AFGHANISTAN: Focus on women's prison in Kabul

Kabul, 10 June 2002 (IRIN) - Sitting with her four children behind bars at the women’s prison in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Shyma protested her innocence, saying she and her four children had already suffered long enough, having been there for more than six weeks. "We have to buy our own food here, and the conditions are terrible."

Sharing a room with six other female prisoners, Shyma had been confined to the filthy compound day and night, with no running water, and the crumbling walls about to cave in. At the entrance of the prison, a huge rusty padlock prevents anyone from escaping, and the mud steps that had provided access have collapsed. The stench of sewage fills the air, and rubbish litters the area where the children are left to play.

Shyma was put behind bars after alleging that her husband was having an affair with another man. "My husband told the police that I was spreading vicious rumours about him, and they put me in jail instead. But I have done nothing wrong," she maintained.

Shyma said she had been forced to keep her children with her as there was no-one else to look after them, men traditionally in Afghan culture not having the responsibility of single-handedly caring for children. Four other women at the prison also had their children with them.

In the same room stood another young woman, who had been imprisoned for wanting to marry the man of her choice. She had been held at the prison since January, and was too afraid to leave, in fear of how her parents would react to her after she had tried to run away from home. Several other women at the prison had similar stories to tell.

These cases are very typical in Afghanistan, according to a German-based NGO. "Cases often tend to be very complicated, and the women are put in prison straight away," the programme consultant for the Medica Mondiale NGO, Rachel Wareham, told IRIN in Kabul.

"Sometimes these women are better off in jail purely for protection purposes as society does not accept women who are vocal and not happy with their marriage and want to break away," she explained. "I would describe these cases as sex crimes, where a woman is forced to have sex with a man she doesn't want to be with, or wants to marry a man of her choice," she said.

The NGO is helping to train lawyers in the Ministry for Women in Kabul, and its aim is to give women the justice they deserve. Items such as blankets, sanitary and hygiene products are also being supplied to the female prisoners by the aid agency. "At present, we are the only NGO helping these women, and I feel that the international community - and particularly the UN - has a responsibility to help these women," she added.

Wareham stressed that the ministry was working on alternative solutions for women held for such offences. "These women should be placed in a shelter until their cases are dealt with. This would be a better alternative," she said. At present there are 17 women at the decrepit prison, and most of them have been put behind bars for involvement in domestic disputes.

"These are not criminal cases, and these women are somehow better off in protective custody than at home, as many are from violent homes, which will not tolerate their behaviour," a lawyer for the legal department at the Ministry for Women, Fozia Saddique, told IRIN.

Afghan tradition and culture does not accept such freedoms as choosing a life partner. "All marriages are arranged, and in many cases husband and wife have never even met," she said. The legal department at the women’s ministry is working specifically to protect women’s rights. "The first thing we need to do is alert these women to their rights."

The Afghan Interim Administration recently issued a decree - which has not yet been incorporated in the constitution - ruling that women under the age of 18 could not be jailed. As a result, three girls have already been released from the prison. "We need to make sure that these women receive help, and are monitored once they are out of prison as they could also be in danger once they are released," Wareham stressed.

Welcoming the change in the law, she said there was also an urgent need for new legislation on increasing the age at which a girl could be married. "There are girls as young as nine being married off. This is a cultural thing, but it must be stopped as these youngsters could be put in great danger."

Commenting on the number of cases involving women, Saddique said they had increased over the past six months. "Now that the Taliban have gone, people are not as fearful, and they are starting to choose their own partners," she added. Under the Taliban there were no female staff working at the prisons, which have been neglected over the years.

"The women just served their time, they had no defence and no voice," she said. The Taliban's strict rule stopped them from working and banned them from education. Women who were in prison during the final days of the Taliban ran free from the prison as the hardline Islamic regime fled.

There were now 13 female guards at the prison, but problems remained, Wareham said. Some female prisoners were being denied access to medical help, if the guards considered that they did not need it. "I have raised this issue with the staff and the ministry to ensure all prisoners are able to receive treatment if needed."

Trained in law, Saddique had been working at the courts in Kabul prior to the Taliban rule, which deprived her of her job. "I used to stay at home and just look after the family. Now I can help bring justice for my sisters here in Kabul," she said, adding that although the current administration was making good progress on women’s rights, there was still a long way to go before women started being able to stand up for their rights. "Women should be able to fight their own battles and be as strong as the men in our country," she stressed.

Theme (s): Gender Issues,


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