Women behind bars — The nightmare of prisons in Pakistan

Women prisoners, who do not have anyone to take care of their children, bring them to the prison with them. Jails in Pakistan are one of the worst places for their upbringing.


Women prisoners, who do not have anyone to take care of their children, bring them to the prison with them. PHOTO: DAWN

November 1, 2023

ISLAMABAD – A housewife from Sheikhupura was five months pregnant when she was sentenced to one-year imprisonment in 2021. “I felt as though I had sentenced my unborn child to a life behind bars since I did not know when they would let me out,” said the 26-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous.

She served her sentence in Kot Lakhpat Jail in the neighbouring district of Lahore. Her baby was not just born in the jail hospital, he also stayed with her until she completed her sentence. She also has an older child who was taken care of by her family during her prison stint.

Another former inmate, whose two-year-old child stayed with her during her three-year prison stint, complained of jail food neither being sufficient nor nutritious enough for children. Education facilities too, are woefully inadequate, she said. “Teachers were unqualified and they did not take classes regularly. Books were so old and tattered that they were hardly legible,” she explained. The government, in fact, does not even provide these basic educational facilities — they are facilitated by various non-government organisations.

She also lamented the lack of privacy needed to breastfeed children. “Since we had to do this in the open, we were often ridiculed,” she said. The jail wardens would routinely make lewd remarks and often beat them up for “shamelessly exposing” themselves. Even the children were not spared from the violence, she said, which leaves long-lasting effects on their emotional and mental wellbeing.

Moazzam Ali Shah, a Lahore-based lawyer who also champions prison reforms, said children living with their imprisoned mothers are usually under the age of six.

Double jeopardy

The prison infrastructure is often ill-equipped to cater to the special needs of women prisoners. For one, they lack arrangements and products for women going through menstruation.

Amina Begum, who spent two years in Kot Lakhpat Jail for possessing drugs with the intent to sell them, lambasted the jail authorities for not taking care of women’s sanitary needs. “It was very rare that we got the sanitary pads we needed. I have seen many women tearing off pieces of their shawls to use as pads,” she said.

Sabah Begum endured much worse. She spent six years behind bars after being sentenced on multiple counts of theft. “I was slapped, made to beg for menstrual pads and do much more that I cannot speak of.”

“The Bangkok Rules provide a clear gender-specific guideline for the treatment of female prisoners,” said Shah. Officially known as ‘The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders’, the rules were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, which includes Pakistan, on Dec 22, 2010. Consisting of 70 sections, “These guidelines clearly acknowledge that women have unique healthcare needs, which includes menstrual health, and that all women must be provided sanitary products free of charge and in a manner that respects their privacy and dignity.”

Under its international commitments, Pakistan is obligated to follow these guidelines, but current conditions show that this obligation exists merely on paper.

Sabah Begum shared that she has not been allowed back into her home since her release because her husband and in-laws know that she was subjected to sexual violence in prison because wardens bragged about having taken advantage of her situation.

A report by Justice Project Pakistan, a Lahore-based NGO working on prison reforms, reveals that such shocking sexual mistreatment is common in Pakistani prisons. The report states that 82 out of 134 female prisoners in Faisalabad jail reported to have been sexually violated.

One of the major reasons for such rampant abuse in Pakistani prisons is the shortage of women-only sections in jails. Punjab, the most densely-populated province in the country has just one women-only jail in Multan — other jails may have areas specifically designated for women, but given the overcrowding, they are often times forced to share spaces with men.

However, even in these designated areas, guards and wardens are often men due to the shortage of female prison staff. Female prisoners frequently report having been coerced to engage in sexual acts with male prison guards in exchange for small favours.

The lack of modern monitoring mechanisms, such as security cameras and the absence of publicly accountable and socially responsible prison supervision means that this abusive behaviour often goes unchecked. Prisoners who do wish to report the abuse they suffer often cannot do so due to a total absence of accountability mechanisms. In fact, they fear more retaliation if they dare complain about the misbehaviour of guards and wardens to their superiors.

Sabah Begum’s experience of submitting her complaint shows how it turned out to be a futile exercise. “I filed a complaint form but I did not have any proof so there was not much else I could have done,” she said. “But they protected each other and I was laughed at.”

