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"Babies behind bars"- Child law bulletin issue 4
Justice for Children Trust
May 01, 2010

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Justice for Children Trust has noted with concern a disturbing trend in the country's prisons. Female inmates are reportedly living with their children in prison cells, which increase the children's vulnerability. This is despite the fact that prisons are facing a plethora of challenges which range from food and nutritional deficiencies, serious water and sanitation problems, lack of health care, clothing and overcrowding problems. These conditions are not conducive for any child's survival and development.

It is sad to note that the challenges facing the countries' prisons have not spared children whose mothers have been imprisoned as they live under the same conditions. This means that even infants are falling into the same bracket with hundreds of the female prisoners at Chikurubi Maximum Prison and other prisons in Zimbabwe. Of particular concern is the fact that children are vulnerable to airborne diseases and skin related diseases. Their plight is further worsened by the fact that most of the cells have no light bulbs and the inmates' clothes and blankets are infested with lice.

A prison tour carried out by JCT in partnership with the Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (ZACRO) and Prison Fellowship of Zimbabwe in four provinces of country from the 14th to the 17th of April 2009 revealed that some of the children are already suffering from malnutrition and related illnesses. The situation is worse for those children whose mothers are HIV positive and are therefore not breast feeding. The children are in an urgent need of supplementary food and other basic necessities.

What is saddening is the fact that the government has no budget for the children of female inmates. Section 58 of the Prisons Act, on the admission of a female prisoner who has a young child states that, "subject to such conditions as may be specified by the Commissioner, any unweaned infant child of a female prisoner may be received into prison with its mother and may be supplied with clothing and necessecities at the public expense". In view of the above provision, the government has no legal obligation to provide for the upkeep of children of female inmates and as a result the children end up relying on the inadequate rations given to their mothers.

While all deserving law breakers should be sent to jail, innocent children should not be caught in the crossfire. Children have independent rights which must be respected, protected and promoted. The failure by the government to have a specific budget allocated to children of female inmates is a violation of children's rights to protection, survival and development. Our call is for the legislature to be guided by Article 30 of the African Charter on the Welfare and Rights of the Child which provides that, "state parties . . . shall undertake to provide special treatment to expectant mothers and to mothers of infants and young children . . . "in coming up with appropriate sentences if they have committed an offence for which they would have been convicted. In fact the same article advocates for "a non-custodial sentence" to be considered first. In the short term, it is recommended that foster care should be provided where an imprisoned woman can not find relatives who are willing to take up custody of her children considering that very few people would want to add an extra mouth to feed to their families. Judicial officers are also urged to consider incarcerating a pregnant or nursing woman as the very last resort. Section 58 of the Prison Act should also in the meantime be amended to ensure that the government takes its responsibility of taking care of children of female inmates. It is high time the government respect, protect and promote children's rights, including the rights of all children in prison

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