8 things to remember when implementing a gender-sensitive approach to probation

Throughout the world, probation systems and community-based sentences have been designed for men and by men. Little focus has been given to the differing needs and experiences of women, and therefore the processes, tools and guidance have not fairly or adequately served women offenders. 

Omar evaluated PRI’s pilot project to improve the gender-sensitivity of these processes in Kenya.


The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the ‘Bangkok Rules’)[1] call for ‘gender-sensitive non-custodial measures’, however, little research and good practice is available on how to capture gender-specific information or to guide gender-specific design and implementation of non-custodial measures. There is a clear need to consider the background of women, as well as their current circumstances, such as pregnancy, being a mother or having other caretaking responsibilities, their employment status, their place of residency and whether they have any support from family, etc.

The project

The concept of the project was devised and implemented as a partnership between the Kenya Probation and Aftercare Service (KPAS) and Penal Reform International (PRI), funded by the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ), to investigate the experiences of women who had served non-custodial sentences and to use the findings as a basis for developing gender-sensitive tools and guidance to then be tested, refined and replicated elsewhere.

Why Kenya?

Kenya was selected as the best location for a pilot for several reasons, including the pre-existing strong working relationship between PRI and KPAS and the organisational capacity of the department to be able to realistically implement and sustain any reforms. The enthusiasm and readiness of KPAS to improve gender-sensitivity within their service was also a key factor. A final reason was that by selecting a middle-income country, the replicability of the pilot may be increased to a greater number of other contexts, compared to a country at either extreme of the socio-economic spectrum.

The evaluation

The evaluation consisted of both desk and field-based research, including interviews with a number of stakeholders in two pilot regions of Kenya, Kisumu and Nakuru. The resources created and interventions made during the project were assessed for Relevance, Effectiveness and Sustainability and recommendations were made for both institutionalising gender-sensitivity in the Kenyan system and for applying learning to international contexts. You can download the full evaluation here.

Eight things to not forget when implementing a gender-sensitive approach to probation are:

1       Stick to the standards

After speaking to several international technical experts as part of the evaluation, one of the clear and abiding messages that rang out from interviewees was that the close link to international standards, such as the UN Bangkok Rules, meant that while the research is specific to Kenya, the results can be used as a good practice example for other countries. A representative from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted:

‘The usefulness and beauty of the report is that it follows in such positive manner the international standards and guidance.’

Replicable Model for Gender-sensitive Probation

By completing a thorough research report as the first stage of the project, actions taken in subsequent parts of the project could be evidence-based and valuable to the specific context. The model for implementing a gender-sensitive approach to community-based sentences (right), created as a result of the evaluation, is therefore one that can be replicated globally.


2      The power of the Bangkok Rules

While policymakers and international advocates for reform may like to talk about the usefulness of universal rules, the discussions can often be a world apart from those who deliver justice services on the ground. I was happily surprised therefore when I found that every single probation officer interviewed, voluntarily mentioned the Bangkok Rules. Not only that, but the Rules were spoken about with pride and ownership. One probation officer explained:

‘I feel empowered because you don’t just make recommendations, but you have the backing for this justification.’

The vast majority of interviewees claimed that they had always intuitively treated women differently, but that this evidence-based backing helped to improve their performance. The ability to point to international standards, which guided their more informed actions, appeared to be a significant factor for many probation officers.

3      The power of film

When the research report was completed, supplementary materials including a briefing document and a short film were created to highlight key points for different audiences. The original research report is a very effective document and will be useful both in Kenya and on the international stage. However, the short film allows the audience to see and hear people speak their own truth, and viewers found it an incredibly powerful experience that could not be captured in a written report. Even the lead researcher for the original report stated:

Even after having gone to the field, watching the short film was great! It really makes a lasting impression.’

Viewers found the film to be a valuable tool due to its effectiveness at communicating key messages that also left a lasting impact beyond the words of the report. Interviewees from a number of agencies stated that they would be using the video in all future training sessions on a gender-sensitive approach and the Bangkok Rules.

4      Advantages of a localised approach

The evaluation found a clear preference from those involved both for context-specific tools and induction methods.

