There is a growing number of women and girls entering the criminal justice system in Uganda today. In 2017, there were 2,579 women prisoners compared to1,592 in 2013. Research shows that majority of the women and girls engaged in the criminal justice system come from poor or very poor backgrounds; are facing poverty-related crimes (street vending, prostitution and petty theft); are unable to afford bail and are detained awaiting trial. Most women are between 21 and 40 years old; illiterate or semi-illiterate, and majority have children.
Despite this background, women and girls’ needs are routinely overlooked in the criminal justice system because they are fewer in number. For instance, Uganda Prison Service provides both formal and vocational training programmes for prisoners, but due to resource constraints, these programmes mostly target men.Women hardly participate in formal education as evidenced in the 2017 O-Level examinations where there was no female prisoner candidate.
The vocational training programmes offered to women and girls have been constructed around the traditional role of women in society, including handicraft, hair dressing and weaving. Learning these skills is a positive development, but there is very low demand for such skills, limiting women’s employability after release.
The income from handcrafts is also not lucrative enough to lift these women out of poverty thereby increasing the likelihood to re off-end. The ‘feminisation of poverty’ has been identified as one likely cause for the increase in the female prison population at a faster rate than men. While some women are employed at the time of their arrest; engagement in the criminal justice system often leads to loss of employment, placing a series of severe financial and social strains on individuals and their families that can lead to inescapable poverty.
Sustainable Development Goal 10 on inequality pledges to leave no one behind. The target includes empowering and promoting the social, economic and political inclusion of all irrespective of age, sex, race, ethnicity or economic and other status. The target is to ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and vulnerable have equal rights to economic resources as well as access to basic services.
Since majority of the women and girls in the criminal justice system have histories of poor access to education and are from very poor backgrounds prior to imprisonment, female offenders represent a group with specific educational, social and economic needs that need to be addressed if Uganda is to achieve sustainable development goal 10. Criminal justice reforms which take into account specific needs of women have the potential to break the cycles of poverty among women and ensure that they are not left behind.