MONICA KELLY WRITES — Is prison population growth an indicator of justice in Asia?

On November 2, Hong Kong officials announced a record-breaking seizure of over half-a-ton of methamphetamine reportedly worth $39 million USD. Drug trafficking is not new to Asia: the continent’s meth trade is estimated to be worth $61 billion dollars today. Yet recent reports on mass incarceration in Asia state that Asia’s War on Drugs disproportionately affects women. Today, East Asia and Southeast Asia comprise the world’s largest proportion of female prisoners – most of whom are jailed for drug-trafficking.

The UN’s High Commission for Human Rights expressed concern over the harsh punishments levied to women for lower-level drug crimes. Women couriers prosecuted in Hong Kong may face 14 to 20 years in federal prison, whereas men accused of higher-level crimes face much less severe sentences. Worse, the lower women are on the drug-chain, the less information they have to trade for a plea deal, resulting in tougher sentences. This gender inequality in Asia results in women having less access to bail and legal representation than men, which explains why six out of the ten countries with the highest proportions of female prisoners are in Asia.

The correlation between gender equality and poverty is often overlooked in criminal justice, but recent data speaks to the importance of this relationship. 50 percent of women in South Asia are still concentrated in low-paying agriculture, forcing them to turn to drug-trafficking to support their families.

“Your access to justice is pretty much dependent on how deep your pockets are” said Malaysian criminal justice lawyer N Sinathan in a statement to CNN. 95 percent of women on Death Row in Malaysia in 2019 were convicted of drug trafficking.

The bottom line is: Asia’s crackdown on drugs targets vulnerable women, rather than the systemic and institutional issues that result in drug trade. That needs to change.

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