Afghanistan’s approximately 30 women’s prisons have several hundred children accompanying their mothers. Here’s the story of one of them.
JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Meena got chickenpox, measles and the mumps in prison. She was born there, nursed there and weaned there. Now 11 years old, she has spent her entire life in prison and will probably spend the rest of her childhood there as well.
The girl has never committed a crime, but her mother, Shirin Gul, is a convicted serial killer serving a life sentence, and under Afghan prison policy she can keep her daughter with her until she turns 18.
Meena was even conceived in prison, and has never been out, not even for a brief visit. She has never seen a television set, she said, and has no idea what the world outside the walls looks like.
Her plight is extreme, but not unique. In the women’s wing of the Nangarhar provincial prison here, she is one of 36 children jailed with their mothers, among 42 women in all. But none of the other children have spent such a long time in custody; most of their mothers’ sentences are much shorter.
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Locking up small children with their mothers is a common practice in Afghanistan, especially when there are no other close relatives, or fathers are absent or estranged. Child advocates estimate that there are hundreds of imprisoned Afghan children whose only crime is having a convicted mother.
There is a program that runs orphanages for children whose mothers are imprisoned, but the women have to agree to let their sons and daughters be taken, and the program does not cover many areas of Afghanistan, including Jalalabad.
At Meena’s prison, the women’s cells are arranged around a spacious courtyard, shaded by mulberry trees, and the children have free rein of it. There is a set of rusting, homemade swings, monkey bars and slides that end in muddy puddles.
A schoolroom is in one of the cells, with a white board and a mixture of benches and chairs, seating 16 children at eight desks. A single teacher looks after three grades, first through third, an hour a day for each grade; at age 11, Meena has reached only the second grade.
When I met with Meena, she sat down, clutching a yellow plastic bag under her shawl. “My whole life has passed in this prison,” she said, during a tense interview in the women’s wing on Nov. 26. “Yes, I wish I could go out. I want to leave…