Treatment and conditions of detention for women must be gender-sensitive, says CEDAW

Inga Abramova v Belarus, Communication No. 23/2009, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/49/D/20/2008 (29 August 2011)


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has found that Belarus’ treatment of a woman detained under administrative arrest violated articles 2(a)-2(b), 2(e)-2(f), 3 and 5(a) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), read in conjunction with article 1 and the Committee’s General Recommendation No. 19 on violence against women.


The District Court of Belarus found Inga Abramova guilty of “minor hooliganism” for hanging ribbons and posters calling for participation in the “European March,” and ordered her to serve five days administrative arrest. Abramova claimed that a male staff member subjected her to a body search, touched her inappropriately, and threatened to strip her naked. She further claimed that she was detained in an underground cell in a facility staffed entirely by men.  According to Abramova, the facility housed persons detained on criminal charges as well as those under administrative arrest. Among other things, Abramova also claimed that: she was only fed twice a day; the heating system was turned off, despite almost freezing temperatures; there was inadequate light and ventilation; other prisoners and male staff could watch her use the toilet; and she was subjected to frequent humiliating comments.

Following unsuccessful attempts to obtain redress at the domestic level, Abramova submitted a communication to the Committee in which she alleged violations of articles 2(a)-2(b), 2(e)-2(f), 3 and 5(a) of CEDAW, read in conjunction with article 1. In a further submission to the Committee, the author reiterated that her communication was concerned primarily with the discrimination she experienced as a woman detained at the aforementioned facility, rather than the conditions of detention per se.


The Committee found that Belarus’ treatment of Inga Abramova constituted discrimination and sexual harassment, in violation of articles 2(a)-2(b), 2(e)-2(f), 3 and 5(a) of CEDAW, read in conjunction with article 1 and the Committee’s General Recommendation No 19. In reaching its determination, the Committee also took into account rule 53 of the Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners and the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders.

In reaching its views, the Committee reiterated that failure of detention facilities to adopt a gender-sensitive approach to the specific needs of women prisoners constitutes discrimination, within the meaning of article 1 of CEDAW. Recalling rule 53 of the Standard Minimum Rules, which is consistent with the definition of discrimination against women in article 1 of CEDAW, the Committee explained that:

  • In an institution for both men and women, the part of the institution set aside for women shall be under the authority of a responsible woman officer who shall have the custody of the keys of all that part of the institution.
  • No male member of staff shall enter the part of the institution set aside for women unless accompanied by a woman officer.
  • Women prisoners should be attended and supervised only by women officers.

The Committee further reiterated that sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence against women that is prohibited under CEDAW.

In its recommendations, the Committee called on Belarus to provide appropriate reparation, including compensation, to Abramova. In addition, it recommended that Belarus take measures to, inter alia: protect the dignity, privacy and physical and psychological safety of women detainees; ensure access to gender-specific health care for women detainees; and provide safeguards to protect women detainees from all forms of abuse, including gender-specific abuse.

Relevance to the Victorian Charter

The Victorian Charter makes no express reference to the obligations of public authorities with respect to women prisoners. However, several Charter rights, when interpreted together, impose obligations on public authorities to adopt measures to address the specific needs of women prisoners and protect them against discrimination and harassment. These include the rights to non-discrimination and equality (s 8), freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (s 10), freedom from arbitrary interference in private life (s 13), and the right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty (s 22).

The decision is available at:

Simone Cusack is Senior Policy & Research Officer in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Sex and Age Discrimination Unit