Repressive drug policies fuel the incarceration of women and dislocate families

By Global Commissioners Joyce Banda, former President of Malawi; Maria Cattaui, former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce; Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand; and Ruth Dreifuss, former President of Switzerland.

International Women’s Day, celebrated on 8 March, often serves to highlight the achievements of women towards equality, including women who have made a difference by breaking a glass ceiling in their field, as we have. But we should also take the time to think about the women who do not have much to celebrate today and who have been left behind by our societies. Those, for instance, who are victims of stigma and discrimination, including because of repressive drug policies.

Many have heard that the United States of America has nearly 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners, although it is home to under five per cent of the world’s population, it is perhaps less well known, however, that while the incarceration rate for men in the USA has risen fourfold over the past 30 years, for women the rate has increased a shocking 800 per cent. Yet the USA is not alone having such a disproportionate rise: the female prison population has increased proportionately more than that for men on every continent. A staggering two-thirds of women in United States’ federal prisons are there for non-violent drug offenses.

A cycle of poverty and lack of opportunities

Women involved in the illicit drug trade often come from poor backgrounds. They have received little schooling and have few prospects in the legal economy to provide for their families. Their work in the drug markets is generally low-level—but high-risk: small-scale dealing, transporting drugs, holding drugs for dealers, and/or buying drugs to support someone else’s use.

Women are therefore easier to apprehend. Their high-risk work also exposes them to violence, sexual abuse, and even death—when, for instance, one of the dozens of drug-filled balloons they may have been forced to swallow bursts. Yet, because of the low-level nature of their work, these women are expendable and easily replaced. Their imprisonment serves no purpose.

Even a short stay in prison can cause a woman to lose her housing and employment—if she had them. She will also find her prospects for legal work further diminished by a new or extended criminal record. These factors perpetuate a cycle of poverty and exposure to violence, which often continues over several generations.

The burden on mothers and children

While the situation faced by these women who are convicted is dire already, there is worse still. More than half of the women in prisons are mothers. In many countries, the percentage can be even higher, such as the UK (66 per cent), the US (80 per cent), Thailand (82 per cent) or Brazil (87 per cent). Furthermore, these women are often heads of single-parent households and, as sole providers, their incarceration has devastating effects on their children.

Because women’s prisons tend to be few and far between, children are very often unable to visit their mothers. In Latin America only five per cent of children remain in their own home when their mother is imprisoned. For the most part, the impacted children are raised by grandparents or in foster homes, or they become homeless. Only a minority live with their father.

When a mother is released from prison, she is often excluded from any support services and has few means of regaining the custody of her children. This is especially true for women who use drugs, and that can have perverse effects, particularly if the woman is pregnant. While pregnancy is actually one of the strongest motivators for quitting the use of drugs, many pregnant women are afraid to start treatment for fear of losing custody once their baby is born. Moreover, women are not usually permitted to bring their children along to treatment – yet child-care for them is rarely available. As a result, while women make up one-third of people who use drugs, they represent only one-fifth of those in treatment.

Consider each case individually

The situation of women who use drugs or are involved in the drug trade deserves our special attention. Even the International Narcotics Control Board, the United Nations body in charge of treaty compliance which is known for its generally conservative positions, has urged in its 2016 Annual Report that alternatives to incarceration for women convicted of drug offences should be considered. It is surely time to admit the glaring fact that current drug policies—whose original stated aim was “to protect the health and welfare” of humankind (UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961) —have proven to be discriminatory towards women, and have torn apart and further marginalized poor families.

Similarly, as long as societies see mothers who use drugs or work in the drug trade as “fallen” women unfit to raise children, we will remain unable to see individuals who need support and who, with help, might find balance in their lives and provide a loving home for their children. Drug use in itself is not evidence of child neglect or harm. Just as a mother would not lose custody of her child for drinking moderately, we need to consider each situation with respect to a woman who is using drugs individually, taking into account fully the rights and needs of  families and children. It is time for justice reforms which help these women, their children, and our societies.