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Young, innocent, and behind bars

May 22, 2016

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

When Farah* was arrested on charges of kidnapping, she brought her five-year-old daughter with her to prison. Her son, who she had left behind at home, went into a severe depression and soon died. “I always kept my daughter away from the other inmates; after my son’s death, I didn’t want the same happening to her,” she says.

Farah elaborated on how children, including her own daughter, feel bound and stifled in prison: “Once my daughter told the warden to put her in a shopping bag and sneak her out. That’s when I realised it was getting too much for her, so I sent her [home] to her father,” Farah points out.

But she emphasises that even though the facilities are up to par in prison, it was confinement itself that was making her daughter unhappy. “Everything here in jail is fine, we get good food, there is a doctor here, a school where my daughter had her primary education, but a cage is a cage even if it’s made of gold,” Farah adds.

Another inmate, Zubaida*, says, “We’re relatively happy here because we have each other but my kids cry and it will never be like home for them, as they can’t get up or go where they please; it gets frustrating for both of us.”

Living in jail leaves a severe impact on children and they develop behavioural changes (often referred to as ‘signs of prison’), as did Farah’s and Zubaida’s children. These cases aren’t isolated ones; there are countless children in jail under similar circumstances. According to a 2011 study by Dr Aliya Ali and Dr Nasreen Alam Shah, 3pc of women prisoners in Pakistan have their children living with them in jail.


Children of women prisoners are often the forgotten victims in Pakistan: two new projects aim to tackle this problem


In addition, there are many children who end up spending their transformative years in prison. Pakistan Prison Rules state that female inmates are allowed to keep their children until the age of three. However, Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are exempt from this rule — and female inmates can keep their children with them until the age of six. In practice, however, children even up to the age of 10 can be found in jail with their mothers. This is because in most cases women can’t find anyone who is willing to take responsibility for their child / children outside of prison.

Women who have been charged with murdering their husband or a family member especially have a difficult time in this regard. In some cases mothers prefer to keep their daughters with them, fearing that someone in the family may sell them off as sex workers.

Most of the convicted women are abuse victims and suffer from battered person syndrome. In other words, many are serving time for crimes that would, in any other circumstance, be considered an act of self defence.

“My husband used to sell me for sex to earn money for his drugs, I had to cut off all ties with my family,” recalls Zubaida*. “He was abusive; when I saw him burn my son’s hand, I mixed sleeping pills in his food and slit his throat.”

Last year, Legal Aid Office (LAO) opened a school called the Early Learning Centre (ELC) in Karachi Central Jail, the aim of which was to provide children, an environment such as that of schools outside prison. The school has fixed timings and children go in uniforms.

LAO’s representative Ramsha Rais says that the school has helped to reduce aggression in children and has increased their confidence. The case of a four-year-old child whose mother was incarcerated for murder, Rais points out, highlights how effective the programme has been. According to her, while the child initially showed great reluctance to meet strangers or to learn, now the four-year-old is the most confident pupil out of the 12 students currently studying at the ELC.

Apart from the physical signs of prison such as stunted height, low weight and the ability to speak developing later than usual, there are many other behavioural changes these children take on such as the inability to share, developing a sense of entitlement, and a tendency to become violent.

“They start speaking at a later age than normal, their behaviour is also affected, they don’t learn to share, they become very possessive of the things they receive, mainly because they receive so little,” points out Rais.


Apart from the physical signs of prison such as stunted height, low weight and the ability to speak developing later than usual, there are many other behavioural changes these children take on such as the inability to share, developing a sense of entitlement, and a tendency to become violent.


Sundus Nasir, who teaches at ELC, agrees with Rais. “Many kids in the school get into fights frequently, many also refuse to share and hold on to things like learning blocks, not letting others get a chance to play with them, claiming them as their own,” she says.

Violence can also be normalised for children in this kind of environment. For instance, Shameer, son of prison inmate Zahida, threatens to dunk anyone who bothers him into a water tank shortly after learning that his father committed a murder and hid the body in a water tank.

Aside from growing up in a loveless environment, which takes a toll on the social development of children, they are often found to be lacking in basic knowledge — information that a child growing up outside the prison would be expected to know. “We took the kids out on a field trip to the zoo, they called every animal they saw ‘cat’, they recognised it as a cat, because they’ve only ever seen cats,” says Rais.

It’s not only children who are severely affected by their surroundings but their mothers as well. Many mothers are frustrated and / or depressed because of the lack of freedom: as a result of this they neglect their parenting duties and become desensitised towards their child. In many cases their children are a reminder or symbol of their crimes — and it is their children who ‘pay’ for this.

Children are often subjected to violence by the mother and other inmates, to foul language used by inmates, and an unhealthy environment —women are allowed to smoke in prisons in areas where children can be exposed to second-hand smoke; tuberculosis, an air-borne disease, is also very common in prisons in Pakistan.

All these factors damage the mental and physical growth of the child. LAO is now trying to tackle this by launching a mother-toddler programme to sensitise the inmates towards their children.

But even if children are taken out of the prison environment, the trauma of being in jail follows them out in the real world. Most children who leave prison struggle to integrate back into society. They face bullying and are labelled by society as ‘stained’ because of the actions of their mothers.

“When my daughter had to leave me and went to live with her father she couldn’t continue her education; students and teachers discriminated against her, and called her harsh names. She is embarrassed to even walk on the streets, just because she is the daughter of an inmate,” said a prisoner.

  • Names of inmates and their children have been changed to protect privacy

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine May 22nd, 2016