Afghanistan: Afghan Women and Children in Prison

The Christian Science Monitor
As with all matters relating to rebuilding the legal, social and political environments in Afghanistan, the problem of women and children in prison is very complex and needs attention from many different areas.
The article April 28, 2004 'Stuck in Afghan Jail, Prisoners of Tradition' (Ilene R. Prusher, staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor raises many heartwrenching issues of concern in Afghanistan regarding women and children in prison.
The story of baby Ravina certainly does tug at our heartstrings, and for good reasons. For her, and many like her, there is great urgency for more protection through legal reforms and provisions of social services for these imprisoned families.

As with all matters relating to rebuilding the legal, social and political environments in Afghanistan, the problem of women and children in prison is very complex and needs attention from many different areas: human rights, social welfare, child welfare, civil law reform, conditions within the prisons, and extension of legal aid to women. Cases like those described in this article come under the authority of The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, headed by Dr. Sima Samar who is well-known to Canadians, having toured Canada in 2001 advocating on behalf of women's rights in Afghanistan.

Last year, many Canadians learned details of the frightening realities for women in Afghan prisons from the CBC documentary, 'Daughters of Afghanistan' which followed award-winning journalist, Sally Armstrong, as she visited these women in prison and brought forward their pleas for help. In 2002, reports such as those issued by the German non-government organization (NG0), medica mondiale shed light on many of the concerns and made repeated demands and recommendations for taking immediate action to improve the rights of women and children in prison.

The thought of a tiny baby or young child being raised in an environment of fear, filth and neglect is intolerable. What is also a fact, however, is that often women in prison prefer to have their young babies with them during their prison terms for breastfeeding and general care. And with respect to cultural and security issues, many women in prison want to be the ones to nurture and care for their children, regardless of their surroundings. Given what most of them have endured during the past 24 years of war and social chaos, and now during these volatile and uncertain times in Afghanistan, having their children with them is the only acceptable choice for a mother. The problem for other women in Afghanistan is finding temporary, safe and nurturing homes for their babies while they wait for their situation to improve. All of these issues for Afghan women reflect the overall lack of support for their basic rights and freedoms.

There are a number of non-governmental organizations and individuals striving towards much needed prison reform in Afghanistan, such as: medica mondiale, the Afghan Women¹s Education Centre (AWEC), Voice of Women (VOW) and Afghan Women¹s Organization (AWO). These organizations have long-standing experience and programming working at the grassroots level to support Afghan women and their families.

AWEC works towards the provision of social and medical assistance for women in prison, and also has programmes to provide support for children not living with their mothers. AWEC is also collaborating with United Nations Agencies to provide social workers for women in prison. This constitutes a big step in the overall effort to secure the welfare of women and children in prison in a systematic way. There is also work beginning on a recreation/library room for women in prison. (A small grant from CW4WAfghan will provide books for this library).

Another NGO, The Voice of Women (VOW) offers vocational training and provides daycare facilities to enable young children to stay with their mothers in prison.

The United Nations, along with a number of NGOs are working towards reconstruction of the prison facilities, such as improving the rooms where the women live, and including child care facilities as part of their construction programmes.

NGOs in Afghanistan are looking into legal reform. A coordination committee including Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) and Rights & Democracy (R&D) are working collaboratively to support the initiative of women's groups in family code reform.

The Afghan Women's Organization with offices in Toronto has established a Children¹s Centre for abandoned and orphaned girls, which is funded by Canadian donors through the CW4WAfghan volunteer network. A temporary, safe and nurturing home can provide a short-term solution until the mother's situation improves and she is willing and able to care for her baby.

Certainly there are many horrific and urgent concerns for women and children imprisoned in Afghan jails. Fortunately for those women, there are also many people who are very concerned and are working extremely hard towards improving the conditions in the prisons ... and elsewhere. For baby Ravina, the hope is that these and other programmes aimed at legal and social reform will be well funded and supported for many years to come to ensure a safe and nurturing environment for all in Afghanistan.