The global COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many vulnerabilities and disparities in our society, and one of the often-overlooked aspects is the plight of women who are deprived of their liberty, including those in correctional facilities. Before the pandemic, incarcerated women faced numerous challenges, from overcrowded and unsanitary conditions to limited access to healthcare and education. The pandemic exacerbated these problems, with the increased risk of infection and isolation leading to further neglect and abuse. The vulnerable position of women in correctional facilities often goes unnoticed by society, making it crucial to address their unique needs and rights.
In the eye-opening study "Inside Stories: Women’s Situation in Jails and Access to Justice," (https://chr.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Inside-Stories-Womens-Situation-in-Jails-and-Access-to-Justice-Booklet-as-of-July-31.pdf) 241 female detainees across the Philippines share a collective narrative of adversity. Primarily detained on drug-related charges, these women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds face prolonged pre-trial detentions with minimal updates on their cases. The overcrowded and unsanitary conditions within detention facilities expose them to daily challenges, from cramped living spaces to meager access to basic needs. The struggle for nutritious meals, clean water, and proper healthcare becomes starkly evident, revealing systemic gaps in providing for these women's fundamental rights.
Additionally, the study underscores the neglect of gender-specific needs, from hygiene essentials to post-natal care, painting a compelling portrait of a population that demands urgent attention and systemic change for a more humane detention system.
The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as the “Mandela Rules”, were adopted to promote humane treatment and safeguard the rights of prisoners. These rules recognize the fundamental rights of all prisoners, including women, and emphasize the importance of access to healthcare, including Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) services. By integrating the Mandela Rules into correctional systems worldwide, governments are encouraged to prioritize the health and well-being of incarcerated individuals, empowering women to exercise their SRH rights.
Similarly, the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders, also known as the “Bangkok Rules”, provide specific guidance for addressing the unique needs of women in the criminal justice system. These rules highlight the importance of comprehensive healthcare services, including SRH, for women deprived of liberty. By adopting the Bangkok Rules, governments commit to ensuring gender-responsive approaches to correctional facilities, promoting dignity and respect for women inmates.
However, despite the implementation of international frameworks such as the Mandela and Bangkok Rules aimed at safeguarding the rights of incarcerated women, the challenges persist. The global pandemic has heightened the systemic issues faced by women in correctional facilities and the gaps between established guidelines and on-the-ground realities. While these rules signal a commitment to prioritizing the well-being of women deprived of liberty, the struggle for comprehensive implementation continues. The neglect of gender-specific needs, overcrowded conditions, and prolonged pre-trial detentions underscore the urgent need for sustained efforts and systemic change to ensure the rights and dignity of incarcerated women are truly protected.
An Eye-Opener Dialogue-Workshop
On October 16, 2023, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) joined forces to address SRHR and SGBV challenges faced by women in prison. By involving wardens, nurses, and social welfare officers, the initiative aimed to comprehensively assess the SRH and SGBV issues within correctional facilities. This multifaceted effort sought to identify barriers to access, improve healthcare protocols, and integrate SRH elements and SGBV prevention into the overall management of incarcerated women.
Dr. Leila Joudane, UNFPA Country Representative during the dialogue on the rights of women deprived of liberty
The activity involved orientation of the participants to the Mandela and Bangkok Rules by CHR and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), followed by orientation to the SRHR of WDL, specifically women in prison, by Likhaan.
In her presentation, Dr. Junice Melgar alluded to the “confinement of the body” that occurs in prisons and detention facilities; hospitals, psychiatric institutions and care homes; workplaces; private homes; and conflict and humanitarian settings. She highlighted women’s high risk sexual and reproductive health problems that include menstrual health problems; pregnancy complications including malnutrition, postpartum depression, and miscarriage; STIs and cancer due to their exposure to sexual abuse and sex work, and mental health problems. She reiterated WHO’s recommended care which are in the Mandela and Bangkok Rules, including regular health screening for SRH problems like STI, mental health, and sexual abuse and violence; education and information about preventive health-care measures; and gender-specific health services, including family planning; care and accommodation during pregnancy; treatment of Sexually Transmitted Infections; condoms and contraceptives; care for children; and advice on health and diet for pregnant and breastfeeding moms. The Mandela and Bangkok Rules state that these rights should be “maintained as much as possible, wherever possible” and services provided “equivalent to those in community.”
The final activity was a workshop to identify the needs of women in different prisons in Metro Manila, existing SRHR services and gaps and issues. Their responses revealed a spectrum of concerns, from conjugal room requirements and mental health issues to STI/HIV cases. The wardens emphasized the importance of legislative support, increased budgets, and collaboration with Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and local government units (LGUs) to address the identified gaps. Noteworthy insights included the need for comprehensive health histories, support for medical specialists, and the provision of conjugal rooms. The findings of the workshop set a foundation for initiatives by emphasizing a shared commitment to improving the welfare of women in prison through legislative, budgetary, and collaborative approaches.
Jail Wardens during the workshop
Under this initiative, wardens, nurses and social workers identified their critical roles in ensuring that correctional facilities are sensitive and responsive to the particular needs of women prisoners. As the primary person in charge of ensuring the safety and protection of women prisoners, wardens facilitated access to SRH services and addressed resource gaps. Proper training is essential for nurses and other healthcare professionals to provide gender-responsive healthcare, which includes secure abortion services, SRH counseling, contraception, and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. Counseling and other social welfare services were provided by social welfare officers.
It is hoped that this initiative is pursued to bring out the voices of the women behind bars and enable their wardens -their guardians, stewards and protectors – to ensure that their rights to wellbeing and dignity are not compromised even as they are in detention.