Religious and rights activism, violent responses to domestic violence and drug-related crimes by the poorest in society have contributed to a sharp rise in the number of women in Chinese prisons, a U.S.-based rights group said in a recent report.
In 2013, there were more than 100,000 women serving time in Chinese jail, a rise of 46 percent compared with 2003, the Dui Hua Foundation said in an article on its website.
It said the number of women in U.S. prisons grew by 15 percent over the same period.
By mid-2014, 103,766 women were imprisoned in China, mostly for drug- and domestic violence-related offenses, and not including women held in unofficial detention centers or in pre-trial detention, it said.
"If current trends continue, China will imprison more women than the United States, often cited as the world’s largest jailer, within five years," researchers wrote.
It said crime by Chinese women is often linked to "gender-based violence and poverty."
Domestic violence plays a role in more than half of crimes committed by Chinese women and causes 80 percent of the violent crimes they commit, the article cited 2009 research by the state-run All China Women's Federation as saying.
"Crackdowns on civil and political rights also contribute to an uptick in the number of women in prison," the Dui Hua report said.
It said women account for at least a quarter of people in custody who are listed in Dui Hua’s Political Prisoner Database.
Some 37 percent of prisoners of conscience involved in religious activities are women, while women make up 20 percent of imprisoned petitioners, it added.
'Poorest and most vulnerable'
Bob Fu, founder of the U.S.-based Christian rights group ChinaAid, said women make up the vast majority of members of unofficial "house churches," whose followers are frequently targeted by police because their worship isn't sanctioned by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"When the government cracks down on ... rights activists and house churches, the women are caught up in the middle of it," Fu said.
According to Fu, another factor is the country's draconian family planning regime that frequently brings women into conflict with the authorities.
He said women at the lower end of the economic scale are often forced into prostitution.
"They are reduced to selling their own bodies in order to live," Fu said. "The government needs to take on a much bigger responsibility for this, because it has no long-term, effective plan in place to protect these women, who are the poorest and most vulnerable in society."
Drugs and property crimes
Meanwhile, a survey by researchers from Renmin University in 2013 found that drugs and property crimes are the most common among women.
"The 'vast majority' of women involved in drug crime, which includes possession, trafficking, and sheltering others to use drugs, is illiterate and relies on drug trafficking as its primary source of income," the study found.
Property crime, which includes theft, fraud, illegal fundraising, and extortion, was most prevalent among low-wage earners in developed cities in eastern China, it said.
Lu Jun, the U.S.-based founder of the Beijing health NGO Yirenping, said poverty and a lower social status compared with men both contribute to criminal behavior among Chinese women.
"In any country, poverty is a major factor linked to a rise in crime," Lu said.
"What's more, discrimination against women in China is getting worse and worse, which is another factor behind the rise in women in prison," he said.
Chen Yaya, a researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, agreed that the sharp rise in women in prisons is driven by several factors, including economic ones and domestic violence.
But there may also have been a change in attitudes in Chinese courts, Chen said.
"In the past, the judicial system tended to regard women as victims," she said. "But now, women are receiving much harsher sentences than before."
According to Dui Hua, overcrowding is also a serious problem in women’s prisons in China, and the government has built six new women’s prisons since 2003.
But it warned: "Building prisons neither reduces the social and financial costs of incarceration nor addresses the root causes of women’s conflict with the law."
The group called on the Chinese government to find ways to keep women out of prison through the use of non-custodial sentences, as required by United Nations guidelines.
"Since most women do not commit violent crimes or commit them in response to gender-based violence that was perpetrated against them, imprisonment is often disproportionate and unnecessary," the Dui Hua article said.
"It also carries with it the risk of further gender-based harassment and abuse."
Reported by Han Qing for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.