Treatment of woman in detention violated CEDAW (Inga Abramova v. Belarus)


The Lenin District Court of Belarus found Inga Abramova guilty of ‘minor hooliganism’ for hanging ribbons and posters calling for participation in the ‘European March.’  It subsequently ordered her to serve five days administrative arrest. 

Abramova claimed that, during her detention, a male staff member subjected her to a body search, touched her inappropriately, and threatened to strip her naked.  She further claimed that she had been detained in an underground cell in a detention 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 frequently subjected to humiliating comments. 

Following unsuccessful attempts to obtain redress at the domestic level, Abramova submitted a communication to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), in which she alleged violations of 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.  She also claimed breaches of articles 7 and 10(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and rule 53(3) of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.  

In her communication, Abramova submitted that she had been detained in poor, unhygienic and degrading conditions in a facility staffed exclusively by men.  She further claimed that she had been subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment and that the failure of Belarus to adapt its detention facilities for women constituted discrimination on the ground of sex.  Abramova also claimed that her ‘conditions of detention were worse than those of male prisoners, since she was the object of sexual harassment and was subjected to degrading treatment.’  

In a supplementary submission to the CEDAW Committee, Abramova clarified that her communication was concerned primarily with the discrimination she experienced as a woman detained at the aforementioned facility, rather than the conditions of her detention per se.  She also alleged that Belarus had violated article 7(b) of CEDAW, by hiring only men to work in its detention facilities.     

Belarus’ observations on admissibility

Belarus contested the admissibility of the communication on two grounds.

Failure to exhaust domestic remedies

First, it claimed that Abramova had failed to exhaust domestic remedies, as required by article 4(1) of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Optional Protocol).  According to Belarus, Abramova had failed to submit any complaints concerning the conditions of her detention to the administration of the detention facility or the Minister of the Interior.

Failure to substantiate claims

Second, Belarus claimed that Abramova had failed to substantiate her claims under CEDAW, as required by article 4(2)(c) of the Optional Protocol.

CEDAW Committee’s decision on admissibility

The CEDAW Committee declared the communication admissible. In doing so, it found that Abramova had ‘diligently pursued domestic remedies, by addressing her complaints to the competent authorities of the internal affairs organs, to the Prosecutor’s Office, as well as to the national courts.’  It also found that Abramova had sufficiently substantiated her claims for the purposes of admissibility. 

Belarus’ observations on the merits

Belarus rejected Abramova’s claims that it had violated CEDAW.  It submitted that: the cells at the detention facility where Abramova was detained were intended to house women; men, women and persons with previous convictions are detained separately; and, the facilities and services for detainees are adequate.

CEDAW Committee’s views

The CEDAW 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 on violence against women.  In reaching its determination, the CEDAW Committee also took 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 into account.

In reaching its views, the CEDAW 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 the Committee explained is consistent with the definition of discrimination against women in article 1 of CEDAW, the Committee noted:

(1)    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.

(2)    No male member of staff shall enter the part of the institution set aside for women unless accompanied by a woman officer.

(3)    Women prisoners should be attended and supervised only by women officers.

In its views, the CEDAW Committee reiterated that sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence against women prohibited under CEDAW and that ‘respect for women prisoners’ privacy and dignity must be a high priority for the prison staff.’  It went on to conclude that the disrespectful treatment of Abramova, including inappropriate touching and unjustified interference with her privacy, constituted sexual harassment and discrimination.   

In its recommendations, the CEDAW Committee called on Belarus to provide appropriate reparation, including compensation, to Abramova.  It further 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.  

Communication No. 23/2009, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/49/D/20/2008 (27 September 2011)