At the 56th Session of the UN Committee on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) this week in Geneva, the UN gender experts from around the world gather to examine the state performance on the rights of women including discussing strengthening the rule of law and access to justice in achieving universal human rights including those for women. Even more, it is expected that the Committee members will follow up on the day of general discussion on access to justice for women held earlier this year to formulate general comments on access to justice for women from most disadvantaged communities including women affected by drug policies -- a group that is still missing from discussion topics.
As the CEDAW sessions are on, civil society groups will engage with members of the committee to brief them on policies and practice in the region of Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) relating to women's access to justice while focusing on the countries in the region that practice repressive drug policies criminalizing thousands of women for poverty crimes including use of drugs and possession of drugs for personal use, depriving them from basic healthcare and access to fair trial standards and exposing them to further violence, stigma and discrimination. This is a first time of its kind when the CEDAW Committee will meet the UN Secretary-General Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS for Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the woman drug user activist from Russian Federation to discuss the impact of drug policies on the rights of women in the region.
Women are disproportionately facing prison for non-violent drug offenses, often as a result of poverty and social marginalization. An over-reliance on criminal laws to address social and economic problems in many countries globally led to stigmatization and often discrimination of women that are more likely to face prisons for their 'drug involvement than their male counterparts.
Even more, the joint research by UNODC and WHO shows that many women convicted of drug offenses have histories of sexual and physical abuse; coexisting psychiatric disorders; alcohol or drug dependency; positive HIV or Hepatitis C status; low self-esteem; and low literacy. These women are unskilled and often (single) mothers with a lack of familial support. They may also be financially dependent on a male partner involved in the drug trade.
Comprehensive policy reforms are needed to meet the needs of women in criminal justice systems as well as diverting them from unnecessary imprisonment. For this to be successful human rights based approach needs to be developed and applied to the individual domestic jurisdictions with the consideration of its national policies and compliance with the international obligations in each individual case.