In November 2001, Licadho medical staff found that Neary, imprisoned since 1995,
was seven months pregnant.
She reported having had several sexual encounters with a prison guard earlier that
year at the guard's insistence. Although she resisted, they had intercourse three
times. Neary said the guard promised to help her get out of prison.
Upon learning she was pregnant, the guard insisted she take unidentified medicines
to terminate the pregnancy. She took them, but with no result.
In January this year Neary gave birth at the prison because she did not have enough
money for a hospital delivery. The baby's father no longer works at the prison. Neary
last saw him when she was seven months pregnant.
Neary cannot produce enough breast milk for her son, but will not tell the prison
medical officer because she thinks he will criticize her for having a "relationship"
with a guard.
Neary asked LICADHO staff to find the guard so he can help her and her son. She wants
to find him, leave the prison and live somewhere safe.
The word "prisoner" calls to mind images of violent, hardened criminals.
But Cambodian prisons house another unseen population: inmates' children. As women
serve sentences or await trials, so do their children, living the life of the accused
without having committed a crime.
Some women have no extended family to care for their children outside prison. Others
have infants who are still breast feeding and deemed too young to separate from their
mothers. Still others give birth while serving time or awaiting sentencing. Regardless
of circumstance, these mothers feel that raising their children in prison is the
best available option.
Despite Cambodian legislation and procedures meant to protect imprisoned pregnant
women, or mothers and accompanying children, authorities continue to ignore their
needs. As in Neary's case, prison life denies them access to suitable health care,
adequate nutrition, education and basic human rights.
From October 2001 to April 2002, 15 children were living with 13 incarcerated or
detained mothers in seven prisons. A further seven pre-trial detainees were pregnant.
The relatively small number of children affected gives hope that agencies can address
the situation before it worsens. Yet the risks facing children already growing up
in prisons cannot be denied.
Most of these children (14 out of 15) are aged five or below. Five of them are under
six months old. The mothers' sentences average six years, with time served until
now averaging one and a half years. Their children could therefore remain in jail
for most of their formative years.
As a pregnant woman, Reak Smey does not think she gets enough vitamins, but she does
not "dare to tell" anyone at the prison. She knows prison staff do not
have the resources to help her and feels they will not respond if she tells them
Prison rations lack ample nutrients for adults, let alone children. The Prisons Department
allots 1,000 riel per prisoner per day for food, but in reality this money also covers
Only two of the seven prisons examined by Licadho consistently provide extra food
for new mothers and pregnant women. Fourteen out of 20 mothers (70 percent) reported
not receiving enough food for themselves and their children. Eight out of 13 mothers
said their children regularly complain of hunger.
Due to nutritional deficiencies, seven out of ten women with infants are unable to
breastfeed their babies sufficiently, and supplement their infants' diets in any
way possible. One woman feeds her baby rice porridge; another gives her infant sugar
Though children frequently share their mothers' meals, prisons do not usually distribute
extra food to prisoners with dependents. Sothy splits her meals with her three children;
every day, her son says he is hungry.
Kun Lina has difficulty getting medicine for her daughter, Srey Neang. If she has
no money the prison doctor ignores her. If she goes to him in the morning, he tells
her to wait until the afternoon. Kun Lina tells him Srey Neang's illness is serious
as she has a fever, but the doctor does not listen.
Prison health care for mothers, their children and pregnant women is insufficient
at best. Poverty prevents many women from seeking outside treatment. Some prison
staff do not permit women to leave the prison to visit health professionals or simply
ignore their requests for care. Available medicines are usually intended for adults
rather than children, and prison health service providers are overworked, understaffed
and often not appropriately trained.
Three of five health staff interviewed said they lacked the time or supplies to care
for all prisoners. None of the health staff interviewed is a qualified medical doctor,
and one has no medical training at all.
Seven-year-old Leng is afraid because a female prisoner pinches and hits her. The
woman hurts her every day, but Leng does not know what to do. She does not tell her
mother because she is afraid her mother will fight with the other prisoner. Being
alone, her mother cannot protect her. Leng has not told the prison staff.
None of the prisons Licadho studied regulate interaction between prisoners and inmates'
children. The lack of concern by both staff and mothers about such contact is disconcerting,
especially as some prisons do hold convicted child molesters and child rapists.
Given the lack of restrictions, a child living with its mother could associate with
such prisoners, despite their convictions.
One prison doctor, Sok Sai, said that the children's inability to attend school alters
their behavior. He said they live in "darkness" and see only prisoners,
some of whom are "very bad". As the children mature he fears they might
follow this example.
Living in prison severely limits the scope of a child's world. As several mothers
stated, their children literally see nothing beyond the prison walls. They experience
mental as well as physical confinement.
Isolation from the outside world, including from friends and relatives, can hinder
moral and social development. Obstacles to attending school inhibit intellectual
growth, add to isolation and lessen opportunities for interacting with other children.
No doctor examined Sopheap's son after she gave birth because she had no money. Sopheap
wants a doctor to examine him, but she "doesn't dare ask" for one.
A culture of fear and helplessness surrounds children living in prisons. Though Cambodian
procedures require a system to address prisoners' grievances, there is no adequate
structure to do so. Many women don't complain as they are convinced they will not
be heard. Some are afraid that complaining will cause problems for them or their
Phol, who has been prison di-rector for eight years, does not know of any Cambodian
laws related to children living in prisons with their mothers. Phol said the prison
has to support the children by giving them medicine or food, but this is not a law,
it is "just written in a letter from the government".
Legislation and procedures intended to address this situation are already in place.
This includes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Cambodian protocol
regarding the treatment of women and children in prisons.
Some prison administrators were aware of these policies, but said a lack of funds
means they cannot follow them. However, most prison chiefs remain ignorant of the
procedures. Four out of eight prison directors said there were no policies regarding
inmates' children living in prisons. Five out of eight said there were no policies
regarding pregnant women.
Equally important, few women or children know their rights. Twelve out of fourteen
women knew nothing about relevant Cambodian laws.
Prison staff and the Ministry of Interior's Prisons Department are not fulfilling
their role in maintaining a high standard of care for children, their mothers, and
pregnant women in prisons. Simply put, they have failed to serve every child's best
In conclusion, the current system needs to be modified, whether through the creation
of a mother- and-child-centered secure facility, alternatives to prison for women
with young children, or revised legislation that is properly enforced. If such changes
are not accompanied by accountability they will make little difference, and the prison
system will continue to compromise the rights of blameless children.
In celebration of International Children's Day, June 1, Licadho will issue the
report in Khmer and English and provide donations (milk, fruits, rice, clothing and
toys) to 15 babies/children and their mothers in seven Cambodian prisons.
The report will be available on request to [email protected] or can be viewed
at http://goto.CambodiaToday from June 1.