Poverty: A driver for the Criminalisation of Women

Background: Over 740,000 women and girls are held in prison worldwide. Women continue to make up a minority of the global prison population at 7%. However, women’s incarceration is growing at a faster rate than men, up 60% since 2000 compared to 22% for men. Around 19,000 children are living in prison with their mothers. The Justice for Women High-level Group report had found that discriminatory social norms, compounded by other disadvantages such as poverty, were powerful obstacles to equal rights. Indeed, research shows that poverty is a driving factor behind the increasing number of women in prison, despite the devastating impact of imprisonment on women and their families, especially their children. Most women in prison globally are charged or convicted for non-violent offences. Many serve short prison sentences simply because they are unable to pay fines or to afford bail. Additionally, punitive drug policies are also a key driver of the rising number of women in prison, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, which is also linked to poverty and discrimination. 

Despite these stark numbers, the issues disproportionately impacting incarcerated women and girls have received minimal attention from high-level forums on women’s rights, such as CSW. Halfway through the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, progress on SDG 5 and SDG 16 has been minimal. The linkages  between these two Goals are significant and must be highlighted at high-level forums. 

Side Event at the Commission on the Status of Women, March 2024 

 Date: 15 March 2024, 4 – 5.30 pm ET. Reception to Follow. 

Location: Open Society Foundations, 224 W 57th St, New York, NY 10019 

To Register: Please fill in this link by 13 March 2023 

This official side event at CSW, sponsored by the Mission of Colombia to the United Nations and the Government of Canada, and co-organized by Penal Reform International, Women Beyond Walls and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, is one of the first to address the topic of women’s incarceration from a global perspective, highlighting not only the link with poverty and the scale of the problem but also innovative solutions to address the criminalisation of women due to poverty. 

Penal Reform International and Women Beyond Walls are collaborating to map laws and policies that criminalise women due to poverty and will highlight findings stemming from this research. Civil society groups will share country cases studies about the impact of these laws and policies, highlighting the importance of people-centred justice which places women’s needs at the forefront of justice systems and processes. The event also provides an opportunity for States to share promising practices, such as the innovative law on non-custodial measures for women who are heads of households and have been charged with offences because of socio-economic circumstances in Colombia and efforts to strengthen access to justice for women in Sierra Leone. 

This side event will provide concrete recommendations for policy reform in light of international standards (such as the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders – The Bangkok Rules), the 2023 Human Rights Council Resolution on addressing violence against women in criminal justice detention, the UN Common Position on Incarceration, international and regional standards on the decriminalisation of petty offences, and 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. 

Draft Agenda 

  • Welcome – Swati Mehta, Program Director, Justice for All, Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies 
  • Moderator – Olivia Rope, Executive Director, Penal Reform International 
  • How poverty drives the criminalization of women and girls – perspectives from Colombia and the USA – Claudia Cardona, Mujeres Libres Colombia and Cheryl Wilkins, Co-Director at Columbia University’s Center for Justice. Members of the International Network of Formerly Incarcerated Women. 
  • Highlights from ongoing research on Laws that Criminalise Women due to Poverty and Status – Sabrina Mahtani, Women Beyond Walls 
  • Promising Practices – the law on alternatives to incarceration for women in Colombia – Diego Mauricio Olarte, Director of Criminal and Penitentiary Policy, Ministry of Justice Colombia 
  • Initiatives to strengthen access to justice for women and checking criminalization of poverty – Annie Hudson-Price, Senior Counsel, Office for Access to Justice, U.S. Department of Justice 
  • Promising Practices – Initiatives to strengthen access to justice for women in Sierra Leone – Isata Mahoi, Hon. Minister of Gender, Sierra Leone 
  • Audience Discussion 
  • Way Forward – Olivia Rope, Executive Director, Penal Reform International 
  • Reception and Networking 


March 15, 2024
From: 16:00  
to 17:30
(UTC -04:00)
Location: Open Society Foundations, New York
Event Type: Physical, Virtual, Side Event
Languages: English
Campaign Partners:
Penal Reform International
Women Beyond Walls