What is an Anti-Woman Law? Part 1: Violence Against Women in Custody

Anti-Woman Law Feminist Foreign Policy Violence against women in custody

On 17 March 2016, The Independent published a video of the ten most ‘draconian’ anti-woman laws including the Saudi Arabian ban on women drivers, unequal inheritance laws in Tunisia and the frequency of honour killings in a number of countries. (1) In February of last year The Huffington Post published ‘10 Ridiculously Sexist and Dangerous Laws From Around the World’, which covered Yemen’s troubling laws on marital sexual obligations and India’s 2013 Act legalising marital rape. (2) These lists, although accurate, lack the nuance needed to understand the ingrained and systemic violence perpetuated against women daily on an international scale.

Both pop culture and political institutions are taking note of gender equality. In 2015 the Swedish government declared its intention to create and implement a feminist foreign policy, and produced the “Swedish Foreign Service Action Plan for Feminist Foreign Policy 2015–2018” which set out a strategy for targeting inequality on a global scale to: "... ensure that women and men have the same power to shape society and their own lives. This is a goal in itself. But it is also essential for the achievement of the Government’s other overall objectives, which in foreign policy are peace, security and sustainable development." (3)


Around the world, gender equality has improved. The proportion of women in parliaments is increasing. More girls go to school ... [yet] violence, oppression and systematic subordination still mark the daily lives of countless women and girls.
 Sweden wants this discrimination to end.
— Swedish Foreign Service action plan for feminist foreign policy 2015–2018

The policy document identified the components that fuel inequality, addressing the problems and policies that keep women from achieving equality whether politically, economically or socially, and created a plan for targeting these key areas. It notes that "[a]round the world, gender equality has improved. The proportion of women in parliaments is increasing. More girls go to school ... [yet] violence, oppression and systematic subordination still mark the daily lives of countless women and girls. Sweden wants this discrimination to end."  These comprised strategies to ensure ‘full enjoyment of human rights’, including freedom from physical, psychological and sexual violence, inclusion in peace building initiatives and the promotion of women as actors in peace processes, political participation and influence in all areas of society, economic self-determination and sexual and reproductive rights. It comprises a summary of the myriad ways in which feminist progress is impeded, and how systemic the equality between men and women is internationally. There can be no doubt that it represents a positive strategy for tackling foreign policy to ensure that women are represented in every country. 

The Swedish government’s statement could herald a significant change in the way in which national governments understand the need to incorporate feminist policy into their interactions with foreign governments or international peacekeeping bodies. If the USA and UK are to work towards a similar strategy, we have to consider two foundational principles; what constitutes an anti-woman law and how do we change these inequalities in our own systems, so that creating international guidelines does not appear hypocritical? Without acknowledging our systemic misogyny, a feminist foreign policy although well intentioned appears hollow. 

So how do we define an ‘anti-woman law? 

On the surface, mainstream media attention on anti-woman law usually revolves around extremes. In any newspaper or online list discussing the subject, there is generally a significant overlap with the worst discrimination against women imaginable listed. For the purposes of this series, I am framing my exploration around Amnesty International’s extensive description of anti-woman law and ingrained misogyny. It can be found in full here  

In order to pursue a feminist foreign policy we must outline our own intentions to fight this abuse of human rights, but without first recognising the importance of confronting these injustices within our own society there is little hope of implementing a foreign policy free from hypocrisy. To better understand the problems in local and national context, I want to dedicate a series of articles to each of the seven areas that Amnesty International has identified and understand how those injustices are perpetrated in the Western countries I inhabit before exploring the creation of feminist foreign policy. This month I look at the injustices faced by women in the US prison system. 


Part 1 - Violence against women in custody.

The sadistic abuse and sexual humiliation by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison has shocked most Americans - but not those of us familiar with U.S. jails and prisons. (5)

The treatment of incarcerated women heads Amnesty International’s summary of the ingrained inequality faced by women globally. Despite the frequent concerns over the treatment of prisoners abroad, the US’s own treatment of women within the prison system is fraught with controversy and the violation of human rights. In order for us to adequately address the abuse of human rights internationally, we have to review and overhaul our own criminal justice network. 


Despite being only seven percent of the prison population, women make up 46% of all sexual abuse victims incarcerated.

