The uncertain future of Karachi's imprisoned children

As the sun rises, a group of children incarcerated with their mothers are liberated, but only for a few hours.
Published March 10, 2017

Children attending the early learning centre at the Karachi Women’s Prison know one poem by heart.

Machli jheel ki raani hai (Fish is the queen of the lake)
Jeewan is ka paani hai (Water is its life)

Haath lagao to dar jae gi (If you touch it, you will scare it)
Paani se nikalo to mar jaye gi (Out of the water, it will die)

Zinda us ko rehne do (Let it live)
Daryaon ko behne do (Let the rivers flow)

As the sun rises, a group of children incarcerated with their mothers are liberated for a few hours to attend a primary school just outside the barracks.

The one-room children's learning centre has been set-up by the Legal Aid Office (LAO), a non-profit organisation that provides free legal assistance to Sindh's inmates and works closely with female prisoners.

Under Pakistani law, female prisoners are allowed to keep their children with them in jail, up till the age of 6 (in theory). These children are often dubbed as the "hidden victims" of Pakistan's prisons.

At the Karachi Women's Prison, LAO, with the government's help, has taken up the responsibility of imparting primary level education to the prison's children.

Children playing at LAO's Early Learning Centre. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid Khanzada
Children playing at LAO's Early Learning Centre. — Photo by Ibtisam Zahid Khanzada

The atmosphere in the classroom is relaxed and the young students seem quite keen to be in this colourful space. The LAO has tasked itself with equipping the classroom with furniture, books and most importantly, a teacher.

“A fight broke out in the kitchen. She (accidentally) stabbed her step-mother and ended up in this jail. As a university graduate and an artist, she was fit to be a teacher here at the early learning centre, so we got her on board,” narrates LAO official Dr. Habiba Hasan, recalling how they hired one of the first teachers at the centre.

“Teaching at the school came with an incentive for inmates; mainly that it mitigated their sentence and provided a source of income,” explained Dr. Hasan. “Since they tend to be educated, foreign inmates here on drug trafficking charges, made for good teachers too,” she informed.

But teaching at this prison school is unlike teaching anywhere else.

Currently greeting the children every morning is one dedicated teacher, Sundus Khurram. “I care about these kids more than I care about my own children,” she said in her passionate voice.

For Sundus, this job comes with an immense emotional toll. She narrates, failing to hold back her tears; "My students tell me that when night falls, a sense of imprisonment and claustrophobia takes over their hearts."

LAO works in a space created by the absence of a social welfare infrastructure for Sindh's down-trodden prisoners.

Over the years, LAO’s learning centre has become somewhat of a permanent feature at the jail. But it is far from a permanent solution, argues LAO representative, Haya Zahid.

“Whilst this learning centre is a great initiative and one of a kind in Pakistan, I would say, for children in prisons. The crux of the matter is that the social welfare department is failing on all ends as prisons are not the place for these children,” she explained, adding; “The learning centre provides a small break from this harsh reality - beyond the prisons all the kids see are court vans, lawyers, police and courts. That is the only trip out for them or exposure to the real world.”

Unlike regular schools, where a linear yearly trajectory of moving up through different classes marks the growth of a child, here at the jail, there is one classroom for toddlers and nine years olds alike.

Children here have a vague idea of the amount of time they have spent behind bars, statistics show. According to a report authored by LAO, 18 per cent of the children in Sindh's jails claimed to not knowing the period of time since when they had been living in incarceration.

Incarcerating children is riddled with complications. While it depletes their sense of freedom and stunts their world-view on the one hand, on the other, it is at times a relatively safer space for them to be, contrasted with the streets of Pakistan, argues LAO.

“This is not to say that the children are better off in prison, but it is to exemplify the adverse effects of what happens when a child is incarcerated in prison and then put back into society,” states an LAO report, titled Babies Behind Bars.

Also read: Children learn bitter lessons in Peshawar jail

Being incarcerated can have a profoundly disturbing effect on children. However, through primary education, LAO attempts to alleviate some of the troubles that come with growing up imprisoned.

Despite their own efforts to provide education to incarcerated children, the LAO identifies that "there is a serious lack of education opportunities for children incarcerated in prisons in Sindh." One of LAO's reports records a harrowing statistic on prison schooling; "73 per cent of children said they had learnt nothing in prison, whereas 15 per cent learnt basics and 12 per cent learnt how to say ‘mama and papa’."

The kind of freedom that children living outside of jails enjoy, it seems, is not meant for these young ones.

Despite the glaring unfairness, to say that these children should not be in a jail is a simplistic point of view.

It is never a simple calculation, to deduce when a child should be separated from the mother and be moved out of the prison facility.

Theoretically and legally, children only up till the age of six can stay with their imprisoned mothers. However, any debate around the six-year age limit legal clause requires to be had in a rational and responsible manner, so that it doesn't carelessly dismantle the fragile system that is already in place - but not everybody understands that.

A day after International Women’s Day, the Karachi Central Jail hosted a women’s day event at the jail premises. The chief guest on the occasion was Irum Khalid, Special Advisor to Sindh’s Chief Minister on Women’s Development Affairs.

Unaware of the laws regarding children in incarceration, she asked; “What is the maximum age under which children can stay in prison?”

Later, standing in the classroom of the learning centre, Mrs Khalid suggested that maximum age for children to stay in prison with their mothers ought to be increased. “I have little children of my own and I can’t imagine them to be away from me,” she remarked.

Extending the children's time in prison is, at the very least, a questionable proposition.

“The solution is not more of these schools but a separate facility for mothers and kids inside prisons or separate facilities where these kids can be put up,” explained Haya, providing an important perspective on the issues surrounding children in prison.

How important are the futures of these children to the political and executive authorities that govern Sindh?

With the efforts of teachers like Sundus and enterprises such as the LAO, Sindh's prisons may have a shoulder to rely on, but real reform is needed in the way the police - the jailers - handle the affairs of prisoners.