Worldwide Profile of Female offenders

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Universal pathways to offending

Victimisation and Violence

The high levels of trauma experienced by female offenders through instances of violence and abuse was a common discourse among the aforementioned studies, and was highlighted in a UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. The document specifically highlights the strong link between violence against women and their incarceration, stating that “evidence from different countries suggests that incarcerated women have been victims of violence at a much higher rate prior to entering prison than is acknowledged by the legal system generally” (UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, 2013, p.4). Findings from the report state that more research is needed to identify the pathways of female offenders but recognise that it is necessary to acknowledge these women’s histories of victimisation and that abuse is central to the experience of incarcerated women.
This sentiment is shared by researchers Gunnison and McCartan who described their study concerning the life histories of 131 North American female offenders and their experiences of victimisation and abuse as “critical considering that women are increasing their involvement in criminality and are committing more crimes that have been traditionally thought of as “male crimes” such as aggravated assault and robbery” (2010, p. 1450). The resulting research findings outlined how sexual abuse was one of the most persistent predictors of female offending across the life course, with sexually abused women having lower self-images, experiencing difficulty in staying employed and more likely to associate with other offenders (Gunnison & McCartan, 2010). Correspondingly, Pollack’s research conducted in 2007 with fifty-two women incarcerated in Canada stated that it is a well-documented fact that “the majority of imprisoned women in North America have histories of childhood abuse and have experienced violence in their intimate relationships with men” (Pollack, 2007, p. 159). The study drew on participants from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, with varying offending histories, and found that these women’s attempts to cope with victimisation experiences, such as childhood and domestic abuse, had propelled many of them into situations where there was a high risk of being criminalised (Pollack, 2007).
In her report “Women in pre-trial detention in Africa” for the CSPRI in 2014, Marilize Ackermann confirmed that despite popular opinion that women are less likely to commit violent and serious crimes than men, reports from recent years indicated that a significant number of female detainees in South Africa were held for murder. Furthermore, Ackermann reported that statistics from correctional facilities across Africa indicated that violent offences perpetrated by women were most often in the context of a domestic relationship, and that “violent crime is commonly committed as a response to prolonged domestic abuse or victimisation directly preceding the crime” (Ackermann, 2014, p. 11).
The conclusions drawn from this report were sustained by DeHart’s research that examined the ways in which victimisation may contribute to criminal involvement among incarcerated women (2008). The study, conducted with sixty women incarcerated in a maximum-security facility in the US, indicated ways that victimisation relates directly to women’s crimes. DeHart found that most of the women had experienced polyvictimisation; or multiple traumas, such as rape, assault, loss of loved ones or medical problems, in simultaneous episodes that were described as “unrelenting trauma” (2008, p.1375). The research explains that the effect of such victimisations is that the women are diverted away from legitimate pathways, for example, school and work, via family and social networks that deviate to negative pathways through poverty, addiction or violence (DeHart, 2008). Yet regardless of these restricted options, violent female offenders are spoken of as choosing this pathway by society, rather than reacting to prolonged, numerous experiences of victimisation with an extreme act of unexpected violence.
Shechory, Perry and Addad, who interviewed sixty Israeli female offenders, substantiates DeHart’s conclusion as the majority of the group of twenty-three violent female offenders involved in the study had “been convicted of a single count of violence against a family member, spouse, or intimate partner”, and further state “that these women had experienced violence themselves and that their victimization related to their crime” (2011, p. 412). Commonalities in these findings validate and authenticate the little spoken of yet disturbingly common gendered experiences of abuse, victimisation and subsequent trauma experienced by women. A comprehension of the cause of the augmented occurrences of violent female offenders in South African society is vital, as is a thorough understanding of the female offender’s specific experiences within said society.

