Feminism in Crime


– Ms. Sonal Dass

Asst. Professor,

Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur

Fairness consists of people in similar circumstances being treated in similar ways, but it must be recognized that men and women do not necessarily appear in similar circumstances.2

Until the past few decades, women were virtually invisible in the literature on crime. They being almost half the total population of the world should have been represented more. This article aims to add to the existing limited body of literature on women criminals.

The main theme of the paper is feminism intermingled with female criminology and victim ology. The paper throws light on what causes a women to enter in the world of crime and what problems they face afterwards specially during their prison experience. Observing the available statistics revealing that there is only a small number of female criminals as compared to male criminals, it can be easily construed that the whole criminal and penal system is dominated by the needs of men, and women are inappropriately fitted into what was modeled or designed for men. Failing to recognize female offenders as a unique group is detrimental not only to their individual prison experience but also to the overall effectiveness of imprisonment as a punitive sanction for women. It is indeed the demand of time that there should be gender sensitization even in the field of criminal laws, reformation and rehabilitation programmes and prison system.

The research is based on secondary sources of data.

Feminism In Crime

Women are traditionally seen as being law-abiding members of the society and from the available statistics, crime appears to be largely a male activity. The various theories of criminality have been developed from male subjects but have been extended generally to include all criminals including women; and this is where the idea of feminism in criminology entered.

1 Asst. Lecturer , HNLU Raipur Chhattisgarh

2 Hedderman, C. and Gelsthorpe, L. (1997) Understanding the Sentencing of Women, A Research and Statistics Directorate Report. London: Home Office

Feminism is a set of theories about women’s oppression and a set of strategies to change it.3 Female criminology inculcated with feminism, is concerned with victimization of women and covers issues such as female delinquency, gender inequality and criminal justice system. It seeks to establish that men and women are different in all spheres of life and so laws, correctional programmes and prison system should be so designed to cover the specific areas dealing with females. Feminism aims to eliminate gender inequality in the field of criminal justice, the goal is not to push men out but to pull women in.

Evolution of Concept of Feminism

The evolution of feminist theory lies back to the period when various assumptions and stereotypes related with women in crime world where questioned. To have a better understanding about the topic, it is necessary to understand it from the point of its start. The feminist perspective in India is greatly influence by western world specifically U.S.A., so it is necessary that its origination at U.S.A. should be understood properly to deal efficiently with the topic.

A Brief History of Feminism in the United States:-

Feminism starts from the belief that men and women are inherently of equal worth and so to bring in equality and remove discrimination between the genders, there is necessity of social movements.

The first such movement also known as first wave of feminism started in the mid-1800s when women demanded the right to vote. In the Seneca Falls Convention, 1848 4, about 300 men and women participants established a “Declaration of Sentiments”5  as well as 12 resolutions. The Declaration of Sentiments stressed on the need for reforms in marriage, divorce, property and child custody laws.

The second wave of feminism developed in 1960,with demand of equal access to economic opportunities, sexual freedoms and civil liberties for women. This is the point where feminist criminology began to question assumptions and stereotypes concerning women in professions, andas offenders and victims in criminal world.

3 http://julianhermida.com/contfeminist.htm

4 On 14 July 1848, women placed a small notice in “Seneca”, New York announcing a “Women’s Right Convention.” Five days later, some 300 women and men approved a “Declaration of Sentiments” and 12 resolutions.

5 Modelled on Declaration of Independence

The third wave evolve around the late 1980s and 1990s. People show their willingness to accommodate difference, diversity and change. They were eager to understand how gender oppression and other kinds of human oppression co-create and co-maintain each other.

Based on feminism, a lot of theories on female criminology developed with time, one thing which is common in all of them is that all view women as a victim. Victim of men or of circumstances or of their own biological setup. After a scrutinized observation it is found that it is correct that in most of the cases women suffer and there is necessity to make an honest attempt to find out what facts makes women move towards crime and how they are affected once they commit crime.

Factors Responsible for Women’s Entry in Crime World

1. Exploitation:-

Exploitation at home or workplace proves to be one of the reasons behind female crimes. Such exploitation might be physical, mental or sexual. Women are more likely to suffer exploitation than their male counterparts. Women all over the world are subjected to beating, torture, mutilation, acid attacks, murders etc. Sexual exploitation and trafficking of women for prostitution, pornography are very common. Many times women see counter attack or ending the life of perpetrator as the last resort. Many women in jails guilty of violence are actually themselves former victims of violence.

