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Pakistan: Why are more women being imprisoned?

Jamila Achakzai in Islamabad
March 19, 2024

The number of women inmates in Pakistan is rising. Accusations of blasphemy and limited economic opportunities for women are among the reasons behind the increase.

Women in masks at a jail in Pakistan
Pakistan is increasingly witnessing higher rates of female incarcerationImage: National Commission on the Status of Women

Bricklayer Rafiq Masih and his four children have been living in fear since August 2021, when his wife was arrested in Islamabad for allegedly committing blasphemy.

Having lived in Pakistan's capital for many years, the Christian minority family had to move to the adjoining city of Rawalpindi to live a low-profile life for their own safety.

Shagufta Kiran, 48, a nurse, was moved into detention on the charge of making derogatory remarks about Islam in a WhatsApp messaging group.

"During a discussion, some Muslim members of the WhatsApp group found Shagufta's words about the teachings of Islam blasphemous, made screenshots and reported them to police," Masih, 55, told DW.

Police "raided our house, bundled her along with our one son and daughter and their mobile phones and a laptop and drove away."

Blasphemy accusations trigger communal mob violence

Masih's two children returned the next day, but they had no clue about their mother's whereabouts. With the help of lawyers, it took him six months to trace his wife in Rawalpindi's main Adiala Jail.

"Now that she faces a blasphemy trial, I, along with my children, live in a shanty quarter in Rawalpindi. We avoid public attention and mostly stay indoors, fearing mob violence as is often seen in such cases," he said.

Masih takes up minor construction work in the neighborhood and prefers to work at night for safety.

Under a law imposed by Pakistani military dictator General Ziaul Haq in the 1980s, insulting Islam, its prophet Muhammad and its Quran holy book, whether it's with words, images or actions, carries the death penalty.

Pakistan has so far not executed anyone for blasphemy, but mob attacks against suspected blasphemers and their houses and communities are common.

Masih said there should be no threat to his wife's life in a high-security prison, but he is concerned because many judges hearing her case had been changed in the last three years, delaying justice for her.

Female prisoners 'especially vulnerable' to abuse

Like Kiran, most women prisoners in the country are awaiting trial, according to Pakistan's Ministry of Human Rights. Women make up 1.5% of the prison population.

Pakistan has 96 prisons, but only five of them are women-only. In unisex prisons, women are kept in separate barracks.

The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), a statutory body tasked with monitoring the enforcement of laws for women's protection and empowerment, has recorded an increase in the number of women behind bars in the last few years.

Female prisoners in Pakistani prison
Human rights activists in Pakistan warn women prisoners are more at risk of abuse and violenceImage: National Commission on the Status of Women

There were 4,823 female prisoners in all four provinces in 2021. That figure went up to 5,700 in 2022 and 6,309 in 2023, according to the NCSW.

Human Rights Watch warned in a March 2023 report that female prisoners in Pakistan were "especially vulnerable to being abused by male prison guards, including sexual assault, rape, and being pressured to engage in sex in exchange for food or favors." The NGO also reported overcrowding in Pakistani prisons with cells designed for a maximum of three people holding up to 15. Rights activists also warn that juvenile prisoners are also not kept separately.

The family of a woman prisoner at Adiala Jail said feminine hygiene products are also unavailable.

Furthermore, Pakistan's Human Rights Ministry has said in a report that women prisoners should have the option to go free without being released into someone else's custody.

Female prisoners sent far from home

According to the NCSW, around 27% of female inmates were jailed outside of their home districts, posing a major hurdle for family members.

Prisoners can receive visits from family members and their lawyers upon authorization. However, photographs, audio-recording, or filming prisoners and their cells are strictly prohibited, according to lawyers.

Rabiya Javeri Agha, the chairperson of the rights watchdog National Commission for Human Rights, has advocated for detainees to be relocated to jails nearest to their homes to facilitate easier family visits.

Official data also shows that 134 women prisoners in the country are accompanied by their minor children. The rules allow children to stay with their detained mothers until the age of five, but reports suggest that in some cases, they live there up to the age of 9 or 10.

Pakistan’s “pink buses”: a safe space for women

Pakistan's economic crisis adding to crime

Safdar Chaudhry, a lawyer based in Rawalpindi, told DW almost 90% of women prisoners were acquitted by courts, but only after a long time behind bars.

He said Pakistani courts are so overburdened with work that they only take five or six out of 50 pending cases daily and delayed hearings in others. He insists, however, that they ensured speedy trials when it came to cases against women.

According to the lawyer, women, mostly of humble backgrounds, landed in jail for trafficking narcotics for a livelihood or committing "revenge" killing, while some were implicated in false cases by their own families or rivals. He added that Some women can't leave prison because they can't afford bail or bonds required for their release.

NCSW Chairperson Nilofar Bakhtiyar says Pakistan's economic downturn has also forced low-income persons into criminal activities such as drug trafficking or robberies to meet everyday expenses. For Bakhtiyar, this is the reason behind Pakistan's growing prison population, adding that it goes for men and women prisoners alike.

Bakhtiyar said her organization helped many low-income women prisoners pay fines, bail and bond costs for their release with the help of the government's social safety net program BISP. She is calling for women's overall empowerment through better work opportunities in order for Pakistan to curb its growing prison population.

Edited by: Sou-Jie van Brunnersum