Packing prisoners like sardines

Six prisoners died inside Lahore’s Camp Jail within 12 days of December 2021. The reason for death was they did not have adequate clothing and heat to protect them from the freezing winter temperatures, which was further exacerbated by the ill-equipped healthcare infrastructure within the jail. A news report by the Express Tribune revealed that a total of 200 prisoners had died across Punjab that year.

It seems like more of a miracle that prisoners in Pakistan — particularly women — do not suffer from such medical exigencies more frequently. Otherwise, the fact that there are only 24 female health workers available to cater to the medical needs of several thousand female prisoners across Pakistan is nothing short of a recipe for disaster. In 2020, the Federal Ministry of Human Rights report ‘Plight of Women in Pakistan’s Prisons’, highlighted the urgent need to increase medical staff for female prisoners, particularly gynaecologists and mental health specialists.

Another major reason for the lack of adequate healthcare for prisoners is their sheer number. The prisons are so overcrowded that it is impossible to keep them tidy and free from disease-causing conditions. This problem was underscored by the Islamabad High Court in a landmark verdict in January 2020. It noted that holding prisoners in an overcrowded prison without sufficient sanitation is “tantamount to cruel and inhumane treatment”.

In its 38-page verdict, the court went to the extent of ruling that “the incarcerated prisoners, subjected to the unimaginable degrading and inhumane treatment highlighted in these proceedings, may have become entitled to seek damages against the prison authorities and the state”.

To cite just one instance of this overcrowding, Kot Lakhpat Jail, which was built in 1965 to house 1,053 prisoners now houses more than 4,000 — neither having the physical infrastructure nor the money to take care of prisoners adequately.

Women prisoners are even worse off. The sole women-only prison in Punjab has an official capacity to cater to just 166 women, but it currently holds 877 women. Living in such overcrowded premises is neither easy nor conducive to a mentally stable environment.

Requesting not to be named, a woman who spent five years in Kot Lakhpat Jail explained: “The lack of space meant that sometimes 10 of us would share a cell built for four. It was difficult to even find a place to sleep”.

While serving time on charges of financial fraud, she reported routine violations of her personal space. She would be forced to use unsanitary and unhygienic facilities for bathing and washing since there was no other alternative, causing her to contract a host of medical problems including skin diseases such as scabies and lice. “Overcrowding was not just uncomfortable, it was also dangerous because it allowed disease to spread quickly among the prisoners,” she said.

She also experienced immense anxiety and depression during her imprisonment and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to this day. She pointed out that she was not the only one. “Everyone experienced them, at times either becoming violent towards others or inflicting self-harm.”

Reform or bust

A report released by the Human Rights Watch, a New York-based human rights organisation in March 2023 titled A Nightmare for Everyone, puts prisons in Punjab under the spotlight, documenting “widespread deficiencies in prison healthcare in Pakistan”.

Following the report, the Punjab government considered introducing reform mechanisms aimed at reducing the number of prisoners and improving the quality of food and hygiene at the jail.

On April 21, 2023, former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited Kot Lakhpat Jail, where he specifically inspected the healthcare facilities designated for female prisoners and directed the administration to improve sanitation and hygiene.

In reality, however, the prime minister’s directives are all but forgotten and the provincial government’s reforms did not see the light of the day. Former prisoners still give vivid descriptions of massive overcrowding and the accompanying problems of poor sanitary and hygiene conditions.

Shah believes that the central reason why prisons are so bad is “the existence of colonial-era laws governing the prison system”. He argues that “legislation in Pakistan has not been made to fit modern human rights standards.”

The most important aspect of Shah’s 13 years of advocacy includes campaigning for a decrease in the number of prisoners in Lahore’s jails by approximately 50 per cent. This reduction, he believes, can partly be achieved by providing under-trial prisoners with greater access to paroles and by awarding community service sentences to minor offenders under the Probation of Offenders Ordinance of 1960.

The 2020 report by the Ministry of Human Rights reveals that 66pc of all women in prisons were still being tried by courts without convictions.

Jails, he said, must also introduce modern monitoring technologies such as digital record-keeping, biometric access controls and close-circuit television cameras for surveillance and monitoring of both, the prisoners and the prison staff.

Shah also stressed the importance of a third party with the power to conduct regular inspections of prisons and hold incompetent and corrupt jail staff accountable as a mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability in prison administration. He cited the example of India’s Tihar Jail in Delhi, where regular inspections have helped make it an efficient prison with a “flourishing internal industry that focuses on providing employable skills and vocational training to prisoners”.

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