Capital punishment | 10.10.2021

19th World Day against the Death Penalty - Women and the death penalty, an invisible reality

UIA-IROL and the UIA Women’s Committee join voices with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and abolitionist organizations all over the world to commemorate the 19th World Day Against the Death Penalty.

While we reiterate our commitment to the universal abolition of the death penalty, we would like to draw special attention to the focus of the 19th World Day, which is the plight of women who risk being sentenced to death, who have received a death sentence, who have been executed, and/or who have had their death sentences commuted, exonerated, or pardoned.

Since women constitute a small minority of individuals facing death penalty worldwide [1], we note with concern that their particular situation has remained generally unaddressed, including under international law. As highlighted by the World Coalition’s report, even the relatively scarce statistical information available indicates that significant patterns of arbitrariness and discrimination arise from the application of the death penalty to women.

Among other very concerning issues, gender-bias has been observed in relation to the crimes for which women are charged and eventually convicted to death, including regarding murder cases [2] , offenses related to sexual morality [3] and charges such as “blasphemy”. In general, women sentenced to death are often perceived as betraying traditional gender roles [4]. Disturbingly, mitigating circumstances connected with gender-based discriminations, such as domestic and sexual abuse, are too often disregarded or neglected during arrest and trial, including when there is evidence in support of self-defense. In this regard, the imposition of the death penalty as mandatory sentencing for certain offenses is of particular concern.

Furthermore, discrimination against women is exacerbated by intersecting factors, such as a social-economic situation, race, ethnicity, migration status and psychosocial or intellectual disabilities, all of which have been themselves repeatedly pointed out as disproportionally impacting the application of the death penalty. Identifying and understanding underlying discrimination against women can therefore contribute to a better understanding, and help address, other discriminatory impositions of the death penalty.

Although under international law, women are protected from execution under certain circumstances, these protections mainly focus on a woman’s role as mother and caregiver and are therefore reserved to women who fill those roles.

With respect to living conditions on death row, individuals sentenced to death are exposed to particularly harsh and, even inhumane, prison conditions. While, in certain instances, conditions of incarceration for woman can be better than prison conditions for men, women on death row face additional barriers due to their distinctive needs, such as lack or inadequate gender-sensitive health services; threats of gender-violence; and restrictive contact with family. States continue to fail to address this particular issue, despite existing international standards [5] .

Therefore, the best approach to ensure equality is the abolition of the death penalty everywhere, in all cases and circumstances, and we continue to call upon States to join the global trend towards the abolition of the death penalty [6].

In the path of achieving abolition, we echo the recommendations made in the World Day FactSheet to States that have yet to abolish the death penalty/ still retain the death penalty, namely:

a. Eliminate the death penalty for offences that do not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes” under international law and standards;

b. Repeal provisions that allow for the mandatory imposition of the death penalty, which does not allow judges to consider the circumstances of the offence or of the defendant at sentencing;

c. Acknowledge the compounding forms of violence suffered by girls and women—including gender based violence and early and forced marriage – and review laws, criminal procedures and judicial practices, and implement policies and legislative reforms to protect against such abuses and prevent the disproportionate detention of women, such as so-called “moral/sexual crimes”, as well as to ensure that they take full account of women’s backgrounds, including histories of prior abuse and mental and intellectual disabilities;

d. Ensure the training of all those involved in the investigation, representation and prosecution of crimes involving women;

e. Ensure that all those facing the death penalty have access to free and effective legal counsel specialized in capital representation, and that are trained to recognize and bring forward claims of gender-specific defenses.

f. Increase the number of women involved in decision-making positions within legal systems, including judges, prosecutors, and court administrators;

g. Develop and implement programmes to prevent gender-based violence and discrimination, ensuring that access to justice, protection measures and legal, social, and medical services are designed and implemented in a manner that ensures inclusion and accessibility for all, including those particularly vulnerable.

We encourage UIA members as well as the international legal community to learn more about the 19th World Day, and invite all, individually and/or collectively, to support, engage in and replicate, within and beyond the courts, the efforts undertaken to highlight discriminatory and disproportionate application of the death penalty to women, while advocating for the universal abolition of the death penalty.


[1] According to the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide “women represent less than 5% of the world’s death row population and less than 5% of the world’s executions. See “Judged for More Than Her Crime: A Global Study of Women Facing the Death Penalty”, September 2018. See also the related article available at the Juriste International 2018-4, p.46-48.
[2] It has been reported that in most cases, women are accused of crimes involving murders of close family members in a context of gender-based violence (see report mentioned in note 1 above).
I.e. adultery, extramarital sexual relations and consensual same-sex relations.
See report mentioned in note 1 above.
In line with the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Sanctions for Women Offenders (“Bangkok Rules”), as well as other related international standards and norms.
According to Amnesty International, 109 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. A total of 123 UN member states voted in favor of the December 2020 UNGA resolution calling for a moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the death penalty, including Djibouti, Jordan, Lebanon and South Korea, which supported the resolution for the first time. This resolution includes language related to gender inequality and death penalty practice.