2. Economic reasons

Females all over world are increasingly becoming economically marginalized6. More women than earlier are now the only, the major, or the joint breadwinner, and therefore the pressure of economic requirements are increasingly placed upon them. As women often inhabit low paid and insecure areas of employment they have tremendous pressure upon them. The inequality of payment is also one of the reasons more and more women in world are becoming economically marginalized. Not only in work of lower income, economic exploitation is common in high income professions too.

Women are more likely than men to be poor. From the official social security status over a number of years it is clear that 2/3 of adults supported by the social assistance income support scheme in Britain and Europe are women7. These increased strains may help to

6 Box, Steven (1987), Recession, Crime and Punishment, London: Macmillan Education

7 Williams, Katherine S., Textbook on Criminology Fourth Edition, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-566484-1

explain some of the increased female criminality, especially in the traditionally male criminal areas. Clearly, women plays a major role in society, and often fall under similar strains as those suffered by men.

3. Honour Killing

Although the term in itself is vague, but is widely used for explaining killing of individuals by their own relatives because of their love affairs or intimate relations with some individual, the relations which in the opinion of perpetrators, tend to lower the family’s respect in society. It has been found that a lot of women are involved in honour killings as main offender or as accomplice in Asia, and Asian families in other continents. It is quite fateful that women offenders in honour killing commit serious offences against other women.

Contemporary female criminals: breaking old myths

It is no doubt true that while playing vital roles as mother, wife and daughter women tend to refrain themselves from committing crimes which can degrade them in society or family or can affect their families, but with change in society this frame is also changing. Contemporary crimes of women in the past few decades shows that women offenders are influenced by changing societical arrangement. Many of the recent crimes shows that there are a lot of other causes which motivates the women of present era to proceed towards criminal acts.

1. Wars and Violence

Another dreadful reasons motivating women to commit serious crimes. Wars and violence whether by State itself or by insurgents always ends up in loss of persons and property. Children and women are the one who are most affected by it. Many of the women most wanted belongs to such war groups who in order to save their homes, families and land are indulged into criminal acts of assault and murders. The unique feature about this kind of crimes is that though opposed or blacklisted by the State, the women offenders of this kind look over themselves as warriors and do not found any wrong in their act.

Another dark side of wars and violence afflicted areas is crimes like prostitution and human trafficking. Women and children of such areas are increasingly indulged into these crimes either as offender or as victims.

2. Increased Opportunities for Female types of crime

The increase in female offenders is not only because of economic marginalization but also because of increase in the opportunities for crime8. With the idea of women empowerment a huge number of women are now becoming economically independent and thereby is an increase in the number of opportunities for crime commission. Women are more inclined towards commission of crimes which do not require much criminal skill and in those crimes which are easily accessible in their roles as consumers and heads of families like shop lifting , check frauds, credit card misuse etc.

3. Crimes due to drugs

Illicit drug use is one of the major reason of increased female crimes trends, although it is still male offenders who are more arrested for drug use crimes but still drug dependency amplifies income-generating crimes. Drug dependency bring women in contact with drug-dependent men who use them as accomplice or exploit them for money and thereby pushing them in crime world many times in violent crimes (E.Miller,1986 ; Steffensmeier& Terry,1986 )

Statistics about Female Offenders

1. United States

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, through Uniform Crime Reporting Program, collects crime and data from more than 18000 cities and state law enforcement agencies9. The data reveals following information:-

1. In U.S.A. in year 2012, Law enforcement agencies made an estimated 12,196,959 arrests excluding arrests for traffic violations, 26.2% of which were of females10.

2. According to OJJDP’s11 Juvenile Court Statistics 2010, Juvenile Court handled an estimated 1,368, 200 cases in 2010, of which females accounted for 28%.The study reported that in between year 1985 to 2010, there is an increase in female delinquency at an average rate of 2%.

3. According to OJJDP’s 2011 Survey of Youth in Residential Placement 12, 14% of all youth in residential placement were females.

8 Zaplin, Ruth T. , Female Offenders: Critical Perspectives and Effective Interventions, Jones and Bartllet learning, 2008

9 www.ncjrs.gov/spotlight/wgcjs/facts.html/dated 21.9.2015

10 Crime in the U.S.,2012, released in November 2013

11 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s Juvenile Court Statistics 2010, released in June 2013

12 Juvenile in Residential Placement ,2011, released in August 2014

4. According to the BJS statistical tablets report,201313, the female inmates increased 10.9% between midyear 2010 and 2013.

5. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’Annual Probation Survey and Annual Parole Survey reported that in 2010 approx 19% of the federal offenders under supervision were females but in 2012 approx 11% females were on Parole and approx 24% on Probation were females.

2. In United Kingdom

The statistics of UK reveal that there is considerably lower number of female criminals than male criminals. In United Kingdom female prisoners comprise just 5% of the total UK prison population14.

3. In India

According to National Crime Records Bereau, Prison Statistics India 201415 report:-

1. The female prisoners contribute 18% of the total prison population. There are 16,951 number of female prisoners in the country.

2. There are total 1,394 jails and 20 are reserved for women. Of the female inmates, the highest number belongs to the age group of 18-50.

3. Another alarming revelation is that while only one correctional staff (psychologists, counselors and social workers) per 245 women inmates is available, the ratio for medical staff in such prisons stood at one for every 105 inmates.

4. Within the prison premises, 55 female prisoners died in 2012, of which 47 were reported as natural deaths, 5 as suicides and rest 3 as a result of assault by outsiders.

a. The arrest pattern reveals that there is an increase in crimes committed by women in past few years but still such crimes are much less as compared to crimes committed by males.

b. Women are also less involved in serious crimes and mostly commit minor crimes like shop-lifting, forgery, breaking traffic rules, frauds, misuse of credit cards. The loss caused by them are comparatively less than that caused by males.

c. In cases of serious offences like murder the case studies reveal that such female offenders generally were themselves former victims of domestic violence or to protect their children they commit violence.

13 Bureau of Justice Statistics resource Jail Inmates at Midyear 2013 statistical Tablets featuring data collected from the Annual Survey of Jails.

14 Berman, G. (2012)Prison Population Statistics, SN/SG/4334. London: House of Commons, Social and General


15 http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-india-has-16951-women-prisoners-national-crime-records-bureau- 2016953/ dated 19/04/2016

d. Females are also less likely to become habitual offender16.

e. Generally women offenders act solo. If they are gang members they use to be part of male gangs. At the onset of twenty-first century, some female gangs evolved but they are few and less violent than male gangs. Such female gangs also operate for less time than male gangs.

Role of Criminal Justice System Towards Female Criminals

The functionaries of criminal justice system namely police, prosecution, judiciary and correctional institutions exhibit a different behavior toward women offenders. In many countries, law show some leniency towards female offenders. Women offenders are less likely to be jailed or imprisoned the reasons being pregnancy, responsibilities for small children the greater likelihood to demonstrate remorse, and perceptions that women are less dangerous and more amenable to rehabilitation17. But still the actual fact is women offenders are not always benefitted by leniency in law. The functionaries of criminal justice system being part of society have opinion in most of the cases that women who commits crimes lack self control, self discipline and are unfit for social life. While women offenders do suffer all the same deprivations, indignities and degradation as male offenders, they suffer some additional that are specific to them as female offenders.

Problems Faced by Female Offenders

1. Health Need

Although men and women face many similar health problems like communicable diseases, substance abuse, mental illness but women are likely to have additional needs with respect to gynecological health, maternity and psychological health relating to physical, emotional or sexual abuse18. They are often stereotyped as being responsible for their own health problems and are deemed unworthy of quality care19.

2. Pregnancy

Pregnant women require specialized attention with respect to diet, medication , medical care, exercise and clothing, the prison environment is incompatible with the needs and care of a pregnant body.

16 Steffensmeier, D. (1983). Sex-segregation in the underworld: Building a sociological explanation of sex differences in crime. Social Forces, 61, 1010-1032

17 Steffensmeier, D., Kramer, J. , and Streifel, C. (1993). Gender & imprisonment decisions. Criminology, 31, 411-446

18 Ash, B. (2003)Working with Women Prisoners,4th edition, HM Prison Service: Women’s Estate Policy Unit. www.hmprisonservice.gov.uk/…/10000339 Working with Women Prisoners.doc /dated 29/9/2015

19 Wolf, A.M. Silva, Knight, K.E. and Javdani, S. (2007) Responding to the Health Needs of Female Offenders.

3. Mental Health

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2009 report states that mental health problems of women in prison are frequently a result of lifetime abuse and victimization. In UK up to 80% of female prisoners have diagnosable mental health issues20 , covering all problems ranging from depression, anxiety to neurosis, pychosis. There’s a greater prevalence of self harm tendency among female offender. The Ministry of Justice UK states that approximately 30% of women in prison self harmed themselves as compared to 7%of men21.

