Women prisoners in Pakistan face inhuman conditions amid Covid-19 threat

New Delhi (NVI): Women inmates in Pakistan prisons are facing poor living conditions and inadequate medical care amid the imminent threat of Covid-19, which requires immediate attention from the Pakistani government, according to a new report by the country’s Human Rights Ministry.

The report, “Plight of Women in Pakistan’s Prisons,” submitted to Prime Minister Imran Khan on August 26, 2020, found that Pakistan’s prison laws did not meet international standards and that officials often ignore laws meant to protect women prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) that has taken congnizance of the situation as stated in the report.

As per the Pakistan Human Rights Ministry’s report, of the 1,121 women in prison as of mid-2020, 66 percent had not been convicted of any offense and were detained while awaiting conclusion of their trial.

More than 300 women were detained in facilities outside the districts where they lived, making family visits nearly impossible. The prisoners included 46 women over the age of 60 and 10 girls under the age of 18. Only 24 female health workers are available to provide full-time care to women and girls in prisons across the country, says the report.

“The Human Rights Ministry has highlighted the massive scale of mistreatment of women in prison and the need for broad and sustained reform,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “While an important step, this report can only bring change if Pakistani authorities follow its recommendations and end widespread abuse.”

The report has been brought out by a committee appointed by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on May 29 to examine the situation in women’s prisons.

On September 2, Khan ordered officials to carry out a Supreme Court decision compelling the release of women prisoners to reduce prison congestion and limit the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, says HRW.

The women to be released are awaiting trial for minor offenses or have served most of their prison terms. Khan also asked for “immediate reports on foreign women prisoners and women on death row for humanitarian consideration” and possible release.

The committee found that prison staff routinely failed to observe appropriate protections against the spread of the coronavirus. Prison staff failed to put social distancing measures in place or require prisoners and staff to wear masks. The committee urged comprehensive medical screening for all entering prisoners.

Children who accompany their mothers in prison face additional risks. The committee found that 134 women had children with them in prison, some as old as 9 and 10, despite the legal limit of 5 years.

At least 195 children were housed in prisons as of 2020. A critical lack of funding in the prison healthcare system has meant that mothers whose children are with them in prison often lack essential health care, leaving both the women and the children at risk of contracting infections.

One prisoner reported that her child, who had a developmental disability, was not offered any support services or medical care despite the prisoner’s repeated requests during her six years of incarceration, as per the report.

The committee has recommended reducing the proportion of prisoners held in pretrial detention, allowing women to be detained close to their homes to facilitate family visits, and reducing the number of women and girls in prison by developing alternative sentencing options and non-custodial measures for women and girls.

The committee also said that individual cases should be reviewed to identify possible human rights violations and humanitarian needs, and recommended more training of prison staff, resources, and policies to address the mental health needs of women in prison, and development of post-release programs to help women and girls reintegrate into the community.

The report includes a detailed analysis of the extent to which Pakistan’s national and provincial laws comply with the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the “Bangkok Rules”). The committee found important gaps requiring reform in the provincial and national legislative framework. They found that only Sindh province has enacted prison rules that comply with international standards.

Human Rights Watch has said that Pakistan needs urgent and comprehensive prison reform, with a particular focus on the rights of women, children, and at-risk prisoners.

Overcrowding remains a major problem in Pakistan. A November 2019 report by Pakistan found that 77,275 inmates were held in 114 prisons with a total capacity of 57,742. The majority of people detained were awaiting trial and had not been convicted.

“The Human Rights Ministry report is an opportunity for the Pakistan government to take meaningful steps to improve the treatment of women in prisons in the country and start a much-needed process of systemic, large-scale prison reform,” Adams said.