According to the ACLU, there are 200,000 women incarcerated in the federal prison system, and a further 1,000,000 on parole or probation. (6) Despite being only seven percent of the prison population, women make up 46% of all sexual abuse victims incarcerated. (7)  In their article, Cross-Gender Supervision in Prison and the Constitutional Right of Prisoners to Remain Free, Flynn L. Flesher identified several factors that contribute to the prevalent nature of sexual abuse in prisons. These included inadequate training of prison guards, failure to investigate and prosecute cases of prison rape and the perceived impunity of prison officials. In addition, overcrowded prisons create unsafe spaces and unguarded areas in which abuse is unmonitored. Cross-gender supervision has exacerbated the problem, and in some cases, Flynn stated, "the very layout of many prisons renders their architecture an accessory to rape by making detection of sexual attacks difficult." (8) 

There have been 1,884, 909 total cases of rape or sexual abuse in US prisons, jails and juvenile detention facilities since 2003. (9) As well as the staggering amount of abuse directed toward incarcerated women, there is also racial and LGBTQ components. 39% of male former prisoners who identified as gay reported sexual victimisation, as well as 34% of bisexual men, 15% of transgender prisoners, and 34% of black transgender prisoners. 46.3% of former prisoners experienced disciplinary charges after reporting sexual victimisation from a staff member, and 37% reported no response at all when reporting victimisation by another prisoner. 

The plight of pregnant women in US prisons is also a cause for serious concern. Whilst condemning the imprisonment of political activists and the unsanitary and inhumane conditions of some foreign prisons, America must also condemn the conditions for pregnant and ill women residing within the US prison system. According to the ACLU, only 10 states currently enforce a legal ban on shackling pregnant women during labour, a practice which can cause significant injury to both the mother and baby. Repercussions of shackling include complications from limited movement, inability to shift positions to relieve labour pain, damage to legs and ankles from straining, restrictions on a doctor’s ability to manipulate the mother to ensure a safe delivery, and potential obstruction to necessary surgery caused by the restraints. (10) Aside from pregnancy, health services for female inmates are substandard and at risk of endangering the lives of incarcerated women.  Half of prisons in America don’t offer specific services for female inmates, including smear tests, mammograms and a myriad of other deficiencies identified by Amnesty International. In addition, counselling and mental health facilities remain inadequate despite 48-88% of all female prisoners experiencing sexual or physical abuse prior to their incarceration. 


Without recognising that these ingrained and systemic flaws are apparent within our own prison system, implementing a truly feminist foreign policy becomes problematic.

Without recognising that these ingrained and systemic flaws are apparent within our own prison system, implementing a truly feminist foreign policy becomes problematic. This established misogyny needs to be addressed, and understood within an intersectional framework. The treatment of women of colour, transgendered prisoners and other members of the LGBTQ community must be addressed, and we must recognise that these women are disproportionally likely to suffer abuse whilst incarcerated. A perfect summary of this injustice can be found in a talk by Beth Richie, founder of INCITE: 

"In addition, even conservative data would suggest that [Black female inmates] have a rate of violence against women three times higher than the national average. Some studies suggest that 60% of the women in jails or prisons in this country have experienced physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner, but in 20 years of going to jails and prisons and working with women I have rarely encountered somebody who has not experienced some form of violence or coerced sexual activity. They are at high risk of physical and sexual abuse from their intimate partners, co-dependents, parents before that, authority figures in the system, and others that have a lot of power to make decisions that will impact the lives of these women, such as drug treatment counsellors and prison guards who have coerced women into sexual encounters. So that's the picture from the jail. It's a picture of perfect racial disadvantage, perfect use of violence against women so that women get incarcerated instead of getting support services..." (11

How can we help? 

  • Understand that in order to implement a truly feminist foreign policy, we need to address the abuse and injustice that happens in America.
  • Understand that an intersectional approach to prison reform is crucial, the problem inversely affects women of colour in certain areas, and LGBTQ women in others. 
  • Support the work of the ACLU and Amnesty International, who target infractions at home and abroad. If possible donate to both, if not subscribe to their newsletters and partake in their actions when called upon. 
  • Links here: https://www.aclu.org/action https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions
  • Write to your representative demanding prison reform. You could ask for stricter rules on cross-gender prison guard supervision and increased funding to state prisons to be spent on ensuring prisons remain safe and adequately guarded to prevent undetectable crimes. You could express your concern regarding female centric medicine and the lack of adequate medical facilities. Finally, you could put pressure on your local government to eliminate shackled labour, encouraging America to lead by example.
  • Further reading: Inside The Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons- A collection of transcripts from female prisoners edited by Robin Levi and Ayelet Waldman. 

Cleo Lawrence is a regular contributor to FFP, and currently working on her PhD in London.