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World Day Against the Death Penalty - Women and the Death Penalty

  • News
  • 10 Oct 2021

By Joey Greene, Communications Lead, The Death Penalty Project

This year, the 19th World Day Against the Death Penalty is dedicated to women who have been impacted by capital punishment – those sentenced to death or facing a death sentence, those who have been executed and others who’s lives have been impacted by the punishment in other ways.

In the global context, women’s experiences of the death penalty and the penal system more widely are often overlooked. In response, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty themed this year’s World Day as ‘women sentenced to death – an invisible reality’.

It’s believed that women make up less than 5% of the world’s total death row population, with approximately 800 women currently on death row. In 2020, at least 7 countries sentenced women to death and at least 16 women were executed. However, the exact data is difficult to ascertain as countries such as North Korea, China and Vietnam, continue to keep their death penalty data a state secret. 

For over 30 years, as well as supporting changes to legal frameworks that restrict, and ultimately aim to end, the use of the death penalty, The Death Penalty Project has provided free legal representation to people facing execution around the world. We have helped to save thousands of lives, through both individual appeals and wider challenges to the constitutionality of the mandatory death penalty and seen hundreds of people removed from death row and entitled to be resentenced.  

Our experience has shown that wherever the death penalty applies, those from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds are always disproportionately affected by its use.

Alongside our global partners we have provided free legal representation to many women on death row. Through our work with AdvocAid in Sierra Leone, in 2017 we supported Betty who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to die following the tragic accidental death of her baby daughter – questioned in an unfamiliar language without the presence of a lawyer, Betty who was unable to read or write, was convicted and sentenced based on a thumbprint confession interpreted by police speaking a different dialect. We supported Betty in challenging her conviction and sentence in court – she was pardoned and released in 2020. 

Also from Sierra Leone, was Aminata – who was sentenced to death for killing her abusive ex-partner in self-defence after he followed her inside her home and attacked her. She was just 17 years old – but like many in Sierra Leone had no birth certificate to prove her age so was tried as an adult. After 9 years in prison, Aminata was pardoned and released with support from AdvocAid and went on to campaign for the abolition of the death penalty in Sierra Leone, achieved in July 2021 of this year. 

In Belize in 2014, we supported Lavern Longsworth who killed her abusive husband during an argument. Despite evidence of being the victim of years of physical and sexual violence at the hands of her husband, Lavern did not receive a mental health assessment and was sentenced to life imprisonment. We worked to successfully argue that she was experiencing symptoms of battered woman syndrome, a form of post traumatic stress disorder, at the time of the crime and set a new legal precedent for courts in Belize to accept the condition as a defence.

Cases like Lavern’s, Betty’s and Aminata’s demonstrate the sorts of challenges faced by many of the women who end up on death row; including poverty and gender-based violence. Their cases highlight deep structural inequalities and show how intersecting forms of marginalisation and discrimination can leave women disadvantaged at every stage of the criminal justice system.

To bring attention to these important and often overlooked issues, I invited some of the women we work with at The Death Penalty Project; lawyers, human rights activists and academics to share their expert knowledge and perspective on the subject.

Professor Carolyn Hoyle – Director of the Death Penalty Research Unit,  Oxford of University. Carolyn has authored several of The Death Penalty Project reports investigating attitudes towards capital punishment around the world which you can read here.

Aurélie Plaçais – Director of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

Annetta Jackson –  Human Rights Activist and Project Manager at Greater Caribbean for Life 


Sabrina Mahtani – Co-founder of AdvocAid, curator of Women Beyond Walls and a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, researching the experiences of women on death row

Florence Seemungal – Researcher and Cognitive Psychology/Course Developer and Co-ordinator, University of the West Indies Open Campus. Florence co-authored a series of reports for the The Death Penalty Project on the death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago which you can read here.

Patricia Rinwigati Waagstein – Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Indonesia. Patricia has contributed to our research in Indonesia investigating attitudes to the death penalty which you can read here.

Elizabeth Zitrin – Is a lawyer, Vice Chair, Witness to Innocence, Past President & Senior Advisor, World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

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Joey Greene (DPP): Can I start by asking about the types of crimes women are sentenced to death for and if they differ around the world? 

Annetta Jackson: There is a small variation in the types of crimes that women face the death penalty for globally. In the English-Speaking Caribbean the only crime punishable by sentence of death is murder. However, in other regions drug related offences, armed robbery, kidnapping, ‘witchcraft’ and offences against sexual morality have been offences for which women have faced the death penalty. 

