It was the summer of 2016 when Shagufta, a 29-year-old resident of Mardan, and her three-month-old daughter, sat in her brother’s car for their trip to Islamabad.
As soon as she settled down with her toddler, Shagufta’s brother handed her a small plastic bag for safekeeping. Not thinking twice about the task, she took it and kept it on her.
As soon as the journey started, the motorway police stopped the vehicle for checking at a security post. During checking, the police found hashish inside the bag Shagufta was safekeeping for her brother. Shocked and bewildered, and before she could explain anything, her brother disowned the item completely, after which police whisked away the young mother along with her daughter.
Betrayed by her own brother, the mother-daughter duo spent almost three months in jail even though she had not yet been convicted. Luckily, she managed to secure bail from the Peshawar High Court. However, four years on, the case is yet to be decided.
Shagufta still remembers each horrid day she spent in prison — an unfortunate abode for suspects awaiting the outcome of their trials. She is not alone when it comes to such incarcerations, which reflect one of the many areas of the country’s criminal justice system aching for reform.
A recent report of the federal Human Rights Ministry stated the country’s total prison population at 73,242, including 1,121 women, of which 166 are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
About two-thirds of these women prisoners across the country — 66.7% — are those who have not yet been convicted but have been confined behind bars for months and years.
The highest figure of under-trial prisoners is in Balochistan, at 80%.
The KP government recently formed a committee headed by MPA Ayesha Bano which included social activist Attiya Zahid. The body was tasked to visit women’s jails across the province and present a report on their conditions along with its recommendations.
Disputing the figures in the Human Rights Ministry’s report regarding KP, Zahid said the true figures of under-trial women prisoners is much higher.
Talking about the social stigma faced by women prisoners, Zahid said they suffer from all sides as even their own families abandon them for fear of association with ‘criminals’. This detachment from loved ones compounds their misery as it deprives them of a safe place to go to once and if they are released. Moreover, with families shunning away such ‘prisoners’, they cannot make bail even if they are granted one and thus continue to suffer behind bars.
Once the ministry’s report was released, Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted in September this year that he had directed authorities to release women prisoners who fulfil certain criteria. Those directions, however, are yet to be acted upon on the ground.
Across the country, there are 134 women behind bars who are rearing their children there after either having given birth in prison or been jailed with their infants. In order to cater to the medical needs of women prisoners across the country, there are only 24 female medical workers — an extremely low figure in contrast to the women population in jails.
Of the total women prisoners, 46 are over the age of 60 while 10 are under 18 years of age. Of the 10 girls in prison, nine are in KP and all are yet to be convicted.
Zehra Durrani, who works on anti-narcotics cases, also expressed dismay at the incarceration of women. She said the data shows that most of the times, such women are duped by their loved ones into smuggling contraband and then left to rot in prison if the operation is busted.
Durrani regretted how these women, if released from prison, fail to regain their status in society.
“This is why many of them prefer to stay inside as they feel more ‘at home’ there,” she explained.