The steep growth in global female prison populations is a worldwide problem. Since 2000, there has been a 60% increase in the number of female prisoners, making up between 2-8% of prison populations today. Around the world, female prisoners face challenges of inadequate provision of medical care, abuse and breakdown of familial relationships. However, international human rights law has developed standards to ensure gender-sensitive safeguards that States should implement to provide greater protection for female prisoners.
In Pakistan’s prison system, female prisoners represent a relatively lower percentage than the global average, at around 1.6% of the totality. Nevertheless, the female prisoner population has escalated by 20% over the past decade. As of 2021, there are a total of 1,399 female prisoners across Pakistan, with 920 prisoners in Punjab alone. Additionally, a little over 100 inmates are accompanied by children in the same cells. It is crucial to note that only around 24 female medical workers are dedicated to caring for the large number of women prisoners, in addition to the visiting doctors from nearby District Headquarters Hospitals (DHQs). Furthermore, prison authorities have confirmed that a number of female prisoners continue to be held in facilities far from their home districts. The criminal justice system of Pakistan and the laws that govern the Pakistani prison system were primarily developed during the late nineteenth century, and therefore do not account for international standards that have developed since then.
Vulnerability of Women Prisoners
In Pakistan’s criminal justice system, female inmates are particularly vulnerable due to the alarming state of prisons. Pakistani women convicts have been categorised as the prison populations “most at risk” in a study by Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organisation.
Challenges of the penitentiary system include jail overcrowding, limited access to healthcare, corruption of law enforcement officials and a lack of reintegration programmes. The inherent right of access to medical care of incarcerated women is not properly safeguarded, due to the disproportionate number of female medical staff members working there – only 24 workers for over a thousand prisoners – despite their entitlement to specific medical care for gynaecological and obstetric needs. Moreover, Human Rights Watch reported that the inalienable right to hygiene is denied to female prisoners, evident from the non-provision of sanitary napkins.
Furthermore, female prisoners are more susceptible to abuse, trauma, and the hostility displayed by their families. The reintegration of female inmates into society is particularly difficult since incarceration is stigmatised in most societies and offenders are likely to endure lifelong social rejection. Altogether, this makes them relatively more likely to experience mental illness and emotional instability. Hence, they require regular access to psychiatric screening and counselling, a facility not available to Pakistani female prisoners. Given the gravity of these challenges, the prison system must be reformed in order to ensure adequate protection for female prisoners.
An Overview of the Pakistan Prison System and Legislation
As part of the wider criminal justice system, the prison system operates under a network of different legal rules. The Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, guarantees the right to security of a person and dignity under Articles 9 and 14 respectively. Together, these rights can be interpreted to ensure that those whose liberty has been taken away under law (as per Article 9) deserve to be treated with dignity. Accordingly, prisoners must be treated in a dignified manner, provided adequate healthcare, and protected from torture.
The primary legislation governing prison systems in Pakistan, which it inherited after its independence from the British Empire and India in 1947, is the Prisons Act, 1894, which remains authoritative even today. Similarly, the Prisoners Act, 1900 was passed to consolidate the rules on how prisoners must be dealt with by law enforcement authorities. To implement these Acts, the Pakistan Prison Rules (PPR), 1978 were developed as the core jail manual outlining the obligations and prohibitions on prison authorities. The PPR includes several rules on how to govern female prisons and female prisoners, such as the right to personal hygiene of women, and the right to be administered by women personnel. Furthermore, it is mandated that women be detained in facilities near their home districts, and that children can accompany their inmate mothers up until a specific age.
Some additional rules at the provincial levels have also been passed. The Sindh Prisons & Correctional Services Act, 2019 provides an updated model to the federal Act and sets up a provincial institution mechanism to oversee prison governance in the province. Similarly, the KP Prison Rules, 2018 sets up rules for prison governance specifically for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
An Overview of the International Rules on the Rights of Female Prisoners
Pakistan is a party to several international human rights treaties that are relevant to guaranteeing female prisoner rights. Pakistan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, (ICCPR). Article 10(1) of the ICCPR mandates that ‘All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person’. Pakistan is also a party to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1979 (CEDAW). Article 12(1) of CEDAW states that
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning.
Similarly, Article 12(2) extends the right to ‘women appropriate services’ with regards to healthcare, including ‘pregnancy, confinement and the post-natal period, granting free services where necessary, as well as adequate nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.’
