Women exercise in the yard at Henan Women's Prison. Image credit: sina.com
The number of women in prison in China surpassed 100,000 in 2013, continuing a decade-long trend of population growth for women prisoners far exceeding that of men. Between 2003 and 2014, the number of women incarcerated in Chinese prisons soared 46 percent, 10 times faster than growth for the population of incarcerated men. By comparison, the number of women in US prisons grew 15 percent over the period, about one and a half times faster than the growth rate for men. As of mid-2014, 103,766 women were serving sentences in Chinese prisons.
If current trends continue, China will imprison more women than the United States, often cited as the world’s largest jailer, within five years. Over the past decade, the number of incarcerated women has increased an average of 3 percent per year in Chinese prisons, compared with 1 percent growth in American prisons. Accounting for more than 100,000 prisoners in each country, women make up 6.3 percent and 7 percent of total prisoner populations in China and the United States, respectively.
Number of Women in Prison in China and United States, 2003-2021*
Sources: Dui Hua; China Statistical Yearbook; Asian and Pacific Conference of Corrections Administrators (APCCA); Carson, E. Ann and Mulako-Wangota, Joseph. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Generated using the Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners at www.bjs.gov. (03-Jun-15).
Notes: Chinese prisoner data is as of the beginning of the year except for 2013 and 2014 data, which is mid-year. To allow for comparison, US prisoner data for each year is year-end data for the previous year. *Data from 2015-2021 is projected using historical data.
Women in Prison in China and United States, 2003-2014
|Number||% of Prison Population||Number||% of Prison Population|
Sources: Dui Hua; China Statistical Yearbook; APCCA; Carson, E. Ann and Mulako-Wangota, Joseph. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Generated using the Corrections Statistical Analysis Tool (CSAT) - Prisoners at www.bjs.gov. (03-Jun-15).
The number of women in prison refers to the number of women reported to be serving custodial sentences in Chinese and American prisons. It does not include the number of women and girls held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, pre-trial detention, or juvenile facilities in the United States, or in detention centers, custody and education camps, legal education centers, mandatory drug treatment, or juvenile detention facilities in China. If all these data were included, the number of women and girls incarcerated in China would likely already exceed that of the United States.
Root Causes and Political Activism
Decisions to put women behind bars are made by prosecutors and courts, but women’s choices that lead to conflict with the law are often rooted in gender-based violence and poverty. A 2009 survey conducted by the All-China Women’s Federation indicates that domestic violence plays a role in more than half of crimes committed by Chinese women and that domestic violence causes 80 percent of the violent crimes they commit.
Demonstrating the importance of economic factors, drug- and property-related crimes were the most common offenses committed by women surveyed in five Chinese prisons and detention centers by researchers from Renmin University of China Law School in the summer of 2013. The researchers noted that the “vast majority” of women involved in drug crime, which includes possession, trafficking, and sheltering others to use drugs, is illiterate and relies on drug trafficking as its primary source of income. Property crime, which includes theft, fraud, illegal fundraising, and extortion, was most prevalent among low-wage earners in developed cities in eastern China.
Crackdowns on civil and political rights also contribute to an uptick in the number of women in prison. Women account for at least a quarter of people in custody who are listed in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database. About 37 percent of prisoners of conscience involved in religious activities (including Falun Gong) are women, as are about 20 percent of petitioners.
China's Women Prisoners by Selected Crime Type
Source: Dui Hua; Cheng Lei, et al., “Research Report on the Treatment of Women Detainees in China.” Note: Percentages do not add up to 100, since researchers do not account for all crime types but focus instead on these five categories. There is also significant overlap between "non-violent" crime and all other listed crime types.
Perhaps not surprisingly, overcrowding is already a serious problem in women’s prisons in the United States and China. China has built six women’s prisons since 2003. Two of these were built after 2007, during the period when China experienced the most dramatic growth in its population of women prisoners. If China distributed women inmates evenly between its 36 women’s prisons, each would house 2,882 inmates, a figure 14 percent higher than for men incarcerated at China’s 614 men’s prisons. Some Chinese women’s prisons far exceed this average. Guangdong Women’s Prison, for example, opened in 2003 with a capacity of about 5,000 prisoners. That said, building prisons neither reduces the social and financial costs of incarceration nor addresses the root causes women’s conflict with the law.
Doing Women Justice: The Bangkok Rules
The large and growing population of women in prison in China, the United States, and worldwide makes attention to and implementation of the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules) all the more urgent. These rules provide a framework for improving conditions for women in prison by taking into account the fact that women in conflict with the law are more likely to have histories of abuse and different healthcare needs and child-rearing duties than men.
The Bangkok Rules also provide guidance on increasing the use of non-custodial measures to keep women out of prison in the first place. Since most women do not commit violent crimes or commit them in response to gender-based violence that was perpetrated against them, imprisonment is often disproportionate and unnecessary. It also carries with it the risk of further gender-based harassment and abuse.