Feminisation of Poverty

A cording to Moe and Ferraro (2006) the gendered factors that have an impact on women’s involvement in crime and for which women are arrested and incarcerated, are also those that are best explained by the worsening economic and social conditions faced by women. A report compiled by Townhead in 2007 for the United Nations’ “Women in Prison and Children of Imprisoned Mothers” series, stated that typically, female offenders are young, unemployed mothers with low levels of education who stem from economically and socially disadvantaged segments of society. “Many have histories of alcohol and substance abuse. A disproportionate proportion of women offenders have experienced violence or sexual abuse” (Townhead, 2007, p. 16). Through qualitative, life-history interviews with thirty incarcerated women in a detention centre in the southwest of the United States of America, Moe and Ferraro (2006) corroborated the statistics found by the United Nations report. They found that most of the women in the criminal processing system were poor, single mothers and stated that the majority of their crimes were economically driven and gendered within the context of the illegitimate street market, for example prostitution, which in turn is highly correlated with drug related offenses (Moe & Ferraro, 2006). “…the feminisation of poverty… has contributed to women’s increasing involvement in economically based crimes such as forgery, counterfeiting, fraud, and embezzlement” (Moe & Ferraro, 2006, p. 137). This statement is confirmed by Steffensmeier, Schwartz, and Rochea, whose study of female involvement in fraud in the US found that gendered focal concerns shaped said involvement (2013). Their findings reflect women’s larger representation in subordinate employment positions where “gendered labor market segmentation is strongly influenced by informal exclusionary practices that limit women’s entry into some roles in the economy” (Steffensmeier, Schwartz & Rochea, 2013, p.78).
These discriminating economic factors are exacerbated when looking at female offenders’ pathways in third world countries. A study conducted by Bailey with twelve participants housed at Her Majesty’s Prison in Barbados, confirmed that gendered entrapment through poverty was the primary motivation cited by female offenders for their offending behaviour (2013). In a country which “has the highest rate of poverty in the Caribbean with seven out of every ten persons estimated to be living in poverty” (Bailey, 2013, p. 123), the higher rates of unemployment; gendered division of unpaid labour and unequal distribution of income faced by women, are life threating vulnerabilities that provide limited responses, leading to illegitimate activity (Bailey, 2013). Indeed, the participating female offenders were described by Bailey as typically single mothers and breadwinners, the majority of whom had been raised themselves in female-headed single-parent homes that occupied marginal positions in society in desperate conditions, without access to basic amenities like running water (2013). Family obligations and economic need had often affected these women early on in life and they had dropped out of school to provide through the selling or transporting of drugs and/or prostitution (Bailey, 2013). This could explain why the majority of the participants had completed primary school only. The female offenders stated how they still faced financial pressures and now childrearing responsibilities in adulthood, that combined, formed their pathway to crime, which was seen as their only option, given the absence of alternatives (Bailey, 2013).
In her article that examines factors that have contributed to the growing rates of incarceration of women in Sierra Leone, Mahtani (2013) states that these share commonalities with international instances of women in corrections. Most of the female offenders in the country are “illiterate and poor, have a background of physical and emotional abuse, have mental health problems, and have committed minor offenses” (Mahtani, 2013, p. 248). Poverty is described as a double burden for women as instances of female-headed households increase, compelling many women into commercial sex work, theft and drug peddling in order to support themselves and their families. Many young girls begin sex work at the age of thirteen or fourteen, as their families cannot afford to care for or educate them (Mahtani, 2013). The police crackdown on selling cannabis, or jamba as it is locally known, has resulted in a growing number of incarcerated female offenders who sell the drug to meet the subsistence needs of their families, “most women state that they decided to sell cannabis to raise money to feed their children, noting that it is far more lucrative than selling common market items” (Mahtani, 2013, p. 259). These harsh realities faced by the women in the war-torn country of Sierra Leone typify the disproportionately gendered impact that poverty has, and societal contributions to the feminisation of poverty.
This denigrated vulnerability, coupled with the numerous and onerous responsibilities generated through the gendered role of primary caregiver and often sole breadwinner, within a society that offers little recognition of these efforts, may result in offending behaviour when resources are scarce, and support is deficient.

