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Making the Invisible Visible

By Amy Bergquist
October 23, 2023
CEDAW Committee CEDAW Committee

Making the Invisible Visible: The Advocates Briefs UN Experts to Shed Light on Women Sentenced to Death

"Briefings like this are fantastic!" "It has been an eye-opener." "Very enlightening!"

These were some of the words of praise we received today from experts on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

I'm part of a civil society team here in Geneva to introduce the experts to a new project that combines two of The Advocates' areas of expertise: the death penalty and women's rights. In conjunction with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, we're collaborating with partners around the world to document human rights violations against women who are sentenced to death.

The project builds on the World Coalition's 2021 World Day Against the Death Penalty, highlighting theme Women Sentenced to Death: An Invisible Reality. The Cornell Center has documented that women under sentence of death around the world experience gender-based discrimination in legal proceedings. For example, due to narrow definitions of self-defense, courts often fail to account for a woman's history of facing protracted domestic violence when she kills her abuser. For women sentenced to death for drug-related offenses, gender shapes their pathways to drug offending, yet courts fail to account for those gendered factors when handing down sentences.

Since 2021, The Advocates has submitted nearly 30 reports on death penalty issues to the CEDAW Committee.

Today we had a closed-door briefing with Committee experts to shed light on this invisible reality:

  • Sunny Jacobs talked about her experiences as a survivor of Florida's death row. She and her husband had been sentenced to death for shooting and killing a police officer, even though forensic evidence showed that there was no gunpowder residue on Sunny, and another man in the vehicle later confessed to being the sole assailant. One juror said that "one of the reasons they wanted to sentence me to death was to make an example of a woman." She told the Committee experts that women are sentenced more harshly than men for the same crimes, and they do more time, and their detention conditions are harsher. For example, because she was the only woman in Florida under sentence of death, she was kept in solitary confinement for more than five years, with guards ordered not to speak to her other than to give her orders.
  • Chow Ying Ngeow from the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network spoke about women sentenced to death in Malaysia. She told the experts that of the 134 women on death row in her country, 85% are foreign nationals, and all but one are under sentence of death for drug-related offenses. Chow Ying observed that these migrant workers are desperate to uplift their economic situation to support their children, and transporting drugs "is just one of the jobs they are asked to complete. A lot of these women have intersectional marginalization and vulnerabilities."
  • Chow Ying expressed excitement that the Committee plans to review Malaysia's human rights record early next year. Malaysia recently abolished the mandatory death penalty for drug crimes, so courts now have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances that may warrant a sentence other than death. It's not clear, however, whether Malaysian courts will take gender-related mitigation into account when considering an offender's culpability. The CEDAW Committee's review will come at a perfect time to influence authorities as they carry out resentencings.
  • Chelsea Halstead, Director of the Cornell Center, framed the issues from the context of her organization's research on women and the death penalty. "What we found was really shocking. There was no data. We struggled to find empirical data on women who were sentenced to death." She told the experts that because the number of women under sentence of death is relatively small, "there has been almost no advocacy, and a huge dearth of research." And because of the information vacuum, there's also a void when it comes to advocacy. Cornell's research showed that women on death row around the world are "the very most vulnerable people in society." She told the experts that even though there's a perception that women may benefit from gender-based discrimination in court, "we actually found that for women accused of serious crimes, who didn't conform to gender norms, the opposite was true. They were sentenced for longer, and their detention conditions were worse." "Women are underprotected by the State when they are victims, but they are overpenalized when they are perpetrators."
  • Méline Szwarcberg, Women and Gender Project Manager at the World Coalition, facilitated the discussion and also played a brief video statement from another death row survivor, Sabrina Butler. In 1990, a Mississippi court had wrongfully convicted Sabrina as a teenager for the alleged murder of her 9-month-old son, and she was exonerated in 1995, becoming the first woman in the United States to be exonerated from death row. Sabrina told the experts that one of her defense attorneys was a divorce attorney and was drunk throughout the proceedings. "I lost my life to an unjust system," Sabrina testified.
  • I emphasized the role Committee experts can play in helping amplify the voices of women like Sabrina and Sunny. We struggle to find information about women on death row, but the Committee can ask governments to publish this information. I explained that it would be particularly helpful for the Committee to ask for information disaggregated by crime of conviction, as well as by any relationship between the woman offender and the victim (such as Sabrina and her child), or any codefendant (such as Sunny and her husband). This information would help advocates paint a clearer picture of the circumstances that lead to women being charged with serious crimes.

We promised to follow up with more information and to stay in touch with the experts any time the CEDAW Committee plans to review a country that retains the death penalty.

To learn more about issues relating to women, gender, and the death penalty in more than two dozen countries around the world, read our latest reports to the CEDAW Committee.

Amy Bergquist is the Associate Program Director of the International Justice Program at The Advocates for Human Rights. She represents The Advocates on the Steering Committee of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and just completed her third term as Vice President of the Coalition.

Photo: CEDAW Committee briefing panel, from left to right: Chow Ying Ngeow from ADPAN, Chelsea Halstead from the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, Méline Szwarcberg from the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Marion Bethel (CEDAW Committee expert from the Bahamas), Sunny Jacobs from the Sunny Center Foundation, and Amy Bergquist from The Advocates for Human Rights