Colombia: Example of Increased Criminality by Women

By Nataly Rendón González*

A prison in Colombia/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Emerging data about women’s involvement in criminal activities is stimulating debate on how best to understand – and solve – the problem. Research into female crime is still insipient, but Colombian researchers and officials have produced data indicating that the focus on male criminal behavior has obscured a growing problem among women. 

  • Female crime is increasing worldwide, and Colombia is no exception. The Centro de Investigación en Política Criminal reported in 2018 that the number of women in Colombian prisons grew 53 percent from 2000 to 2017, with drug-related offenses ranking highest. Between 1991 and 2018, the number of women in prison per 100,000 inhabitants increased by 219 percent, with 1,500 women deprived of liberty in 1991 and 7,944 in 2018.
  • Medellín has developed data providing an interesting context for analyzing the role of women in crime. Although the number of murders in the city decreased from the 1990s to 2014, Medellín remains among the cities with the highest homicide rates in the world – due to demobilized combatants and, especially, the increase of criminal gangs. Observers have also tracked an increase of women committing “minor” crimes, defined locally as crimes “easier” for women to perform because they do not “compromise physical integrity.”

Experts are debating whether the feminine “liberalization” – including women’s growing presence in educational, political, and economic contexts – could be fueling the trend. Expanding opportunity has allowed women to acquire greater skills and reduce the wage gap between genders – thereby decreasing incentives to participate in criminal activity. But some observers posit that the decrease in families’ ability to provide “surveillance and protection” of underage women has created circumstances in which less-successful women gravitate to crime. 

  • Universidad de los Andes Professor (and National Police Major) Ervyn Norza-Céspedes documented as long ago as 2012 that the crimes with the highest participation by women are theft (30.52 percent of female crime); manufacture, transport, possession of narcotics (32.54 percent); and assault (9.27 percent). The average violator is 27-36 years old and either works as a housekeeper or is unemployed.
  • Studies show that women with lower education and economic resources are most vulnerable. The National Penitentiary and Prison Institute of Colombia (INPEC) found that 69.7 percent of Colombian women in prison did not attend secondary school – a conclusion supported by other research confirming a correlation between education and criminal activity. INPEC also found that 66.9 percent of the women criminals lived in the country’s estratos 1 and 2 (roughly low-lower class and lower-class) and that 72.8 percent of them received incomes below two monthly minimum wages in the household.

Additional data collection, research, and analysis are obviously needed to better define the trends in female crimes, the causes, and the implications for society in Colombia and throughout the region. Although preliminary research showing the relationship between the different types of crime and the perpetrators’ socioeconomic and demographic characteristics appears logical, a deeper understanding will be particularly important to finding solutions to this growing problem. 

  • In theory, the increase in crimes committed by women could be controlled with public empowerment policies aimed at increasing employment opportunities for female housekeepers and less-educated women in lower socioeconomic estratos. Additionally, crime policy with a gender focus may include feasible and appropriate ways of reducing the opportunities that some women are currently seeing to commit crimes. This policy can be useful to improving reintegration possibilities and mitigating the vulnerabilities to which women are exposed when they come into the penal system. Further research may also aid the development of alternatives for caring for women who have committed crimes that do not involve physical violence – to help them embrace legal economic opportunities.

January 28, 2022

Nataly Rendón González teaches at the Escuela de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas of the Universidad EIA (formerly the Escuela de Ingeniería de Antioquia) and is a Global Scholar in AU’s Program for Gender Analysis in Economics.

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