There is a growing need for the protection of children who are being nursed by mothers while they are serving sentences in jail.  Some argue that these women have been framed by their tormentors and are wrongly sentenced by the courts.  Now, under the Pakistan Penal Code many raped women who were serving under the Hudood Ordinance found some cause for relief for getting justice after being wrongfully accused of Zina (there is no definition of rape in the Hudood ordinance which further victimizes women for failure to bring four witnesses for her rape).   Whatever the case may be, young children that are under the care of their mothers under the mother and infant program, become the prime victims of horrendous jails that provide a most heinous environment, and psychological and physical problems for these children to grow into. This is a grave concern as these innocent children are hardly looked after, and remain illiterate because of lack of facilities and opportunities.

No matter what crimes are committed by the female inmates of jails, usually their toddlers are kept with them if they are nursing mothers. Many mothers are allowed to keep their nursing children with themselves,  because they feel there is no one to look after them outside.  But these children are let go when they are 5 years old in most cases. The environments they enter along with their mothers is not healthy for their growth and well-being. They suffer from trauma and other psychological problems. Mostly, they become accustomed to the environments they are growing up in.  Even though there is a child protection system in place, many mothers do not trust it as it is often dysfunctional; thus they keep their children with them instead.  There is a strong need for them to foster education that is synchronized with the environment these students are in, to teach them even basic manners. Those raised in the jails face many problems adjusting to the world once they leave. They are misfits, usually entering into the child labor force or becoming part of illegal gangs that turn them into criminals.  

At present, there are about six to seven NGOs that are working towards the welfare of juvenile prisoners by preparing them for matriculation so they are better equipped once they leave the walls of the prison. The experiment is working for them, but a meagre number of NGOs is not enough to cater to the thousands of children who remain within the cells.

The government must take heed of the matter lest they find themselves in the crux of the problem of children without education or vocational training leaving jail and adopting illegal ways to sustain themselves.  Moreover, juveniles need to get necessary education that can help them face a harsh world where there is no respect for human worth and dignity.

These children grow up faster than others; they have lost a part of their childhood in the environments they are living in.  Despite their young age, abandoned by their guardians, being poor and unexposed to the outer world, they can still resort to any lifestyle.  Mostly, due to lack of education and the stigma of jail, they fall easily into the world of crime in order to survive. They cannot enter mainstream society as they are considered outcasts by the “respectable” and “civilised” world.  Ostracized and helpless, they have nowhere to turn for a better chance of leading even marginally dignified lives.  

Usually these children are let go at the age of  seven, some even as young as five years old, from the prison cells, whereas the Shariat considers the age of twelve as puberty and age fourteen is considered by the UN to be  an acceptable age for leaving the cells. At seven or five years of age, children are even more vulnerable to a crime infested world.  Another point of concern is that children leaving as young as seven become prone to  molestation, abuse and are used in pornography.  It must be noted here that the bill in favor of these children has been tabled before Parliament, but no action has so far been taken; meaning the state is not interested in protecting these children.  Nor is there any serious effort to keep them away from harm’s way.  

The schooling of these children becomes a problem, as such children, for the crimes of their mother, are not allowed to mingle with other children.  This gives them a sense of deeper alienation. It is like a blind well that these children are thrown into with no way to climb back up, and due to absolutely no crime of their own.  Their cause needs to be taken up seriously by policy makers; their futures need urgent protection.

The writer is a freelance columnist.  Follow her on Twitter