Women in prison ignored by feminist funders that find them less ‘marketable’, says NGO head

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty</span>
Photograph: Anadolu/Getty

The global feminist movement is failing to support organisations working with women in prison, as donors shy away from funding projects aimed at people with “complicated” narratives, says lawyer and activist Sabrina Mahtani.

Mahtani, founder of Women Beyond Walls (WBW), said many NGOs around the world were doing vital work “supporting some of the most marginalised and overlooked women” in society, including providing essential legal services and reducing pretrial detention time.

But their futures were insecure, partly because of insufficient funding from mainstream feminist organisations as well as other donors, she said.

In a survey published by WBW, more than 60% of organisations working with incarcerated women said they were in a precarious financial situation, and more than a quarter said they may be unable to operate next year due to a lack of funds.

Perhaps most strikingly, however, more than 70% said they did not receive funding from women’s rights or feminist foundations. “Foundations that fund feminist organisations etc [sic] are not interested in incarceration issues,” said one organisation.

Another added: “There is generally a negative perception about women in prison or prisoners that make it hard for society to support [them]. The question of crime is never an interest to most donors or corporate [funders] and many would choose not to associate themselves with prisons.”

A third said: “In the broader women’s rights movement it is very difficult to embrace work in prisons and funders exclude such initiatives. They base their argument on the [small] number of women [in prison] versus the number of men.”

Though there is a lack of precise data, Penal Reform International put the global female prison population at about 740,000 – not quite 7% of the global total.

Mahtani, a Zambian-British lawyer, said: “These are some of the most marginalised women and, really, we shouldn’t be looking at numbers; we should be looking at who are the women who most need support and help and actually that’s a core tenet of feminist funding principles: […] fund those who are most [subjected to] gendered oppression.”

Asked why donors, including those focused on women’s rights, were shying away from such organisations, Mahtani said: “I think it’s overlooked because we like to support women if they fit into the stereotype of what is ‘marketable’,” suggesting that groups were often working with women who did not fit into a neat profile of victimhood.

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“Maybe there’s a woman who has been subjected to domestic violence and one day she just snaps and she kills her husband in self-defence or as a reaction. That’s much more complicated, right? It’s more complicated to sell to your donors, to your board.”

At the Generation Equality Forum in June, more than $40bn (£30bn) was pledged to support efforts to tackle gender inequality. But, the WBW survey noted, “any attention to incarcerated women was notably absent”.

It has called for some of that funding to be used to support work with and for women and girls affected by the criminal justice system. “This is a really exciting opportunity now for donors and foundations who might have overlooked this issue to come and address it,” said Mahtani.

“We have specific portfolios focusing on LGBT rights, for example, or reproductive health rights. Why can’t we have specific portfolios focusing on women’s incarceration?”

The survey, Forgotten By Funders, features responses from 34 organisations in 24 countries, including Nigeria, South Africa, the UK, Australia and India.

• In the UK, call the national domestic abuse helpline on 0808 2000 247, or visit Women’s Aid. In the US, the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines may be found via www.befrienders.org.

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