ISLAMABAD         -    As many as 66.7 percent of the total female prison population in Pakistan comprises under trial prisoners (UTPs) and the issue urgently needs to be addressed as some women may have additional parental responsibilities, reveals a report of high-powered government committee.  

The committee in its report titled “Plight of Women in Pakistan’s Prisons” has noted that the factor of additional parental responsibilities must be considered at the time of sending women to prisons.

“Reducing the female UTP population would also require the broader training of judicial officers and provincial authorities to understand gender specific concerns and teach them sentencing alternatives available under the law,” says the recently released report of the committee chaired by Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari.  Out of the total 66.7 percent of female UTPs, 62.2 percent of women UTPs are in Punjab, 72.2 percent in Sindh, 78.3 percent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and 80 percent are in Balochistan, says the report quoting official data.

The committee that was earlier constituted by Prime Minister Imran Khan to investigate the plight of women in Pakistan’s prisons has made several key observations and recommendations in terms of legislative, policy and training reforms needed to protect the rights of female prisoners in the country. Earlier this week, Dr Mazari presented the report to PM.  The report notes that children accompanying women in jails are “secondary victims” as “spending formative years in jail affects their intellectual growth and emotional development.” While the Pakistan Prison Rules (PPR) define the maximum age for a child to remain in prison with their mothers, this is not always implemented in practice, it says adding that in Sindh, for instance, children often remain in incarceration with their mothers beyond the age of 6 years that is prescribed in the rules.  

It recommended that such separation, according to the Bangkok Rules of prison, should only be carried out “in the best interest of the child only when alternate accommodation and shelter has been ensured.”

The report recommends that regular visits between mothers and children should be allowed if a child is to reside outside of the prison. “Meetings between mothers and children should always allow physical contact and never have screens or physical barriers separating them.”

The report finds that there are total 134 mothers who have children residing with them within prisons throughout the country. The total number of children in prisons is 195. There are 46 female senior citizen prisoners and 10 female juveniles in total. Approximately 300 prisoners are detained away from their home districts, according to the prison authorities. 

The report notes that although women only make up a small proportion of the total prison population in Pakistan, they have been found to be “less knowledgeable, more disempowered and vulnerable to the existing criminal justice system.” “Their gender-specific struggles and issues are over ignored or overlooked in terms of policy and discourse pertaining to the rights of prisoners.” In order to account for their specific needs and ensure that their fundamental rights are protected, there is a need to put in place institutional arrangements to address the plight of female prisoners, whether convicted or awaiting trial, in a comprehensive manner in Pakistan, says the report.

Based on official data received by the committee; 1,121 out of 73,242 prisoners in Pakistan are female, accounting to 1.5 percent of the total prison population. The largest female prison population is in Punjab (727), followed by Sindh (205) and KP (166). There are only 20 female prisoners in Balochistan and three in Gilgit Baltistan (GB). The committee recommended for fast-tracking revision of prison rules while noting that Pakistan Prison Rules do not mandate the minimum requirements set out in the Bangkok Rules.

The committee observed that although all of the provinces reported that remissions were granted to female prisoners, there are currently no diversionary measures, pre-trial or sentencing alternatives for women prisoners in any province in Pakistan. It recommended to strengthen legislation in terms of developing and defining ‘Sentencing Guidelines’ and a change in sentencing policies.

The prison authorities should also focus on introducing post release programs to ensure that these women become contributing members of the society and are empowered to not succumb to committing criminal offences again, the committee recommended.

The committee noted that the issue of mental health among female prisoners remains unaddressed in most cases. “Women have a likelihood of a history of abuse, as well as a higher rate of mental illness, suicide and self-harm.” All provincial prison authorities must train their prison staff to provide psychological and emotional support to female prisoners, which includes listening to their complaints, praising and acknowledging good behaviours and showing empathy and consideration, the report said.

It recommended that greater efforts must also be made to provide access to legal counsel to women prisoners and ensure that they are aware of their legal rights and recourse to justice. The committee observed that there is a need for prison authorities to review and highlight the cases of particularly vulnerable women languishing in prisons across Pakistan.

In terms of legal recommendations, it said that Pakistan Prison Rules may be amended to mandate that women prisoners shall be allocated, to the extent possible, to prisons close to their home, taking into account their caretaking responsibilities, as well as the individual woman’s preference. The Prison Rules should provide a detailed mechanism to register and address complaints regarding abuse or harassment of female prisoners, it said.

The report concluded that there is also a need to revise the existing prison rules (in all provinces) to incorporate the duties and responsibilities of psychologists, mental health professionals, and social workers etc. that work with prisoners. The committee comprised of federal secretaries of the ministries of human rights, and interior; all provincial homes secretaries, and inspectors general of prisons; and home secretary, and inspector general of prisons of Gilgit Baltistan. It also included two representatives of NGOs including Barrister Sarah Belal of Justice Project Pakistan, and Ms Haya Emaan Zahid of Legal Aid Society.