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I have been reporting on the plight of prisoners ever since Soviet times, when I worked as a journalist for a national women’s magazine.
Some aspects of this topic, such as the difficulty in accessing information and in talking to prisoners directly have stayed more or less the same. But there is one area of the penal system where dramatic changes have taken place: the rising number of female prisoners.
What particularly caught my attention was the growing number of Tajik women prisoners who come from traditional Muslim families.
While Tajiks constitute the majority of the population, there are also other ethnic groups such as Russians, Ukrainians, Roma and Ossetians living here.
During the Soviet era, there were very few Tajik women in prison.
When during prison visits I asked how they ended up there, they gave similar answers– they turned to crime to be able to provide for their children and elderly parents. In some cases, their husband divorced them or abandoned them to seek work abroad.
I recall the rather extreme case of a woman who was imprisoned for several years because she stole a pot in the market. Although it was couple of years ago, I still remember her - a petite and slim woman in her late 30s, wearing a headscarf and a long traditional Tajik dress. When I asked what her crime had been, she seemed almost to laugh as if anticipating my surprise to learn for what she was being so harshly punished.
She told me that she had hoped to sell the stolen pot to buy some food for her three children and for her parents. Having been imprisoned on two occasions before – the first time for drug trafficking - she found it difficult to find a job and was getting desperate. Her prison record meant that she was given a lengthy sentence for the theft.
It seems the difficult economic situation may be leading women to become involved in crime.
A neighbour’s daughter is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence for drug trafficking. She never looked like someone who could have been involved in crime – a shy girl who used to stay at home most of the time and study. Although her mother works as a teacher, the family is poor.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing five-year civil war, Tajikistan became one of the poorest former republics.
An estimated 1.5 million Tajiks left for Russia and Kazakstan in search of work. In the absence of men and the collapse of social infrastructure, the burden of taking care of children and looking after elderly fell mostly on Tajik women.
Many women prisoners I have interviewed told me they had one main reason for committing a crime – the lack of work which would enable them to earn a decent living.
Some turn to smuggling or selling drugs, others get involved in human trafficking, prostitution and theft.
One of the difficulties in writing about these prisoners is access to information. Over the years, I have built my own sources using all available avenues, both public and private.
What helps me in my research is that I am known as a journalist who has specialised in the topic of prisons. I have established contact with representatives of the justice ministry and met staff members of the prisons directorate. Sometimes I also rely on help of my friends and relatives to get to an official on whom my visit to a prison depended.
I make sure that I use information provided to me and report in an objective way. Otherwise, next time when I turn to my sources they might refuse to assist me.
When I write about women in prison, I am interested not only in establishing the reasons why they turned to crime but also in finding out what can be done so that they do not end up there again.
I believe that the most pressing issue regarding former prisoners is the complete lack of rehabilitation resources and difficulties for them to find a job.
There are many ways of organising such help. Women can be offered to do something that they can do from home like sewing, or in rural areas they can be offered work during the harvest season for cotton picking. In cities, they can be given work as sweepers or gardeners.
There is another problem of getting start-up capital for those who want to set up their own business, as commercial and micro-finance institutions do not give loan to former prisoners.
These problems cannot be solved by former women prisoners alone, and require consolidated efforts from all interested parties including NGOs and local authorities.
Salimakhon Vahobzade is an IWPR contributor and correspondent for Narodnaya Gazeta in Dushanbe.
Link to original story by Salimakhon Vahobzade published in RCA No. 597, 02-Dec-09.
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