One approach to improving gender-sensitivity could have been to attempt to adopt tools used in other countries. However, senior officers from KPAS noted their clear preference for the approach that was adopted in the project, which invested in working with KPAS to innovate and reform its own tools. This ensured all amendments were culturally relevant, officers were familiar with the processes and the implementing government department felt complete ownership of the project. A representative from KPAS stated:

‘From concept development to implementation, the project has been ours, as those with the relevant knowledge and experience. We and PRI have the same goals. We are together’.

The approach taken through this project, of evolution, rather than revolution, is a more participatory model of implementation, meaning a greater likelihood of long-term sustainability.

In addition, probation officers spoke positively about the ‘induction clinics’ conducted by senior KPAS staff, as they visited individual probation stations. Officers valued the time senior staff spent with them and the opportunity to discuss real examples of reports and how to adapt their approach.

5      Make more room for discussion

There was a great diversity in understanding of gender-sensitivity among the probation staff before the project, and while some took on the adaptation in mindset very quickly, naturally others had further queries about the approach required. One officer explained the effect of the training for her:

‘Before I thought an offender is an offender, and it doesn’t matter if they are male or female. My thinking was there is no excuse for committing a crime. But after I have gotten a change of perception. Now I take a little more time to dig deeper and find out more and what really caused them to offend’.

During the induction clinics, officers did have the opportunity to ask some initial questions, yet those officers who had the chance to digest their thoughts and trial the approach after the initial induction and then again meet with colleagues to discuss, question and collaborate, explained that it was very beneficial to their understanding of a gender-sensitive approach.

6      Inclusion of other stakeholders

The project was designed to target probation officers, as those who work most closely with women going through the justice process. The activities were very effective at introducing a new approach to this group; however, there are also others who have a great impact in this scenario.

Probation officers may write the most gender-sensitive pre-sentence reports possible, but if magistrates decide not to read the report, then the outcomes for women will not improve.

Equally, magistrates are able to accelerate positive reforms. The evaluations found that some of those magistrates who had received some sensitisation, either from the senior KPAS team or from a probation officer who had explained the project at a Court User Committee, actually started demanding that cases of women with children be made a priority and the referral rate for detailed pre-sentence reports appeared to increase.

While the constraints of the project led to a specific focus on probation officers and the tools they use, there is a clear case to involve more stakeholders in any follow-up project or replication of the project (left: an example of stakeholders attending a Court User Committee, who were informed about the gender-sensitive approach and the Bangkok Rules).

7      Gender-sensitivity doesn’t exclude men

A female probation officer observed that as a result of the project, female magistrates referred women more often, but that even male defendants were being considered more frequently and that greater investigation was leading to better quality reports.

Several male probation officers explained that they had not interacted with a female client as there had always been female officers present, but that they applied the philosophy behind the new approach to the male clients. One male officer noted:

‘Now I capture more details that I had presumed previously to be minor and unimportant. I don’t just look at family background of the man, but fully report on other relevant details’.

Although – due to the lack of attention to date from both the research community and justice systems – the focus of the project was on the experience of women, the underpinning principles inherent within a gender-sensitive approach are equally applicable to women and men. When officers began to dig deeper into an individual’s circumstances and gender role, it led to a greater quality of information, regardless of the sex of the client.

8      It’s all about building relationships

Probation officers described how they had noticed a clear difference in the way their female clients interacted with them after adopting a gender-sensitive approach. Officers noted that when they changed the way that they asked questions, such as by being less authoritarian and more understanding, the women opened up more. Officers explained that they realised that when showing a greater level of interest in a woman’s situation, such as delving into what led her to commit the offence and who she is providing for, they were able to collect a greater level and quality of information, relevant to the pre-sentence report. One officer explained:

‘Before I would have brushed over issues and used closed questions, not taking time to probe and find out details. Now I engage them more and use open-ended questions – giving time to express themselves and explain. I also specifically find out gender-related issues – not just criminal. For example, I would never have asked about reproductive health before’.

And now?

The project was a great success in terms of beginning to accumulate knowledge about women’s experiences of probation and community-based sentences, and on how to implement an approach that improves these experiences. The model created as a result is easily replicable and I have great hopes that this innovative project can be a springboard for further learning and gender-sensitive adaptations internationally.


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[1] United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (Bangkok Rules)