them Free: Women, Drug Policies, and Incarceration in Latin America

The incarceration of women is growing at alarming rates worldwide and in Latin America it is driven by strict drug laws, with devastating consequences for the women impacted and their families. Their stories unveil contexts of poverty, lack of opportunity, and physical and sexual violence, and also reveal the discrimination of unjust legal systems and societies plagued by stigmatization and patriarchal attitudes. But they are also stories of resilience, as women coming out of prison in Latin America today are organizing and fighting for their human rights and the right to live with dignity. The purpose of this report is to reflect on almost ten years of collective research and joint advocacy by the working group, its achievements and disappointments, as well as challenges and opportunities for the future.

Women Mobilizing for Change: Resisting State Violence from Repressive Drug Policies

Punitive drug laws have had a differentiated and violent impact on women. State-driven stigma, criminalization, and abuse act as major barriers between women who use drugs and critical services, driving disproportionate health and safety harms. At the same time, women involved in illegal drug activities suffer the brunt of disproportionate drug laws, which exacerbate poverty and intersecting forms of discrimination, and have increased dramatically the global number of women behind bars. Although UN fora and women’s rights organizations have paid little attention to their situation, affected women have mobilized to affirm their rights and vindicate their experiences, including at CSW65. From grassroots campaigns to organizations of formerly incarcerated women or peer-led harm reduction programs, women have stepped in to provide the support that States have failed to deliver. Decriminalization, reforms of draconian drug laws, gender-sensitive harm reduction services, and peer-led initiatives are essential to tackle violence against women.

Punitive Drug Laws: 10 Years Undermining the Bangkok Rules

Criminal laws, justice systems, and prisons have predominantly been designed for, and by, men. The 2010 United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders, also known as the “Bangkok Rules,” break away from this history by establishing the first set of international human rights standards that focus on the specific needs and experiences of women deprived of liberty. In the new joint report, Punitive Drug Laws: 10 Years Undermining the Bangkok Rules, we analyze the ways in which punitive drug laws and policies have negatively impacted the achievement of the Bangkok Rules, and set forth concrete policy recommendations aimed at significantly reducing the number of women in prison and entering the criminal legal system.

Women Behind Bars for Drug Offenses in Latin America: What the Numbers Make Clear

Women’s incarceration in Latin America has increased dramatically over the last two decades, and the number of women being put behind bars is growing much faster than the number of men. These trends cannot be explained by growth of the overall female population, or simply by the increase in the total number of prisoners. Rather, the driving force behind the data is the adoption of punitive drug laws that disproportionately affect women. This report provides the most recent data on women’s incarceration in Latin America. WOLA’s research reveals that in the majority of Latin American countries, drug-related crimes are the main cause of female incarceration – with devastating consequences for these women, their families and their communities.

Imprisoned at Home: Women under House Arrest in Latin America

The study focuses on the impact of house arrest on women across the Americas, given that, over the past two decades, the population of women deprived of liberty in this region has grown exponentially and the vast majority of these women come from situations of poverty and social exclusion, lending greater urgency to the need for alternatives to incarceration with a special focus on women. The report is the result of a collaboration between human rights and advocacy groups including the Center for Legal and Social Studies (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, CELS), Dejusticia, Equis: Justice for Women, the Institute for Judicial Investigations at the Autonomous University of Chiapas (Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas de la Universidad Autónoma de Chiapas), the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the Prison Ombudsman’s National Office in Argentina, the Pro Bono Institute, and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).

Trans Women Deprived of Liberty: Invisible Stories Behind Bars

Drawing on a participatory research process led by formerly incarcerated trans women, the study is the result of a collaboration between nine human rights and advocacy organizations: Almas Cautivas, Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias, Casa Hogar Paola Buenrostro, the Corpora en Libertad Network, Dejusticia, Equis: Justice for Women, the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), the Prison Ombudsman’s National Office in Argentina, and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The report describes the failures of Latin American governments to implement basic measures to protect trans women deprived of liberty from violence and abuse. As a result, trans women are subjected to discrimination, stigmatization, and criminalization at every stage of interaction with the criminal justice system.

Women Coca and Poppy Growers Mobilizing for Social Change

WOLA, AIN, IDPC, and Dejusticia published a new policy brief, Women Coca and Poppy Growers Mobilizing Women for Social Change. The so-called “war on drugs” and the marginalization of rural life have erected walls behind which the role of women as agents of social transformation is hidden and rendered invisible. Given the silence and dearth of information regarding the role of women in community life in areas where crops declared illicit are grown, this report explores who these women growers are, their socioeconomic contexts, their involvement in the production of crops destined for illicit markets, their organizing experiences, and their participation in decisionmaking processes—taking into account case studies from Bolivia and Colombia. Furthermore, the report presents recommendations focused on ensuring the participation of women growers in political and public life at all levels of decision-making.

Pretrial Detention in Latin America: The Disproportionate Impact on Women Deprived of Liberty for Drug Offenses

WOLA, IDPC, and Dejusticia have published a new policy brief, Pretrial Detention in Latin America: The Disproportionate Impact on Women Deprived of Liberty for Drug Offenses. One out of three people awaiting trial in the Americas are held behind bars and over the last two decades, the number of pretrial detainees in the region has grown by around 60%. In some countries, women are more likely to be held as pretrial detainees than men, disproportionately impacting these women and their families. This policy brief provides the most recent data on the use of pretrial detention, looks specifically at its impact on women, and concludes with a series of recommendations to significantly reduce the number of women in pretrial detention in Latin America.

Promoting Gender-Sensitive Drug Policies in Bolivia

The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Andean Information Network (AIN) have published a new report, Promoting Gender-Sensitive Drug Policies in Bolivia. Almost 40 percent of the women behind bars in Bolivia are held for low-level drug offenses, often as a result of structural socioeconomic conditions, such as poverty and the pressures of single parenting. The report concludes with a series of concrete reforms that are needed to significantly advance the implementation of gender-sensitive drug policies in Bolivia.

Generating and Collecting Data on Women Incarcerated for Drug Offenses

One of the largest obstacles to formulating an effective policy that is consistent with a gender perspective and human rights is the lack of information and knowledge of women’s participation in drug-related activities and their situation once behind bars. The weaknesses in the production and reliability of public data and access to such data are not unique to Latin America, but in the case of women in prison for drug offenses, we face a series of additional restrictions.

Alternatives to Incarceration for Women Involved in the Drug Market

Recognition of the enormous human and other costs of punitive policies, and of their meager benefits, makes urgent the task of implementing alternatives to incarceration with a sensitivity to gender considerations, from which women who have committed drug offenses in the region can benefit significantly. This document offers, initially, a series of general recommendations for implementing alternatives to incarceration in the countries of the region.