Women have had a long, hard fight toward equality.
From the power suits of the ’80s to the glass ceilings of the ’90s, demanding pay equality and making inroads in typically male-dominated fields, and now breaking down more barriers with this era’s powerful #MeToo movement, slowly but surely women are catching up to men on a number of fronts. But there’s one area where an increasing presence of women is bad news.
Researchers at the Birkbeck University’s Institute for Criminal Policy Research recently indicated in their Worldwide Prison Report that since 2000, the incarceration rate for women and girls has jumped by a whopping 53 percent. And this is not an isolated trend. A near-uniform rise in female prison populations has been observed in Central America, South America, Southeast Asia, North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Why is this happening?
So far, it would appear that the more access women have to opportunities to better themselves, the more risk they have of being arrested. However, those opportunities for betterment and for offending differ depending on the region.
In developing countries, many women and girls survive by turning to prostitution, which can lead to being arrested.
For example, globalization in Africa sees young women migrating from rural to urban centers for work. The pressure to provide for their families, even when far away, does not decrease. In the United States, where 212,000 females are incarcerated, there are direct links between female incarceration rates and segregation, poverty, mental health issues and abuse.
Problems with the law don’t stop once a woman is released from prison. If she is a mother or has to care for other family members, the pressure for her to quickly earn income is immense. And with an overburdened prison system, education behind bars and access to skills programming for former inmates to help them earn a living are often compromised.
There are strong suggestions that the uptick in female incarceration is tied to more access to jobs in some areas, or the dire need for financial support in others – as, at the same time, women get no respite from the burden of child and family care. Basically, despite the progress women are making around the world in pay, gender, and workplace equality, support on the home front is still severely lacking.
What is an overworked, overstressed, overburdened woman to do when she needs to feed her family and care for her children, but lacks the skills and finances to adequately do so? Steal. Prostitute. Commit fraud. And a ripple effect follows. Since women are vital to the support of the family physically, financially and emotionally, when they are incarcerated the families suffer too. This leads to a vicious cycle of crime and poverty.
While the jump in female prison populations is truly disturbing, it stems from actual progress toward equality. It’s a terrible side effect, but with the knowledge that it’s happening and why, society can move to act. Rather than incarcerate, why not address the root issues of crime, funneling offenders toward the appropriate social services for domestic violence, employment initiatives, food safety, childcare, and other poverty-reduction initiatives.
The care of a family should not be a solo venture that falls on one woman’s shoulders. In the best of circumstances, it should be shared among immediate and extended family and the greater community. If the burden were lightened and shared, the result might be that we’d see fewer women – and men – behind bars.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.