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Ground-breaking intervention launched to alleviate plight of women offenders

Department of Social Development MEC Sharna Fernandez addressing the crowd at the project launch.

Department of Social Development MEC Sharna Fernandez addressing the crowd at the project launch.

Published Dec 1, 2021

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Cape Town - With the number of women prisoners on the increase due to substance and drug abuse, among other things, a ground-breaking project to alleviate the plight of women in conflict with the law was launched on Tuesday.

The project – a partnership between the Callas Foundation, UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, the NPA and the Department of Correctional Services – will be piloted at the Athlone Magistrate’s Court.

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Callas Foundation executive director Caroline Peters said since the adoption of the UN’s Bangkok Rules (Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders) in 2010, global dialogues on gender-sensitive responses to the distinctive needs of women prisoners had continued to emphasise the need to implement non-custodial measures for women in conflict with the law.

Peters said a pertinent theme of these dialogues was that women’s pathways to criminalisation needed to be addressed against the backdrop of their experiences of GBV, which was a contributing factor for women’s involvement in minor, non-violent offences.

“Often these same women are the primary caregivers for minor children and extended families and custodial sentences consequently also punish minor children and the extended family,” she said.

Head of Legal Aid SA’s Athlone office, Nomawethu Mtebele, said upon collecting data they realised that many of the women concerned were repeat offenders and that the project would assist in digging deeper into the causes and their backgrounds.

UNODC national project officer for Southern Africa Linda Naidoo said since 2000, the women prison population had continued to increase at a faster rate than that of the general prison population.

She said non-custodial measures could reduce the social and economic cost of imprisonment and help reduce the prison population and rates of recidivism.

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“Non-custodial measures can help address women’s specific needs and foster their reintegration process. The community is better served by community-based interventions which address the underlying causes of women coming into contact with the law. It is important that non-custodial measures are gender responsive,” she said .

Naidoo said policymakers should increase the allocation of resources dedicated to community-based alternatives to imprisonment and to organisations working to address underlying causes of women coming into contact with the law so that there was an increased focus on prevention.

NPA special director of public prosecutions unit member advocate Bonnie Currie Gamwo said justice and fairness must be paramount when implementing the project.

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