Asia's prisons are filling up with women. Many are victims of the war on drugs

Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT) April 14, 2021

CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, an ongoing series. It contains language that some readers may find offensive.

It was dark when the plane touched down in Hong Kong from Phnom Penh. Noor Yuni swiftly cleared immigration and collected her luggage. But as she approached the "nothing to declare" lane, a customs officer pulled her aside, she says.

The 21-year-old Indonesian's bag was put into the security scanner and she remembers agreeing to be searched.
By the time officers had slashed open the lining of her backpack and dislodged the white crystals concealed inside, Yuni said she knew she'd been tricked.
Yuni is not her real name. CNN is using an alias because the former accused drug trafficker, now aged 23, wants to move on with her life.
Back in 2018, hours before her flight, her new boss had given her a padlocked bag in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. She says the middle-aged Nigerian man, who she knew only as Peter, claimed it was "just clothes" and promised to pay her $1,000 if she took it to Hong Kong.
But she never saw Peter again. The crystals turned out to be 2kg of methamphetamine, worth $140,000 when the haul was seized.
At that moment, Yuni became one of tens of thousands of women caught up in Asia's punitive drug wars. She was arrested in Hong Kong on suspicion of drug trafficking, a crime carrying up to life imprisonment in the city, and execution in other parts of the region.
An overlooked consequence of Asia's drug wars is the outsized impact they have had on women.
Today, jails in East and Southeast Asia hold the world's biggest proportions of female prisoners. In many nations, the majority are incarcerated for drug offenses: 82% of women in Thai prisons are jailed for this and in the Philippines that figure is 53%.
Criminologists widely agree this surge is not due to an increase in women's criminal activity, but tougher sentencing for low-level drug crimes.
Women tend to be involved at the bottom rungs of the trade, where most arrests take place.
There is no data showing exactly how many women work as so-called drug mules. But the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights has raised concern about the "over-incarceration" of women couriers and growing research is unraveling critical connections between gender, crime and justice.
Yuni was elated when a friend told her about a lucrative "traveling job." I wanted "to learn about the world," she says in a WhatsApp video call from the Indonesian city of Medan.
The high school graduate had dreamed of going to university to study economics but drifted into waitressing jobs to support her family. Her mother was ill and her father's ad hoc building work didn't cover their bills.
Yuni says the recruiter, an older Indonesian woman, flew her to a nearby island for an interview. There, she was told that her job would start in Cambodia and that her local boss would be a man named Peter.