Few subjects generate as much debate as criminal justice, with people holding many views from liberal to hardline, but one thing even the most ideologically opposed people can agree on is that babies and toddlers should not grow up in prison.
Yet that’s exactly what is happening in many places in the world, including Cambodia, where it’s estimated that there are at least 170 mothers living in prisons with their children, and a further 50 pregnant women who are currently detained.
This causes great harm not just to children but to whole families and communities, and is a problem that needs tackling.
That’s why, as we celebrate International Women’s Day on Friday, we were so encouraged by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent speech on this very topic (The Phnom Penh Post, “PM calls for mercy in sentencing women with children”), when he called for the government to “review legal proceedings for female prisoners, bring them to trial quickly and reduce their punishment because some face many problems”.
The best way to reduce the number of children in prisons is for civil society organisations, including ourselves, to work closely with the government and its ministries on developing a better system, and this speech is sure to accelerate such collaboration.
The speech was also very timely, as This Life Cambodia has just completed some in-depth research into mothers who are in prison, exploring the issue in detail through interviews with 36 women in Siem Reap prison.
We have been working in Cambodia’s prisons for many years, helping families stay in contact during a time when one is imprisoned, and working with offenders to reduce reoffending upon release.
We had seen the problem of imprisoned mothers and children and wanted to understand why these women did or did not take children into prison with them, what circumstances led to their crimes, and what the impact of imprisonment is on them and their children.
What we learned was that Hun Sen is absolutely right that these women often face many problems.
The women we interviewed came from a variety of backgrounds, including relatively wealthy families and extremely poor ones, but all of them had ended up in difficult circumstances, often involving divorce, poverty or substance abuse.
The women who chose to take their young children into prison were almost all reluctant to do so, but thought that the alternatives – such as their children being sent to orphanages or placed in unstable family situations – were worse.
We spoke to one woman called Kunthea (not her real name). Arrested at a guesthouse on a drugs charge, she felt like she had no choice but to bring her two year old child to prison.
Her husband would not take care of the child, her parents had died, and her siblings shunned her because of her drug use.
She did consider the idea of placing her child in residential care, but believed her loving care and the support that some NGOs would provide within prisons were a better option, or “the least worst option”.
Nonetheless, she worries about the long term impact on her child, particularly health, limited educational opportunities and the bad role models they are being exposed to.
Kunthea is right to be concerned.
Our research shows that children who accompany their mothers to prison face a number of challenges, including problems with their development and stigmatisation in the outside world.
No matter how we feel about crime, we have to try to find a way of dealing with it without unnecessarily sentencing small children to punishment too.
That’s why we think Hun Sen is right to raise these concerns, and to suggest more lenient sentencing.
We believe that non-custodial sentencing options should be pursued for women with children who are facing imprisonment wherever possible, especially where minor offences have been committed.
In some cases, of course, a custodial sentence cannot be avoided and that’s when we believe that child-friendly spaces and tailored services for mothers and children in Cambodia’s prisons are needed to ensure the best interests of the child are served.
We also believe that law enforcement and the justice system can do more to understand a convicted woman’s family circumstances during sentencing to ensure diversionary/ alternative measures are considered and implemented where possible.
Additionally, there is room for the many excellent NGOs working in prisons to collaborate more closely on developing solutions to these problems, and providing improved support to women and children.
Cambodia can take a lead
Cambodia is certainly not unique in having to confront the problem of how to handle mothers and pregnant women in conflict with the law.
Our founder, Billy Gorter, has recently been asked to speak on this problem in locations as far afield as Thailand and Georgia.
Cambodia can, however, take a lead in finding better alternatives, and this speech by Hun Sen must act as the catalyst for change.
It’s clear that any such changes must be led by the government, but organisations in Cambodian civil society – including ourselves – should help by providing support and advice based on our own research and experiences.
By the time mothers have come into conflict with the law, there are no perfect outcomes left available, but that shouldn’t stop us all from working together for something better than the status quo, and the innocent children who are harmed by it.
Se Chhin is deputy director of This Life Cambodia.