Rise in Cambodia’s Women Prisoners ‘Alarming’

cambodia-women-prison-2010.jpg Inmates and their children await food donations at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh in a file photo.

Cambodia’s women prisoners are increasing at an alarming rate, amplifying concerns about pregnant inmates and detainees with children in an overburdened jail system, a rights group said this week.

With the incarceration rate of women growing four times faster than that of men, Cambodian authorities should reconsider policies that jail women over petty nonviolent offenses, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho) said Thursday.

The group, which distributed food and supplies to women prisoners to mark International Women’s Day on Friday, counted 1,270 female inmates in Cambodia’s prison system at the end of 2012, a 39 percent increase from two years ago.

That growth rate is unsustainable in a prison system that is already “massively overburdened,” the group said.

Licadho’s Deputy Director Svay Thy said that with many women being incarcerated for light crimes, prisons are facing pressure for space.

Given the skyrocketing rates, authorities should consider lighter penalties for minor crimes that don’t require incarceration, she said.

"For example, if a woman commits a minor crime, authorities should work out a way to avoid detention as this will help easing the issues prisons face,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“When authorities detain women for minor crimes, it makes the prisons worse.”

Drug-related arrests

Cambodia has recently seen a rise in drug-related arrests, with crackdowns on drug trafficking disproportionately affecting women, Licadho said.

And amid stepped-up crackdowns on drug trafficking, women working at the low level of the drug trade are easy targets for arrest, while men at the higher levels of the trade often go unpunished, it said.

Raising children in prison

Licadho counted 14 pregnant women and 67 women living with their children in prison at the end of 2012, with nearly all of them incarcerated on drug-trafficking sentences.

Under Cambodian law, children are allowed to stay with their mothers in prison until the age of six if alternative care is not available.

But amid overcrowding and tight budgets, the women prisoners with children strain the prison system’s resources.

“Prisons lack the space and prison staff lack the training and resources to deal with the special needs of incarcerated women and children,” Licadho’s Prison Supervisor Nget Sokun said.

Rights groups say food and personal hygiene allowances are often too small for inmates to care for their children or for pregnant women to feed themselves properly.

Licadho urged judges to take family impact into consideration at sentencing, saying pregnant women and women with infants should be imprisoned only in exceptional circumstances.

The group also expressed concern at the “overuse” of pretrial detention, especially for pregnant women.

Minh Sam Oeun, Deputy Director of the Prey Sar Prison, Cambodia’s largest, said Friday that the government is addressing women inmates’ needs at the prison, particularly by providing education and vocational training to help them improve their lives once they leave.

"They have tried to learn some vocational training for themselves before they are released," she said on Friday at the prison, as Licadho volunteers distributed food, toys, and other supplies for women inmates.

“At first they didn't pay much attention to us, but now they understand and they are behaving,” she said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.


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