Carolyn Hoyle: One example of the type of case mentioned by Annetta, is that of Meriam Ibrahim. In May 2014, in Sudan, Meriam was sentenced to death for the ‘crime’ of ridda (apostasy) and to 100 lashes for the ‘offence’ of zena (sexual immorality). The case generated international outrage. The penalty of death for behaviours that should never be criminalised caused indignation among retentionists as well as abolitionists. But the case also attracted attention because of her status as a mother and the human rights implications for the protection of the family and the welfare of children. Meriam Ibrahim was pregnant while being held in prison with her 20-month-old son. She gave birth to her second child later in May, restrained by shackles. Meriam’s case not only caused a global social media campaign, but it provoked an uncompromising stance from the UN, the EU, foreign ministers from various governments, and the British parliament. Just a month after giving birth, the Court of Appeal in Khartoum North quashed her convictions and Miriam was released from custody.

While women are only a tiny proportion of death sentenced prisoners in countries that retain the death penalty primarily for murder, such as the US and most retentionist African countries, they are sentenced to death and executed for drug offences in those countries that retain capital punishment for drugs in much higher numbers.

Sabrina Mahtani: At least 35 countries retain the death penalty for drug offences in law although international law prohibits the death penalty for all but the “most serious crimes”, which does not include drug related crimes. There are at least 100 women on death row for a drug offence. Duress, coercion, manipulation, pressure to provide for family members and situations of vulnerability have been identified as the main drivers for women sentenced to death for drug offences. These women operate at the lowest level of the illegal drug trade yet receive the harshest punishment. In Malaysia, 95% of the women on death row were there for drug trafficking offences and 86% of these women were foreign nationals.

Carolyn Hoyle: In Indonesia, of the 22 women charged with capital crimes between 2000 and 2018, 18 were convicted of a drug offence.

Joey Greene (DPP): Are there any common themes in the circumstances of women convicted of capital crimes?

Sabrina Mahtani: Gender inequality and discrimination are key factors behind women being on death row. Criminal justice systems were largely designed by men for men and are not gender-responsive. 

The majority of women sentenced to death are convicted of murder. A large number of these cases involve killing a family member who has been abusive which I’ve seen far too often in my work, such as in the case of Aminata, a young woman in Sierra Leone. 

A study by Penal Reform International found that, with few exceptions, criminal justice systems are failing women by ignoring their trauma and the realities and dynamics of domestic violence. In most countries there is no separate basis in law for a history of abuse to be considered and generally women must rely on existing legal defences which tend to be ill-adapted to women who have experienced prolonged abuse.

For example, in a survey in Uganda in 2015, 29 of the 39 women (74 per cent) convicted of murder/manslaughter against a male family member reported having suffered domestic abuse from a partner, spouse or male family member. 

Florence Seemungal: In the study I co-authored with the late Roger Hood, investigating the application of the mandatory death penalty in Trinidad and Tobago (2006) of the 279 male committals, 117 were for interpersonal altercations (42%), 23 for gang related killings, 93 for felony murder and 46 for domestic killings. Of the 18 female committals 5 were for interpersonal altercations, 3 for felony murder, and 10 (56%) were for domestic murder. Hence, men were charged primarily for interpersonal altercations while women were charged for domestic killings.

Joey Greene (DPP): How does gender impact death sentencing?

Aurélie Plaçais: Gender-based bias permeates the criminal justice system, manifesting itself in the investigative stage, in the form of law enforcement biases; the trial stage, in which a fair trial may be unavailable for economically disadvantaged and uneducated women; and in sentencing, when women defendants are sentenced to death after being prevented from arguing that gender and patriarchy affected their criminal conduct.

This discrimination can also lead to critical mitigating factors not being considered during arrest and trial, such as being subjected to gender-based violence and abuse.

Sabrina Mahtani: In countries where the death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, such as in Trinidad and Tobago or Ghana, a woman’s prior history as a survivor of physical or sexual abuse is simply irrelevant. The death penalty is automatically imposed for death-eligible offences without consideration of the woman’s background or the circumstances of the crime. 

Carolyn Hoyle: Only rarely would gender formally impact on death sentencing: in those few countries where the death penalty has been abolished for women and where the defendant is pregnant or a new mother. 

