Hong Kong Imprisons More Women Per Capita Than Any Other Country

One-fifth of Hong Kong’s prison population is female, the highest proportion of any major country in the world. Activists say local laws are stacked against women, in particular foreign women.

photo: A large proportion of Hong Kong's female inmate population are foreign-born. EyePress/Ng Hiu Tung

HONG KONG – The gleaming skyscrapers of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour hide a troubling statistic. A little over 20 percent of the Hong Kong’s prison population are women – a higher proportion than any major nation in the world, according to the latest data compiled by the Institute Centre for Prison Studies (ICPR).

“The numbers are staggering,” said Sharron Fast, a lecturer at Hong Kong University’s Faculty of Law.

“As special administrative regions of China, Hong Kong and Macau enjoy relatively greater freedom than mainland China – including a supposedly better justice system. But here lies one of the least-known public secrets.”

The high proportion of female prisoners in Hong Kong is emblematic of the situation in Asia. Four jurisdictions in Asia – Hong Kong, Laos, Myanmar and Macau – are ranked in the top five in terms of percentage of women in the prison system. The median of female prisoners in Asia sits at 6% of the continent’s total prison population, well above the global median of 4.4%.

Why Women Go to Prison

What is unique in Hong Kong’s penal system is not only the high proportion of female prisoners, but also the large share of foreign women among them.

Foreign women account for more than half of Hong Kong’s 1,773 female inmates, and hail primarily from mainland China, Vietnam and Indonesia, according to the data obtained from the Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department.

Nancy Kissel, an American woman jailed for life in 2005 for murdering her banker husband, is the most infamous female inmate in Hong Kong. But Kissel was an outlier: Most women in Hong Kong’s prisons were convicted of nonviolent crimes.

The majority of foreign women in Hong Kong are jailed for immigration violations such as working while on a tourist visa (a common conviction for foreign sex workers) and offenses against property (which includes theft), says the Correctional Services Department. The top two crimes that land local women in jail are offenses against property and drug-related crimes.

“Women who have little formal education or who lack employment opportunities are those most frequently found to be involved in the drug trade.”

“Criminal justice data indicate that an increasing number of women are arrested for drug-related crimes,” says Gloria Lai, a senior officer at the Bangkok-based International Drug Policy Consortium.

“Women who have little formal education or who lack employment opportunities are those most frequently found to be involved in the drug trade.”

Imprisoning Mothers Affects Children

Venus Lau spent three and half years at Hong Kong’s Lo Wu prison for drug trafficking, having entered the trade to try to pay off her husband’s debts. The 38-year-old Hongkonger gave birth to a daughter, and raised the child inside the prison until Lau’s release in December 2014.

“I told the [prison’s] administrators that I was inside for a long time, and my child was growing up.”

“To limit her in the same space 24/7 was inhumane. There was really nothing for kids to play with inside. [My daughter] literally could only sit with me.”


Comments (2)
No. 1-2


@stevenjean92 I was completely shocked as well!!


not a good sign. Shocked