Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Mothers behind Bars: What about the Children?

Sari Kouvo 4 min

Growing up with few evident opportunities and with conflict constantly lurking at the door is the reality for most Afghan children and youth. A group that gets more than its fair share of brick walls and violence are the children that grow up with their mothers in prison. AAN’s Sari Kouvo and Naheed Esar Malikzay have investigated the issue of co-imprisonment of children and talked to some of the mothers and children who are or have been in prison.

Afghan women prisoners listen to their teacher in a class in the women's section of the Herat prison on August 16, 2009. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP)Afghan women prisoners listen to their teacher in a class in the women's section of the Herat prison on August 16, 2009. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo by BEHROUZ MEHRI / AFP)

The Afghan Prison Law (Art. 56), states that children up to the age of seven can stay with their mothers in prison, after that they should stay with their family or relatives or move to a shelter for children. Based on Ministry of Justice statistics there are today around 560 women and with them around 260 children in prison in Afghanistan. It is difficult to assess how reliable this statistics is and the Prison Department has no reliable statistics of the ages of the children. However, Habib Jan Rezwni, Central Prisons Director in the Ministry of Justice, confirmed that some of the children are much older than seven years. ‘We have cases that some of the children are over 15 years old, but because we don’t have any shelters and the children don’t have any relatives, so they are kept in the prison’ said Rezwni. A woman, now living in a transition house for women released from prison, told us about her difficulties finding a solution for her children. The three children, all older than seven years, were severely mistreated by the relatives she had left them with, but in prison she was bothered by the prison guards on a daily basis for having too old children with her.

In Kabul, tells us Samoonwal Amir Mohammad, the Head of the Kabul Women’s Prison, ‘155 women are imprisoned… their crimes are prostitution, running prostitution rings, adultery, human and drug smuggling and running away from home. With these women, 42 children are also in prison’. He continues, ‘We try to make a good environment for the children, but prison is no place for children. Prison affects the psychology and habits of children. The children live with criminals, they are treated like criminals – and they will most probably be future criminals.’ This said the Kabul women’s prison is advanced compared to women’s prisons in other provinces: It is fairly safe, has vocational training for the women and a kindergarten for the children. In some provinces there is no separate women’s prison making the situation precarious for both the women and their children, and in most prisons, mothers have to share their food rations with their children. A woman who had given birth to her baby boy in Takhar women’s prison told us that because of the food shortage and lack of health services, she had had to sell her son: ‘I sold my son for 7000 Afs. I did not want the money, but I knew he would die in prison’. She continued, ‘I was two and a half years in prison, but having sold my son I now feel I am a life time in prison.’

There are few alternatives for the children that cannot return to their family or relatives when they have reached the age of seven. Amongst the few shelters that exist, are the Child Support Centers (CSCs) established in 2009. There are today CSCs in Kabul, Kunduz and Mazar-e Sharif. The CSC that we visited hosts around 60 children whose mothers are in prison in Kabul or in the neighboring provinces. Shah Bibi Halimi, CSC manager, stressed that ‘prison makes children into future criminals; we try to give them alternatives’. Mr. Sekandar, the CSC psychologist, summarizes some of the problems that they need to deal with when taking care of children who have grown up in prison: ‘The children learn how to commit violent acts against themselves and against others’. He shared a story with us about how he had asked why a child was collecting stones in the CSC yard and the child answers ‘so that I can hurt the others, before they hurt me’.

The children we talked to all emphasized the constant violence in prison: Violence between guards and the women, between the women and between the children. One young boy, maybe seven years of age, told us: ‘I was very quiet in prison, because I was scared of everyone. Our mothers fought with each others, so the other mothers used to beat us’. A teenage boy, who had spent most of his life in prison with his mother, two brothers and a sister, summarized his experience saying ‘In prison I was not alive, our lives was worth nothing’. He also emphasized the constant shortage of food and the violence and fighting that makes studying impossible. Another boy also emphasized how the pressure of being in prison, made it impossible for him to learn: ‘I went to school until grade three in prison, but still I was illiterate when I came out’.

A teenage girl (the daughter of the woman now in the transition house, see above) told us how she and her siblings had been constantly moving since their mother went to prison, staying with members of the extended family who did not want them and were cruel to them, in an orphanage and then back to prison. She remembers how in prison the prison guards used to come every day to tell their mother that she could not keep her children there as they were all too old, and how her mother every day had to say that there was nowhere for her children to go. She emphasized that the worst thing in prison was the ‘bad behavior of police’: ‘The police beat the women. It worried me a lot to see the police beat my mother’. We were also shared the story of a girl who went to prison with her mother who had been running a prostitution ring with kidnapped girls. The girl had been forced to prostitute herself before her mother went to prison and the mother continued to prostitute her in prison. A feisty young girl also emphasized the violence, saying: ‘I learnt nothing in jail, except self-defense – fighting’.
The stories we were told by the women in prison (to be discussed in a later blog) and the children having lived in prison, are stories about impossible choices, conflict and violence. The dominant message from the interviews was that if societal and institutional change in Afghanistan is measured by how marginalized and weak groups are treated, there has been almost no change.


Afghan Women Youth