Although there is no international norm barring the sentencing to death and execution of women in general, they have been exempted altogether from capital punishment in a few countries – mainly those associated with the former Soviet system but also in Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, women are usually not categorically exempted.

Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not protect pregnant women from being sentenced to death but it does protect them from being executed. In 1984 UN Safeguard No 3 extended this protection from execution while those that were pregnant are ‘new mothers’. These Safeguards have been almost universally accepted. 

Very rarely death sentences have been imposed on a pregnant woman. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998, a military court sentenced a woman to death for armed robbery. Almost all retentionist countries have introduced legislation to prohibit the execution of pregnant women. In recent years there have been no reports of pregnant women or mothers, with recently born children, being executed. However, in some highly secretive jurisdictions, the picture is not entirely clear. According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the Democratic Republic of North Korea reported to the Universal Periodic Review’s National Report that ‘the sentence of death is not [ . . . ] carried out on pregnant women’ but, the FIDH recently declared that even though no first-hand information is available on this issue, ‘some pregnant women have reportedly undergone forced abortion in prison camps before being executed’. 

Joey Greene (DPP): What special protections need to be put in place to protect the rights of women at risk of being sentenced to death?

Annetta Jackson: The main protection that should be put in place is to abolish the death penalty. Beyond that, women defendants need to be able to feel that the criminal justice system is not against them even if they are sentenced.

Florence Seemungal: The findings of my research show that women are more likely to resort to lethal violence in a domestic context than in any other circumstance, better protection needs to be given to women so that they do not have to rely on murder or other forms of harm as a relief from domestic violence. The timely granting of protection orders and restraining orders by the court, the provision of adequate safe houses by the state or NGOs that assist women to escape abuse and other proactive measures need to be enhanced. 

Aurélie Plaçais:  In order to tackle the problems that exist, I believe we need to implement the following steps: repeal provisions that allow for the mandatory imposition of the death penalty, which do not allow judges to consider the circumstances of the offence or of the defendant at sentencing; acknowledge the compounding forms of violence suffered by girls and women – including gender based violence and early and forced marriage; ensure the training of all those involved investigation, representation and prosecution of crimes involving women; ensure that all those facing the death penalty have access to free and effective legal counsel – specialised in capital representation and trained to recognise and bring forward claims of gender-specific defences; increase the number of women involved in decision-making positions within legal systems, including judges, prosecutors, and court administrators, and develop and implement programmes to prevent gender-based violence and discrimination.

Patricia Rinwigati Waagstein: In Indonesia, women at risk of being sentenced to death are usually poor and find themselves in a highly stressful situation facing double victimisation. Hence, there is a need to provide special protections. Law enforcement officers need to be more sensitive towards gender; it is essential to ensure that women defendants get a fair trial and have access to professional legal aid; and to ensure that the root cause of crimes are taken into consideration by judges as a ground for reducing sentences.

Joey Greene (DPP): Are there specific mental health issues that can affect women and require special consideration in criminal proceedings in capital cases?

Annetta Jackson: Battered women’s syndrome, depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges all need to be taken into consideration when sentencing women in capital cases. These issues require special consideration and even if the sentences are mitigated, women need to be able to access mental health support and rehabilitative care in prisons because their unique vulnerabilities remain.

Aurélie Plaçais: According to the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, mental and intellectual disabilities are common among cases of women documented on death row, as is the case with many individuals who have received a death sentence.  While international law prohibits the execution of individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities, in practice, states do not heed the prohibition.

Joey Greene (DPP): Some argue that the bias is in fact the other way and that women are sentenced to death less because of their gender, is this true?

Aurélie Plaçais: Due to gender stereotypes and biases women in certain contexts are more likely to be perceived either as victims or perpetrators. This may be particularly true if their behaviour does not align with gender norms. This phenomenon can concern the entire legal and penal system as a whole, from arrest to sentencing, and beyond. For example, when women are perceived to be the victim, or when their behaviours align with gender norms, such as the caregiver, they may benefit from a more lenient sentence.  In contrast, women perceived as the perpetrator of the crime are more likely to receive a harsher punishment than men accused of similar offences. 

Carolyn Hoyle: Unlike the impact of race on sentencing (which is well established in capital cases in the US), there is no reliable research to demonstrate that gender impacts on capital sentencing or on executions. There are too few women sentenced to death and executed in countries where reliable, robust studies can be conducted.

