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“Judged for More Than Her Crime”: New Report Examines Worldwide Use of Death Penalty Against Women

Women face “widespread discriminatory practices in the capital prosecution and detention” in death-penalty countries around the world, according to a new report by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The report, Judged for More Than Her Crime: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty—released at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on September 18, 2018—examines the use of capital punishment against women worldwide, including the crimes for which women are sentenced to death and the conditions of imprisonment they face on death row. At least 500 women are on death rows around the world, and the report estimates that more than 100 women have been executed in the last decade. The cases in which women are sentenced to death, the report states, are “emblematic of systemic failings in the application of capital punishment,” with death sentences often imposed on women who are illiterate, mentally ill, intellectually disabled, or members of marginalized ethnic groups. The report finds that women’s histories of gender-based violence are frequently ignored by attorneys and judges in those countries that retain the death penalty. In a statement accompanying release of the report, the Cornell Center wrote, “[f]emale survivors of domestic abuse are particularly vulnerable to unfair sentencing practices.” While the report notes that gender bias can operate in favor of more lenient sentencing for some women, that same gender bias results in harsher treatment of women who are seen as violating gender expectations. “[W]omen facing the death penalty have been cast as the ‘femme fatale,’ the ‘child murderer,’ or the ‘witch,’” the report says. In the foreword to the report, Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, writes that “[c]riminal justice processes, largely designed by and for men, frequently are not only blind to the causes and consequences of gender-based violence, they may actively reinforce gender-based discrimination.” The report, she says, “reveals that courts judge women not just for their alleged offenses, but also for what are perceived to be their moral failings as women: as ‘disloyal’ wives, ‘uncaring’ mothers, ‘ungrateful’ daughters. Nowhere are transgressions of the social norms of gender behavior punished more severely than in a capital trial.” The report also documents how women are uniquely affected by the harsh conditions on death rows around the world. In some countries, they must care for their infants or young children while shackled by the hands and feet. Female prisoners in Thailand and Myanmar have reportedly given birth alone in prison. Menstruating women are given little or no access to sanitary pads or other necessary products. Sandra Babcock, Faculty Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, said: “Hundreds of women have been unjustly sentenced to death around the world, yet their cases have been neglected by activists, scholars, and the international community. We hope that this report will draw attention to their plight and inspire courts and policymakers to modify their sentencing practices.”


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Cases in Sudan, Saudi Arabia Illustrate Use of Death Penalty Against Women to Enforce Gender Norms

In high-profile cases in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, human rights advocates are protesting the threatened use of the death penalty against women for resisting oppression. In the Sudan, prosecutors are seeking to reinstate the death sentence against Noura Hussein (pictured), a teen girl forced into marriage who killed her abusive husband as he tried to rape her. The Saudi Arabian government is seeking the death penalty against Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist who has sought equal rights for Shiite Muslims. The two cases illustrate a worldwide pattern in the use of capital punishment against women who defy cultural gender norms. Hussein, now 19 years old, was forced into marriage at age 16. She fled the marriage, but was tricked into returning by her own family. When she refused to have sex with her husband, he enlisted several cousins to hold her down while he raped her. When he attempted to rape her again the next day, she stabbed him to death. Hussein's family turned her in to the authorities, and she was tried and sentenced to death in May 2018. After an international campaign on her behalf, a Sudanese court reduced Hussein's conviction to manslaughter, sentenced her to five years imprisonment, and fined her. State prosecutors are appealing the decision and seek to have her death sentence reinstated. Yasmeen Hassan of the human rights group Equality Now called the Sudan "an extremely patriarchal place [where] gender norms are very strongly enforced." She said Sudan permits arranged marriages for girls as young as age 10, "there's legal guardianship of men over women, women are told you have to walk a straight and narrow line and don't transgress." Amnesty International spokesperson Seif Magango called the use of the death penalty against Hussein "an intolerable act of cruelty." Condemning a girl for "killing her rapist husband in self-defence," she said, demonstrates the "failure of the authorities to tackle child marriage, forced marriage and marital rape." Hussein's family has fled their home, fearing reprisal from the victim's family. The victim's father told a Sudanese newspaper that, even if Hussein is executed, they will still seek revenge, because she killed a man, and women are not equal to men. Saudi Arabia, known for its oppression of women, has recently begun a crackdown on women's right's activists. While the Kingdom has often used the death penalty against political dissidents, trying them in terrorism courts notorious for the denial of due process, Human Rights Watch reports that al-Ghomgham is the first female activist to face execution for her human rights-related work. “Any execution is appalling," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, "but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous.” The organization warned that the action sets a "dangerous precedent for other women activists currently behind bars."

The pattern of executing women who break gender expectations has been identified and examined by death-penalty researchers. Dr. Mary Atwell, author of three books on capital punishment, explained: "[F]or the state to put somebody to death in our name, we have to see them as ‘other’ in some way ... and I think that’s even more true with a woman. You have to see her as not just doing things that are violent and cruel, but as particularly outside the expectations of what a woman should do.” That is why, she says, in cases in the U.S. in which women are sentenced to death and executed, prosecutors and the press "played up to a great extent" that "these were women who stepped outside the norms of gendered expectations."


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