There is a comprehensive set of prison rules at the international level which are non-binding yet authoritative.. The ‘United Nations Rules for Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders’, or the Bangkok Rules, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2010, is a set of non-binding rules for state bodies to follow specifically regarding the treatment and rights of women inmates. The Rules provide for detailed medical and psychological screening of female prisoners and seeks to ensure that medical assistance and access to personal hygiene are adequately and regularly available to such inmates. These Rules also emphasise the various means and strategies of the reintegration of women offenders into society and require the training of prison staff on trauma response and gender-sensitive rights.
Another set of rules can be found in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, or the Mandela Rules. The Mandela Rules are a set of non-binding rules pertaining to the generally accepted minimum standards for prisons, as well as a minimum set of rights for all prisoners. These Rules were developed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2015 and were subsequently adopted by the UN General Assembly. Specifically for female prisoners, these Rules require ‘special accommodation’ as to pre- and post-natal care in women prisons. They also require gender-specific considerations when handling female prisoners.
Deficiencies of the Pakistani Prison System
Currently, the prison system in Pakistan, including the laws and rules governing prisons, are incapable of ensuring adequate safeguards for female prisoners. The rules are either not implemented properly, or cannot be implemented due to the scarcity of resources. For example, Rule 18 of the PPRs holds that female inmates must be screened at admission by female medical workers. However, a disproportionately low number of workers is appointed exhibiting a lack of implementation. This requires a reallocation and reapportioning of funds dedicated to more female medical staff specifically for inmates. Additionally, incarcerated women can be trained to provide basic medical care, which will not only serve the purpose of access to healthcare, but will also prove to be a means of reintegration into society upon release.
Moreover, the right to personal hygiene guaranteed under Rule 317 of the PPRs is not properly available to the female prison population. A UNODC report found a concerningly small number of washrooms on jail premises. Inadequate personal hygiene of women can lead to health complications, which are more precarious given the current state of healthcare in prison systems. Therefore, it is critical that a sufficient supply of all amenities to female prisoners is ensured through better administrative protocols and stringent accountability of the prison officials.
Similarly, Rule 305 states that in prison facilities where both male and female prisoners are kept, female prisoners must be separated from male prisoners in a manner to ‘prevent their seeing, conversing or holding any communication with the male prisoners’. This builds upon section 27 of the Prisons Act, 1894. While this separation is characteristic of several prison systems around the world, the setup poses a unique security risk in the event of jailbreaks by male prisoners or the abuse of power by male prison guards, who may force entry into female prison barracks, as recognised under Rule 43 of the Bangkok Rules.
This is further made more difficult by the location of these prison facilities. Under Rule 4 of the Bangkok Rules, female inmates are to be detained in prisons closer to their home districts. In reality, an alarming 27% are not which has impacts on their family lives as it becomes difficult for their family members to visit. This can have particularly negative effects on female prisoners, particularly those who have children and families. The isolation from their families results in the ‘disruption of family links’ which ‘has extremely harmful emotional consequences for women prisoners, especially if they are mothers, with a detrimental impact on their resettlement prospects’ (Rule 43, Bangkok Rules).
The prison regime in Pakistan does not provide a mechanism for reporting abuse and harassment faced by female prisoners in jails. Rules 7 and 25 of the Bangkok Rules state that female prisoners must be informed of their right to report sexual abuse and to seek judicial redress. The UNODC reported that female prisoners in Pakistani jails are subjected to harassment and sexual violence at the hands of jail wardens, as was by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Therefore, there is a need to develop rules establishing means of reporting abuse to prison governing authorities and, if unsuccessful, to the judiciary.
A crucial gap in female prison policy in Pakistan is on the reintegration of prisoners. The Ministry of Human Rights highlights the disproportionate development of post-release reintegration schemes in Punjab and Sindh, but none in the other provinces (page 20). A report by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) notes that in Balochistan, male prisoners have opportunities like shoe-making and sewing, while female prisoners have no means of earning. Hence, there is a need for urgent law and policy reform based on the Bangkok Rules to facilitate reintegration of female prisoners back into the community.
The state of female prisoners in Pakistan requires urgent reform. The domestic legal framework should incorporate recommendations from the Bangkok Rules and Mandela Rules to devise a comprehensive set of legal rules safeguarding the rights of female prisoners. In Pakistan, the plight of incarcerated women is also attributable to the poor schemes of prison administration and improper allocation of resources. Thus, to guarantee effective implementation, strict accountability of prison officials should be ensured, and state institutions should actively pursue reform to ensure better conditions for female prisoners.