Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Imprisoned women, their children and their rights

Imprisoned women, their children and their rights

Imprisoned women, their children and their rights

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

her concerns.

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

other expenses.

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.


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