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Mental Illness and Offending

A not often discussed, but prevalent risk factor that may precede female incarceration is mental illness. A disproportionate number of women suffering from mental health issues are housed in correctional facilities, an occurrence that was investigated by DeHart, Lynch, Belknap Dass-Brailsford and Green. Life history interviews were conducted with 115 women incarcerated in the US, and explored the “increased vulnerability and overlapping pathways for women with substantial trauma histories for mental disorders such as PTSD, serious mental illness, and substance abuse or dependence” (DeHart et al., 2013, p. 140). The study’s sample demonstrated high rates of mental disorders, with a majority of the participants meeting lifetime diagnostic criteria for serious mental illness and a higher risk across the life span for substance use and drug offending (DeHart et al., 2013). The women’s experiences of interpersonal violence and traumas witnessed, such as a caregiver’s use of drugs, is identified in pathways theory as a precursor to mental health issues, normalising such maladaptive behaviour and contributing to the onset of criminal offending (DeHart et al, 2013).
Research conducted by Völlm and Dolan with 638 female offenders from two prisons in the North-West of England agreed with the findings of DeHart, Lynch, Belknap Dass-Brailsford and Green. Of the 638 women interviewed, 45.9% had self-harmed or attempted suicide, the majority of whose onset preceded their incarceration (Völlm & Dolan, 2009). These female offenders had significantly higher rates of committing violent offences and substance abuse and tended to be of a younger age. The researchers identified associations between socio-demographic and psychopathological variables regarding incarcerated women, including various forms of victimisation, poverty and childhood nonvictim adversity (Völlm & Dolan, 2009).
Collier and Friedman’s research study with 100 female offender participants, took place in the Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility in New Zealand. This naturalistic exploratory study endeavoured to explore for the first time the characteristics of women incarcerated in New Zealand. Similar to the two studies already mentioned, their study reported that approximately half of the participants were detained for violent charges, with 54% of the women reporting a personal history of victimisation and 90% reporting substance abuse prior to incarceration (Collier and Friedman, 2016). Most of the women had a history of mental illness and a large majority had been previously admitted for psychiatric hospitalization (Collier and Friedman, 2016). As with profiles compiled on female offenders worldwide, Collier and Friedman found that two-thirds of the women they interviewed had children but only 35% were currently partnered (2016).
It is necessary to highlight that all these studies found that the majority of the psychiatric disorders experienced by female offenders occur prior to incarceration. This is important as it demonstrates that mental health, and the various other risk factors that are particularly salient to female offender experienced vulnerabilities, contribute as a pathway to offending behaviours rather than simply surfacing as a result of the women’s incarceration.

