For more than 300 Afghan children, many older than 5, home is mother’s cellblock


Zakirullah, 9, in white, with his friends in the women’s wing of the Nangarhar Provincial Prison, where he and dozens of other children live with their jailed mothers. PHOTO/Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Zakirullah, a 9-year-old boy, is one of hundreds of Afghan children in prison because their mothers are. Even his dreams seem bound to the cellblock.

“I dreamed last night that someone had kidnapped me, and you came and rescued me, and you fought with them and defeated them,” he told one of the guards recently, tugging on the man’s belt to get him to pay attention. The boy’s white shirt had turned a pale brown from lack of laundering, and it hung loose over his ragged pants.

“That’s good, I guess,” replied the guard, a tall man with a silvery beard who is known for his avuncular manner with the dozens of children in the prison.

“And then you gave us a tip!” the boy said, hugging the guard’s leg as they both laughed.

They were in Nangarhar Provincial Prison’s women’s wing, where 43 children are incarcerated with their mothers, 25 of them of school age.

Among them is Meena, 11, the daughter of the serial killer Shirin Gul, who is serving a life sentence and refuses to let her daughter leave the prison, holding Meena’s freedom hostage to her own.

Like Meena and the others, Zakirullah is likely to spend much of his childhood held with his mother, the victim of a system that allows convicts to decide the fates of their young children, who often have nowhere else to go.

A survey of Afghan prisons this month by The New York Times concluded that at least 333 children are imprisoned with their mothers nationwide, according to interviews with officials at 33 of the country’s 34 provincial prisons.

Of those 333 children, 103 of them are older than 5, the age at which they are eligible for transfer to orphanages. The total does not include children in juvenile detention for crimes of their own.

Many of these Afghan women are locked up for so-called social crimes — often offenses that would not be crimes in most countries, like running away from their husbands, committing adultery (or often merely being accused of it) or refusing to submit to abusive practices like forced marriage.

“Many of the women in prison are there on the account of moral crimes, often as a result of being victims of forced marriage or domestic violence,” said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, Unicef’s chief of communication, advocacy and civic engagement.

In Kabul’s now-closed Badam Bagh women’s prison, during a rare and unauthorized visit by The New York Times in 2014, 65 percent of the women there were imprisoned on morals charges.

The children caught up in their mothers’ cases have few options.

While there are four orphanages that accept children older than 5 whose mothers are imprisoned, they are already filled to capacity. There are 356 children, most of them ages 5 to 18, in the four homes, known as child support centers.

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