New Reports – Women Deprived of Liberty

“In the present report, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice analyses the causes of deprivation of liberty of women from a gender perspective to provide an understanding of the ways in which women are uniquely and disproportionately affected by deprivation of liberty, owing to structural discrimination throughout their life cycle. While deprivation of women’s liberty manifests differently in different contexts, there are common underlying causes: the persistence of patriarchal systems which shape gender stereotypes and forms of discrimination that normalize them. The report contains recommendations to support States in developing and implementing comprehensive measures that are aimed at legal, institutional, social and cultural transformation.”

Women deprived of liberty – Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (UN Doc. A/HRC/41/33, 15 May 2019).

This highly welcome recent UN report examines the various factors which result in women being deprived of their liberty, not least poverty and marginalization. In the Canadian context imprisonment for crimes related to poverty remains a clear factor for the incarceration of women.

Moreover, as argued in the report, poverty shapes not only the crimes of which women are accused, but also their interactions with the criminal justice system, which also have an effect on the likelihood of their incarceration and its length.  

As is also widely recognized, once convicted and incarcerated, women often have less access than men to rehabilitation and reintegration services, owing to a scarcity of gender-responsive custodial services designed for women inmates. This reality can lead to worse outcomes upon release, increasing the risk of recidivism and possibly leaving women in a cycle of incarceration.

The UN Working Group report identifies other key factors resulting in the deprivation of liberty of women globally, including discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes as well as women’s exposure to violence and conflict.

UN violence against women expert
Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women present his report at the 38th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. 20 June 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

For an international perspective specifically on women in detention in Canada the newly published report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women on her April 2018 mission to Canada also merits a closer read.

The report calls on Canada to implement a whole range of important measures in relation to the treatment and conditions of women in detention, including, notably, Indigenous women.

Significantly, the Special Rapporteur urges Canada to ratify the OPCAT as well as to fully implement the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the UN Bangkok Rules.

In her report the UN Special Rapporteur focuses on an array of other issues within her mandate, including domestic violence, sexual assault of women and girls, trafficking, online violence and harassment, forced sterilization, and women who encounter multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence, specifically Indigenous women and girls.

The reports of the UN Working Group and UN Special Rapporteur are available for download.


Read more about the activities of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

Explore the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

Read more about Indigenous women in Canada’s prison system.

Read ‘The OPCAT – A Stuck Record?’ on Canada’s prolonged OPCAT ratification process.

Read the Canadian Correctional Investigator’s view on why Canada should ratify the OPCAT.