4. Separation from children

One of the issues which is different for women prison inmates is there status as mothers and primary carers of young children which makes their prison experience really difficult. While in most of the cases the children of males prisoners are cared by their spouses the same is not the case with female prisoners. Devlin22 noted that while 91% of the male prisoners leave their children in the care of the child’s mother, Corston23 asserts that just 9% of the children are cared for by their fathers while mothers are in prison, the remaining children 25% are cared by their grandmothers while the rest are sent to some fostering or other arrangements. Mothers feel helpless to intervene in these circumstances and undergo stress and worry about the care of their children as a result frustration and anger accumulate within them resulting in breaches of prison discipline, self harm and even suicide.

It seems clear that the current prison system does not fit with the specific needs of female prisoners. The small numbers of female prisoners should not excuse their apparent submersion into the majority male population; instead the policy makers should capitalise on this group as a way of experimenting with new ideas and initiatives.

Revictimization:- Women offenders are more likely to be revictimized by society. Since women are always expected to be law abiding and obedient person, a female offender even after her release is taken as someone who is not fit to be a part of society. Although male offenders also suffer disbelief of society but women offenders are traumatized more.

20 Corston, J. (2007)The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London: Home Office.

21 Ministry of Justice(2011) Safety in Custody 2010 England and Wales.; www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/statistics

/mojstats/safety-custody-2010.pdf / dated 29/9/2015

22 Devlin, A. (1998) Invisible Women, Winchester: Waterside Press

23 Corston,J. (2007) The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London: Home Office.


Female criminal behavior has been commonly perceived as a less serious problem than male criminal behavior. Women have been more likely to commit minor offenses and have made up only a small proportion of the offender population. These facts cannot concealed a trend in the rising percentage of female offenders, their participation in violent crimes.

Equal treatment for men and women is a matter of approach not outcome. The underlying assumption is that fairness consists of people in similar circumstances being treated in similar ways, but it must be recognized that men and women do not necessarily appear in similar circumstances24.

Female prisoners should receive a different treatment because of the fact that they differ in every sense whether it is in relation to the offence committed by them, criminogenic factors, coping behavior or healthcare needs. This means that women should have equal access to correctional and reformation programmes but still with difference in the content. Most of these programmes are not gender specific and have been designed for use of men, focusing on their criminogenic needs, alcohol, drug abuse and unemployment. These programmes are also used with women but fails to address the factors which is unique to them and fails to cover the issues which are more significant for them.

“Women offenders have needs different from those of men, stemming in part from their disproportionate victimization from sexual or physical abuse and their responsibility for children. They are also more likely to be addicted to drugs and to have mental illness25. There is greater prevalence of illness amongst the female offenders but the provision and the spending in this area are insufficient to deal with the scale of this issue. There is need of development of gender-specific programs to address the issue.


1. State shall provide for more effective detection, prosecution and correction of women perpetrators.

24 Hedderman, C. and Gelsthorpe, L. (1997) Understanding the Sentencing of Women, A Research and Statistics Directorate Report. London: Home Office

25 Women Offenders: Programming Needs and Promising Approaches ,National Institute of Justice./dated


2. State shall take measures to reduce the risk of repeat victimization of women offenders who themselves were victims of crimes at first footing

3. Such offenders should be provided with assistance like first aid, emergency medical attention, post-trauma counseling, family counseling, de-addiction treatment.

4. The right of privacy of such offenders should be guarded.

5. More improved prison system meeting with specific needs of females should be established. Although India is having the credit of establishment of first female prison but there is need of more.

6. Correctional measures like Parole, Probation, Furlough should be abundantly used with these offenders.

7. They should be provided vocational training during sentencing time so that after their release they can earn their own livelihood, as many of the crimes against women happen because they are dependent on others for financial needs.

8. If these offenders show reformation during sentencing then at the time of their release they should be provided with financial help.

9. There is need of research in the field of female criminal behavior, reporting causes of female crimes and specific needs of female offenders.