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The Fight for Women’s Rights Behind Bars in Colombia

Woman speaks in front of a group of women
Claudia Alejandra Cardona, with Corporación Mujeres Libres, speaks with women at a prison in Colombia. © Mujeres Libres Colombia

I left prison in 2017, following nine years of incarceration in Colombia. I didn’t know what was to come of my life, but I was lucky. I already had a job, related to my latest life experience.

The civil society group Corporación Humanas had hired me to work on the topic of women, drugs, and prison. I was invited to join the Commission for Monitoring the Unconstitutional State of Affairs in Penitentiary and Prison Matters, a coalition of civil society organizations that researches human rights violations in the prison system and brings its findings before Colombia’s Constitutional Court.

Through this, I learned about the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders, and began to compare those rules, the internal regulations of the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute, and the reality experienced by women in prison. Commonly known as the Bangkok Rules, these U.N. guidelines inform lawmakers, judicial authorities, and prison staff on how to reduce female incarceration and address the needs of women who are imprisoned or coming out of prison.

In Colombia, most women in prison come from low-income backgrounds and serve time mostly for crimes related to drug trafficking. However, my work focused on the reality of all incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. Corporación Humanas served as the technical secretariat within the commission, creating a system of oversight to ensure these women are given appropriate psychosocial and legal support. I represented the organization by monitoring the situation and writing reports along with other coalition representatives.

The process awakened and inspired me. I had no idea during my years of imprisonment that women in my position had such rights; now, here I was, charged with using my freedom to fight for that of others. Having been on the inside, I knew this would have to be a collective struggle, so I started by calling other formerly incarcerated women who were struggling to put their lives back together.

Most employers are averse to hiring people with criminal records. The few women who get hired often become victims of gender-based violence by their employers and coworkers, who justify these actions by saying women in these circumstances should be happy to have a job. The fewer formal-sector jobs available to them, the more vulnerable they are to discrimination, abuse, and unfair labor practices. At the same time, entrepreneurship is hardly a viable option when banks systematically reject the account applications of people with criminal records. And without an account, it’s nearly impossible to get a loan.

In addition, formerly incarcerated women often struggle to restore family ties because other family members have stigmatized the women as bad mothers or women of poor moral character. These factors, and the poor conditions of prison, also leave formerly incarcerated women with long-term physical and mental health issues.

The more I got into the job, the more I recognized that what I had seen in prison were human rights violations. Those included: overcrowding; irregular access to water service for bathing; a lack of dignified or nutritious food; cruel, inhumane, and denigrating treatment by the prison guards; lack of access to the justice system or information about it; the breakdown of the justice system; and the breakdown of ties with children and family on the outside. One of the most consistent forms of gender-based abuse was authorities’ negligence in providing adequate menstrual hygiene products. We had no choice in the type of products we used, and we received just 20 pads every three months.

Through our research on policy and advocacy, we noticed a glaring the lack of medical attention. For example, pregnant incarcerated women are systematically denied their legal right to abortion, a problem that increases the prevalence of gynecological problems—especially ones due to miscarriage and the homemade abortions women sometimes engage in on the patios of the prison.

These issues were not well documented in a prison system designed by and for men, so the commission accepted our efforts to share these findings with the Constitutional Court, the highest judicial body in the country. Not surprisingly, some government officials met us with prejudice because we were female and formerly incarcerated.

And yet, over time, we built our movement into an organization—first under the auspices of Corporación Humanas in 2018, and then as our own official civil society group in 2021. This is how we brought to life the Corporación Mujeres Libres (Women Free Corporation). Today, we have gained recognition well beyond the borders of Colombia. We have been asked to participate in public forums and debates, as well as to give university lectures. That kind of international visibility put pressure on the Colombian government, and that helped us engage in policy advising on two bills. One focused on providing appropriate menstrual supplies to women in prison. The other sought to accommodate women who were head of household by providing alternative sentences focused on community service.

Our policy and advocacy work also gained momentum through a series of special meetings. In 2019, we partnered with Corporación Humanas to host the first ever National Women’s Meeting for Formerly Incarcerated Women. And we joined Corporación Humanas and the Washington Office on Latin America for the First International Convening of Formerly Incarcerated Women in the Americas. This led to our founding of the Latin American Network of Libertarian Women Melting Bars and the International Network of Formerly Incarcerated Women.

In 2022, the Colombian government passed the Menstrual Health in Prison Act, and in 2023, the government issued Decree 2292, which allowed some convicted women receive a public service sentence in place of prison.

These experiences help fuel the policy and advocacy work we do today before the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as well as with Colombia’s Ministry of Justice, Congress, and the Constitutional Court.

The fact that we who were incarcerated and denied our basic human rights have managed to influence the laws of my country confirms that freedom for women is possible.

Corporación Mujeres Libres is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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