Motherhood and Crime

The single commonality that resonates throughout all the literature reviewed both locally and globally, is the prevalence of female detainees who are mothers. According to Townhead’s report (2007), most incarcerated women are mothers. In fact, 80% of all women in correctional centres across the United States are mothers, and 66% of female offenders in the United Kingdom are mothers. These findings were corroborated by Glaze and Maruschak in a revised special report regarding incarcerated parents and their children for the US Department of Justice in 2010. This may be unsurprising as most women in general are mothers, however what the report found was that incarcerated mothers were three times more likely to be solely responsible as the single parent heading their households with their children, despite the fact that they were also more likely to report living on government financial aid, being homeless, experiencing past physical or sexual abuse, and medical and mental health problems (Glaze & Maruschak, 2010). These women were nearly twice as likely to be unemployed, compared to their male counterparts, yet they were equally likely to be the main financial support for their children (Kjellstrand, Cearley, Eddy, Foney and Martinez Jr., 2012).
Ackermann’s report for the CSPRI in 2014 recognised that the literature from local studies indicate that the majority of female detainees in South Africa are mothers, and many are the primary or sole caretakers of their children. In the study conducted by Pretorius and Botha, 91% of participants indicated that they had children (2009). For Haffejee, Vetten and Greyling, nearly 83% of the women had at least one child, and almost half of the women (45%) reported that they were the breadwinners in their homes before they were detained (2006).
Despite this fact, the focus of present research pertaining to female incarceration is not concerned with the role of motherhood as it relates to female offenders, except when the incarcerated women are mothers of ‘babies behind bars’ and then it is arguably the baby who is of greater public interest (Haffejee, Vetten & Greyling, 2006; Ferraro & Moe, 2003). Regardless, the fact that many mothers are mentioned as their children’s primary caretakers in studies concerning female offenders (Ackermann, 2014; Townhead, 2007; Glaze & Maruschak, 2010; Haffejee, Vetten & Greyling, 2006; Kjellstrand et. al., 2012) suggests that motherhood is central to their lives prior to their incarceration. A United States research study, conducted by Moe and Ferraro in 2006, focused on the position of motherhood in the lives of female detainees and related this role to these women’s criminality. They found that the pragmatic obligation to provide for their children, a position often made untenable due to poverty, abuse, and drug use, was inextricably connected to their motivations for committing crime (Moe & Ferraro, 2006). Indeed, the United Nations specifies motherhood and the “high likelihood of having caring responsibilities for their children, families and others” (UN Handbook on Women and Imprisonment, 2014, p.7), as a major factor in contributing to female offenders’ incarceration. Locally, the research of Artz, Hoffman-Wanderer and Moult identified and highlighted that responsibilities of care assigned to the women of their study, impacted upon their pathways to criminality (2012). Of their sample, 75% were mothers who stated that pregnancy and becoming a mother was a turning point in their lives, and “conceptualised their offending as a direct response to their responsibility to support their children, including children from their extended family who were in their care” (Artz, Hoffman-Wanderer & Moult, 2012, p. 15). Whether or not the responsibility of motherhood is a rationalisation for female offenders of their offending behaviour, it cannot be denied that the need to care for and protect children, in the context of poverty, poor education and abuse, acts as “both a constraint that limited women’s ability to make good choices as well as a catalyst for action with both positive and negative effects” (Artz, Hoffman-Wanderer & Moult, 2012, p. 16).


English Abstract 
Zulu Abstract 
Afrikaans Abstract 
Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations 
Chapter 1 
1. History of Incarcerated Women Worldwide
2. History of Incarcerated Women in South Africa
3. Situating the Study
4. Rationale and Research Aims
5. Thesis Overview
Chapter 2 Literature review 
1. Worldwide Profile of Female offenders
2. Profile of Female Offenders in South Africa
3. Universal pathways to offending
3.1. Victimisation and Violence
3.2. Feminisation of Poverty
3.3. Mental Illness and Offending
3.4. Motherhood and Crime
4. Female Offender Agency and the Victimisation Narrative
Chapter 3 Methodology 
1. Theoretical Perspective
2. Participant Selection and Sample Profile
3. Table 1. Demographic details of participants
4. Data Collection
5. The Research Context
6. Data Analysis
7. Ethical Considerations
Chapter 4 Explication of Data 
1. Victimisation and Violence
1.1. Childhood Abuse and Mistreatment
1.2. Acquaintance Rape and Assault
1.3. Intimate Partner Violence
2. Feminisation of Poverty
2.1. Early Motherhood
2.2. Pressure to Provide as Breadwinner
2.3. Gendered Roles of Unpaid Labour and Caregiving
3. Mental Illness and Addiction
3.1. Anger, Depression and Suicide
3.2. Gambling and Substance Abuse
4. Experiences of Loss and Abandonment
4.1. Death, Loss and Grief
4.2. Poor relationships with Mother
4.3. Absent Fathers
5. Race and Language
5.1. Race, Identity and Language
6. The Role of Motherhood
6.1. Disintegration of the Family Structure
6.2. Dislocation and Isolation
6.3. Freedoms Lost and Gained
Chapter 5 Discussion of Findings 
1. Accountability and Agency
1.1. Agency with Limited Options
2. Patriarchy
2.1. Gendered Roles and Contexts
2.2. Victimisation and Isolation
3. Feminisation of Poverty
3.1. Female Breadwinners
3.2. Gendered Division of Labour
4. Motherhood and Offending
4.1. Maternal Role vs Paternal Role
4.2. The Motherhood Penalty 1
Chapter 6  Conclusions and Recommendations
Limitations and recommendations

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