While women who have been sentenced to death in the US may have been labelled differently in the media to men who have committed capital offences, there is too little research to know if these prejudices play out in the courtroom. Media portrayals focus on the ‘doubly deviant’ woman killer; someone who is more harshly criticised for having challenged the stereotype of a mild and nurturing woman. Media reports may, for example, focus on their lack of ‘femininity’ or their sexuality, including references to sex work, drug addiction, welfare use, single parenting etc., with the implications that women are more harshly judged than men for lifestyle choices or for inherent disadvantages and vulnerabilities in their lives. 

In a small study of 11 cases of indigent women executed in the United States since the reintroduction of capital punishment in 1976, following the temporary moratorium occasioned by the Furman case, Mary Atwell (Mary W Atwell, Wretched Sisters: Examining Gender and Capital Punishment; New York, Peter Laing 2007) found that in such cases gendered stereotypes had influenced prosecutors’ attitudes towards female defendants, making them more likely to charge them with the death penalty if they were seen as ‘evil and unfit mothers’ or ‘unfaithful wives’.

Joey Greene (DPP): How does race, gender and socio-economic background interplay to impact women on death row/those at risk of being sentenced to death?

Sabrina Mahtani: Many women on death row come from deprived socio-economic backgrounds and have suffered intersecting forms of abuse and discrimination. This impacts their ability to understand and navigate the legal process and to access quality legal representation. Most legal aid lawyers are junior and overworked. Late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, accurately once said, “people who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.” 

Appeals processes take time, resources and require expert knowledge. All of the women on death row in Ghana that I interviewed between 2016 to 2017 (five in total) said they did not have the financial means to hire lawyers to file appeals. 

The death penalty also inordinately impacts people who are racially minoritised, due to pervasive racial discrimination in justice systems. In the United States, Black women are disproportionately sentenced to die. Black women make up more than 25% of women sentenced to death, almost double their population size.

Carolyn Hoyle: The predicament of women working as migrant domestic workers warrants particular attention, given the number across Asia, as well as the very high proportion of Asian nationals sentenced to death in the Middle East. Migrant domestic workers, which are significant populations in the Middle East, are one of the most vulnerable groups due to the fact that their employment occurs in the domestic sphere and is thus hard to regulate and the workers are less likely to benefit from the protections provided by the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. There have been reports of systemic human rights abuses within this population. Furthermore, they are an attractive proposition to drug syndicates due to their possession of a passport and their economic need. 

This is clearly highlighted by the case of Mary Jane Veloso, which has been researched by Lucy Harry at the Oxford Death Penalty Research Unit. A Filipina migrant worker on death row in Indonesia, many believe Veloso was the victim of human trafficking. She is a single-mother of two, who was formerly a domestic worker in Dubai, but fled following an attempted rape. She was subsequently recruited for another job overseas, and in the process was duped into smuggling drugs into Indonesia. This case has received considerable media attention and, following calls on the Indonesian government to halt her execution, she received a temporary reprieve. However, there are many female migrant workers on death rows across the Gulf region whose cases do not attract international attention.

Joey Greene (DPP): What are the prison conditions like for women facing the death penalty? How does this differ around the world?

Aurélie Plaçais: Conditions on death rows worldwide are harsh and sometimes life threatening. Women on death row face additional burdens due to their unique needs, such as a lack of gender-sensitive medical care; threats of violence; and restrictive visitation rights. 

Carolyn Hoyle: Research in the West suggests that the lived experiences of women on long-term prison sentences is different to men’s and that they suffer more from loss of close family connections, especially women with young children. They are more likely to self-harm. It is likely therefore that women on death row have somewhat more traumatic experiences than men, but there is too little research to draw on. One study by the Pakistan Human Rights Commission in 2013 found that the 35 women on death row at the time were ‘the most vulnerable of detainees’, rejected by their families with no access to female doctors. A report by the American Civil Liberties Union in 2004 found that when women live in virtual isolation, it often leads to psychosis and exacerbates existing mental health issues.

Patricia Rinwigati Waagstein: In Indonesia there is a challenge in motivating women on death row so that they do not lose hope; prisons are overcrowded and there is limited family visitation, especially during covid as physical visitation has been replaced by virtual visitation – prisons should cooperate with different organisations to help develop new activities for women.

Annetta Jackson: In the English-speaking Caribbean, most of the prisons are dated and the facilities need to receive major refurbishment. In Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean, the prison has not received any major upgrades since being opened in the year 1735. There is severe overcrowding in prisons, outbreaks of disease and facilities are not suitable for women who live in those conditions.

