Women on Death Row: the Invisible Population

By Alice Gould
Women facing the death penalty are a phenomenon that have been ignored for too long by both governments and academics. It was only at the 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, 18 years after the first Congress of its nature, that the particular issue of women and the death penalty was directly addressed. Whilst human rights discourse is currently going through much needed gender mainstreaming with regards to capital punishment, women remain underreported, unconsidered and invisible.

There are many reasons that partly explain why this is the case. There are at least 500 women on death row around the world[1] and women make up only an estimated 5% of the death row population.[2] However, women have almost never been understood as a distinct category of persons facing capital punishment, in contrast with distinct groups like juveniles, who are the subject of much research and advocacy, despite the number of women and juveniles facing capital punishment being of a similar size of the population. Within capital punishment, as with many areas of life, the male experience is considered the ‘default’ and instead of being assessed separately through a gendered lens, female experiences are forced to fit within this ‘male default’.

“Within capital punishment… female experiences are forced to fit within a ‘male default’.”

A study by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide attempted to change this. Published in September 2018, “Judged for More Than Her Crime” is a global study to consider trends and perspectives of women facing capital punishment. It is the first academic study to attempt to do so and incorporated input from NGOs, lawyers and academics around the world.

The report explains that one of the prevalent global issues for women who face the death penalty is the disproportionately high number of women who have been affected by gender-based abuse and trauma. This is particularly relevant with juvenile women on death row, many of whom were sentenced for killing an authority figure who was abusing them or killing their husbands after a forced marriage. However, despite the debilitating effects that such acts can have on a person’s life, gender-based violence is not often considered as mitigating in death penalty cases. Evidence of such behaviour is rarely produced, often dismissed by courts and at best can only be used where the crime was committed as a specific act of self-defence against a particular attack.

Certain conditions that all of the population of death row suffer from can also be exacerbated for women. Women who are menstruating often do not have access to sanitary products, which can be a health risk. Death row survivor and activist Susan Kigula explains that whilst on death row in Uganda, even when menstruating, she and her three cellmates had only a bucket to use as a toilet.[3] As well as physical conditions, women may have extra responsibilities. In some countries, children and infants are often incarcerated together and women on death row must care for them as well as themselves. Additionally, women facing the death penalty may be pregnant without the resources they need for a healthy or even safe pregnancy. The Cornell report found that in Thailand and Malaysia, women had even given birth alone within their cells. For those who have children outside of prison, the frustrations that all those within the prison system face when dealing with visitation is multiplied by the stigma and shame related to being both a woman and a criminal.

“A woman may be more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty than a man if she falls within society’s concept of a ‘bad woman’.”

Before reaching prison, women already face a complex kind of discrimination via gender bias in sentencing. In many cases, women are given more lenient sentences than men would if they had committed the same crime. This comes down to women being seen as victims and as lacking in agency and autonomy in a way that men are considered to possess. However, the problem arises when women clearly do not fit within these norms. A woman may be more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty than a man if she falls within society’s concept of a ‘bad woman’. What makes a ‘bad woman’ depends on the socio-cultural norms of a particular society, but examples such as participating in adultery, being considered a ‘femme fatale’ or harming her own children are often aspects that cannot be replaced or reframed to fit within societal norms. Therefore, within the fight for abolition of the death penalty, it is important to overcome the idea of women as victims or survivors and that only these women deserve their sentences repealed. Women can commit violent crimes, and these women should be seen as equally worthy in the eyes of the abolitionist cause.

Another problem relates to the language used when discussing women facing capital punishment. Often the terms ‘women’ and ‘mothers’ are used synonymously. Whilst having children can be a mitigating factor for women facing the death penalty, it is important not to rely on the concept of saving mothers. All women should be protected, not just the ones who have, or even can have, children.

What I found striking whilst writing this blog is how hard it was to find information about women who are facing the death penalty worldwide. Some countries, such as the US, had country-specific information, and there was a lot of data about women in prisons generally. However, aside from the Cornell report, very little information exists about the specific plight of women who have been convicted under capital punishment globally. This bias against women’s experiences needs to be called forward for the sake of these women. Where there are gaps in knowledge, there will be gaps in advocacy.

Alice studied her undergraduate degree in Law with European Law at the University of Nottingham in the UK with her Eramus in Lund University in Sweden. Since graduating in 2016 she has worked in a death penalty clinic in the US, an educational human rights NGO in Georgia and as an English teacher in China. Her interests include LGBTI and gender rights.

[1] This is based on calculated estimates as there is no way of getting accurate information of the amount of women or others facing capital punishment.

[2] http://www.deathpenaltyworldwide.org/pdf/judged-for-more-than-her-crime.pdf

[3] https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-43739933