Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Children Paying for Mothers' Crimes

Scores of youngsters are held with their mothers in Afghan prisons.
By Sohaila Mohseni

Karima, 30, has been in the Kabul detention centre for five months, awaiting trial on a charge of bigamy.


But she is not the only one suffering for her alleged crime. Living with her in the detention centre are her three daughters aged 11, eight and four.


"I have been a very bad mother," said Karima. "What way is this to bring up children? Obviously prison will damage their lives."


In prisons across Afghanistan, women either accused or convicted of crimes are incarcerated along their children. Sometimes, the women prefer to have their children with them to provide some level of care. But often, with other family members unwilling to support the youngsters, these mothers have no other choice.


Karima’s eldest daughter said that for the past five months, she and her sisters have been attending a kindergarten outside the prison. They leave at early each morning and are brought back at three in the afternoon.


"But it’s horrible," the 11-year-old said. "Other children make jokes about us and ridicule our mother.”


At the Pul-e-Charkhi prison just outside Kabul, Torpaikai, 27, a former health service worker, is serving two 10-year sentences for murdering her husband. With her in jail are her three children: a son, 11, and two daughters, six and four.


She and her children share one large room with ten other women and their children.


"I had to keep them with me because there was no one else to care for them,” she said. “But they shouldn’t be here. Why should they be punished for my crime?"


Another woman, Zakia, is serving a 10-year sentence for killing a man. She brought her four children with her to prison. While behind bars, Zakia’s two-year-old daughter died.


"It was a terrible time for all of us," she said. "Children in prison have no lives. There is no school for them. All they see are the prison walls."


According to official figures, there are 26 women in Pul-e-Charkhi, along with 52 children ranging in age from newborn babies to 11-year-olds.


Lieutenant-General Abdul Islam Bakhshi, the man in charge of the Afghan prison system, said there are 168 women and an unknown number of children in other prisons.


There have been some attempts to assist women prisoners in the past.


Soraya, the director of Neda-ye-Zan (Women’s Voice), a non-government group in Herat province, described a six-month programme in Kabul that was paid for by the French government. "We were paying the prisoners 15 [US] dollars a month," she said. "We also gave them food and other essentials but this stopped when the project ended,” she said.


"But we are hoping to start again this year, and to introduce tailoring and embroidery courses for the women with entertainment and educational facilities for children.”


Soraya said conditions in some of the provincial prisons were better than those in Kabul. In Herat, for example, "powdered milk, biscuits, soothers, talcum powder and hygiene products are distributed to the mothers," she said. "There is a newly-constructed shower block, and food is plentiful and nourishing."


Whatever the conditions are, however, Soraya believes prison is no place for children.


"All they learn is the crueller side of life,” she said.


Parwiz Ahang of the International Committee for Human Rights finds the situation unacceptable.


"It is a breach of children's rights and against accepted international standards," he said. "Children grow mentally and physically. They need health care, education and sports facilities."


He said it was pressure from his organisation that finally that led to children in the Kabul detention centre being allowed to attend kindergarten.


"The problem has to be confronted at provincial prisons where no such facilities are available," he said. "We are hoping to address this, and other issues, when we meet the justice ministry."


Sohaila Mohseni is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.


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