AP, August 4, 2008

Afghan mothers keep their kids with them in prison

There are 226 young children in Afghanistan's prisons, including many who were born there.


KABUL — Three-year-old Wahid nervously clutched a dirty blue stuffed bunny, as the other children in the prison huddled around.

Habiba with her child in prison
Habiba, who has completed three years of a 10-year prison sentence for murder, holds her daughter Nazanin who was born in jail three years ago but still cannot walk, as they rest in their bunk bed inside Pul-e Charkhi prison in Kabul, Afghanistan April 17, 2008. There are 226 young children in Afghanistan's prisons, including many who were born there. They have committed no crime, but they live among the country's 304 incarcerated women. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)

"Are you taking us to an orphanage?" he wanted to know.

Asked by some visitors if he wanted to go, Wahid waffled between yes and no, unable to decide which was worse — moving to an orphanage or staying in prison with his mother.

Wahid is one of 226 young children who live in Afghanistan's prisons, with mothers who are among the country's 304 incarcerated women. These children have committed no crime. But their mothers have decided prison is the best option for them in a poor, war-torn country where a safe, comfortable home is a rarity.

In many European countries, babies and children up to 3 years old are allowed to stay in prison with their mothers to ease the pain of separation. And in the United States, a few jails also allow mothers to have their children with them, while others may end up in foster care or child welfare programs.

But in Afghanistan, the reasons for keeping children in prison are starkly different: Poverty and safety.

In the outside world, these children would be social outcasts because their mothers are prisoners and many of them were accused by their own families of adultery or murder. In prison, the children have access to some education, medical treatment and free items distributed by aid groups — which is more than the average Afghan child gets.

"I was living in a tent, and I don't have that much money. In prison, at least my children have something to eat," said 30-year-old Qandy, who was accused of stealing a mobile phone and is in jail with a 3-year-old son and year-old daughter. The women interviewed either had only one name, like many Afghans, or declined to have their last names published.

Some of these children were born behind bars. Others came because their mothers asked for them, said Karine Benyahia, protection coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan.

"It's not where children should spend their childhood," Benyahia said. "But when a mother is in prison for the murder of the father — the lives of these children outside, I'm not sure it's a good alternative either."

Members of Afghanistan parliament accuse some officials of Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul for raping women prisoners. A delegation of Afghan parliamentarians who recently visited the prison say some women become pregnant after being raped.
BBC Persian, Nov.14, 2007

In some cases, there is nobody else to look after them. Many prisoners also fear their children would be beaten or even killed by vengeful enemies or relatives, or that greedy family members would marry off their daughters to reap a bride price that often amounts to hundreds of dollars — a fortune in Afghanistan.

"If I let my daughter go to live with her uncle, he may sell her to someone. I will never let him sell her," said Shaperai, who was jailed for 16 years for the murder of her husband. Her 14-year-old daughter is the oldest of about 65 children living in the new women's prison on the outskirts of Kabul.

Yet prison is hardly an ideal environment for the children, growing up among criminals and often severely ill.

Four-year-old Sohrab has sickly eyes with white rings around his irises. His mother, Maria, says she and her son both have hepatitis C. She has two other children with her in prison.

"To whom can I send the children if they go outside?" Maria asked, pointing out that her in-laws accused her of killing her husband. She has finished about half of her 10-year jail sentence. "I'm worried about them having to spend five more years here while they are sick."

Another child, Nazanin, was born in prison three years ago, but she still cannot walk and looks like an infant.

"I try to push her, but she can't even stand on her own feet," said her mother, Habiba, who has completed three years of a 10-year sentence for murder and has two other children in prison with her. "She eats a lot, but she's not gaining weight."

Habiba said her husband visited her in prison when Nazanin was only a month old. Claiming the baby was not his, he accused her of cheating and beat her so badly that she was in a coma for a month. The newborn was left in the care of her daughter, Gulabo, who was then only 4.

The children typically sleep with their mothers, sometimes crowding four to a tiny one-person cot. The mothers put the newborns in hammocks made of scarves tied to the frames of their bunk beds.

In the absence of playpens or cribs, toddlers with behavioral problems are tied by the arm or leg to bed posts to keep them out of trouble. The children quickly pick up back talk, and even some 2- or 3-year-old boys yell obscenities or pull down their pants, a female guard said.

The Kabul prison is in some ways an improvement over dank, smelly Pul-e Charkhi, where the women lived with their children until they were moved in April. At Pul-e Charkhi, some rooms were jammed with more than a dozen women and their children. But they were allowed to roam around the prison compound, and the children often walked outside to buy snacks and toiletries from a nearby shop.

Children in Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul
The number of children staying with their mothers in Afghan prisons is extremely high, almost equal to the number of their mothers, according to UNODC. (IRIN Photo)

The new prison is well-lit and much cleaner. It was built by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime with help from Italy, and handed over to the Afghan Justice Ministry in January 2008.

But even in the new prison, half a dozen women are crammed into each room with their children. The women get one hour a day of sunlight in the crude rock garden. Many of the children spend their time in an unruly kindergarten class, where one of the boys is tasked with keeping the door shut so that the little ones cannot run out into the hallways.

"There is no open place for them to play. There is no park. They are living with their mothers inside the prison, in the room," said Shaperai Anwary of the Afghan Women's Educational Center, which runs the kindergarten. "If a child is breastfeeding, it is necessary to be with the mother, but there are some children who are 10, 11, 13."

Some children say they miss their fathers. Malina, 7, wants to live outside and has modest dreams: "If I go outside, I can help my sister cook and wash the clothes. I can study, go to the mosque, study the Quran, and when I come home, I can help my sister wash the dishes."

Malina's mother, Shiringul, is serving 20 years for being part of a gang that robbed and murdered taxi drivers. Five people have been executed — Shiringul's husband, driver, cousin, brother-in-law and son. She has two children with her in prison, Malina and her 6-year-old son Hekmatullah.

Some of the women have sent their children to orphanages, but not Shiringul.

"I can't let my children be taken to an orphanage because I have many enemies who may kidnap them," Shiringul said, sitting on the floor of the crowded cell in a cloud of smoke as she puffed a cigarette. "Some of my enemies are even in prison, and they ask about me. If my children were in an orphanage, I would not feel that they were safe."

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