Joey Greene (DPP): How does execution itself interplay with gender?

Carolyn Hoyle: While execution practices are the same for women and men in most countries, stoning would appear to be carried out a little differently. Stoning is the punishment under Shari’ā law, but specifically for adultery, in Iran, Northern Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. When carried out, members of the community hurl rocks, not too large to kill immediately, at the head of the person to be executed—typically, men are buried in a pit up to their waist, women above their breasts. In August 2013, the Iranian Supreme Court confirmed the sentence of stoning to death imposed by a court in Tabriz of a man and a woman for having sex outside of marriage. And in the UAE an Asian housemaid was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in May 2014, the first time for many years that such a sentence had been imposed in the country. The Iranian Penal Code retains the punishment of stoning for married participants who have committed adultery but provides the judge the possibility of choosing another form of execution, ‘if it is not possible to perform stoning’.

Joey Greene (DPP): Looking at public opinion research, do views on the death penalty differ between men and women? 

Carolyn Hoyle: One of the more enduring observations in the study of death penalty support within the United States is the strong divide between men and women. Men have consistently shown significantly higher levels of support for capital punishment than women. This divide has appeared in nearly every survey, over time, and across a variety of methodological designs. A study by Cochrane & Sanders (2009) attempted to understand the basis for this gender gap. It examined gender differences in socioeconomic status, gender inequality, gender socialisation, religion/religiosity, political ideology, positions on right-to-life and other social issues, fear of crime and victimisation experience, experience with the criminal justice system, philosophies of punishment, and attribution styles. The findings revealed that the effect of gender on capital punishment support continued to be robust despite controlling for the effects of all of these other potential explanations. However, this finding may be unique to the United States.

Another study (Lambert et al; 2012) examined whether there were any gender differences in support for the death penalty among college students in Bangladesh, China, Nigeria, and the United States. No significant gender difference between men and women was observed, except in the United States.

Joey Greene (DPP): Can you describe some of the other ways that women can be indirectly impacted by the death penalty?

Elizabeth Zitrin: Women are victims of the death penalty to a great extent even when it is mostly men who are tried, sentenced and executed. 

While men are in prison, it is left to women to hold the family together, to earn a living, perhaps for the first time, to support the children, to organise lawyers and support, to travel sometimes great distances at great difficulty to visit their husbands, partners, sons and fathers in prison. 

It is not a comment on the treatment of women when they are charged, but an important and often overlooked component of the criminal systems and the death penalty everywhere. Women are left to pick up the pieces and try to recreate lives for their families.

Joey Greene (DPP): With women making up such a small percentage of the death row population has much research been carried out that looks at the particular issues impacting them as a group? 

Sabrina Mahtani: I’ve been working with and for women on death row for the past 15 years and there is very little attention given to this vital issue, particularly by mainstream feminist movements. More support is needed for further research, particularly participatory research, that amplifies the voices and experiences of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. As lawyers and activists, we need to do more to listen to and work alongside women on death row as allies.

Aurélie Plaçais: This World Day Against the Death Penalty, 10 October, there are several new reports due to be published on this issue which we hope will help knowledge to grow.

Joey Greene (DPP): Do you have a message you would like to share this World Day Against the Death Penalty?

Annetta Jackson: Death Penalty abolition goes beyond ensuring that everyone is able to enjoy a right to life. It is about ensuring that vulnerable persons who have made a wrong choice at one point in their lives are able to receive the support they need to rehabilitate themselves. A lot of individuals are victims of circumstances. Even beyond being sentenced to death for murder, so many vulnerable groups are criminalized based on their religious beliefs, sexuality, and gender and face capital punishment because of this as well. Persons who are sentenced for criminal activity are still people and going to prison does not strip someone of their basic human rights.

Sabrina Mahtani: The death penalty is an archaic punishment that discriminates against women who come from deprived socio-economic backgrounds, who have suffered abuse and who are racially minoritised. We need to stop talking about the death penalty in the abstract and start by engaging with women who are or who have been on death row. 

I have had the privilege of working with an incredible team (AdvocAid) to free six women who had been on death row. Our justice systems are painfully fallible and far too often discriminate against women. We need to do more to invest in community support services and systems to tackle the underlying issues rather than punish women who, most often, society has failed.

Joey Greene (DPP): Thank you everyone for taking part. To read more on the research and reports conducted by the The Death Penalty Project please visit our Knowledge page.

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