“I want to be a pilot when I grow up so I can fly out of here one day,” says eight-year-old *Sara.
Sara is one of the 18 children who have spent the best part of their childhood behind bars at the Karachi Central Jail.
The last five years of her life represent a period of confinement and gloom, a fate reserved for all the children of under-trial female prisoners.
But there is an air of anticipation around the long, darkened halls of Karachi’s biggest jail these days as its ‘silent sufferers’ prepare for a new beginning with the Early Learning Centre (ELC) inaugurated by the Legal Aid Office (LAO) earlier this month.
There is an irrepressible excitement around the otherwise grim setting as Sara, in prison since the age of four, now wakes up early in the morning everyday and puts on her new crisp blue checkered uniform.
New school, rekindled hope
Just outside the jail vicinity, surrounded by trees and shrubs, a room that was once a storage area has now been transformed into a ELC for children in prison below the age of ten. The once pale walls are now painted with cartoons, the floor is cushioned with a jigsaw puzzle pattern and there are shelves stacked with colouring books, blocks and soft toys.
The ELC was established by LAO, a government founded project run under the committee for welfare of prisoners, that has been working for the rights of prisoners since 2004. It functions in a fashion similar to that of a Montessori, with a curriculum for children between the ages of two and half to nine years.
“We have designed a curriculum separate from that of ordinary schools, keeping in mind the environment that these children are in and also the fact that they are of mixed ages,” says Sundus Nasir, who teaches at the ELC.
“I had to train the children two to three days prior to the inauguration for a small performance which involved learning poems, and to my surprise they were all very quick in picking up the finer points,” she adds.
“They have a very strong willingness to learn.”
The school functions five days a week from 2pm to 5pm and children are taught basic formation of words and then sentences. An advisory committee constituting ten members, including doctors, teachers and psychologists, have been given the task to oversee the school’s management and development.
“We have been very mindful of the circumstances these children find themselves in…so Ms Sundus was trained at the Teacher Resource Centre before she joined the ELC,” says Advocate Hira Saleem Malik of the LAO.
Malik says strict measures have been taken to ensure that the centre functions with diligence.
“We have lined up monthly meetings to review the progress and conduct surprise weekly checks to monitor the quality.”
Malik adds that the security situation in and around the prison plays a significant role in determining the school’s smooth operation.
“The school operates in collaboration with Prison Inspector General (IG) Nusrat Mangan and the prison administration so if there are any security related problems, we have a mechanism where the school management will be told beforehand,” explains the advocate.
Nine-year-old Aliya* has no difficulty speaking in front of an audience of 50 gathered to observe the new facility.
“I cannot thank you all enough for opening a school for us. I just want to say that I want to be a doctor when I grow up and this is the first step,” Aliya says, leaving the crowd emotional.
For the children at the prison, the school is a solace, a world outside the iron bars providing an opportunity to learn about realities outside the jail; realities that do not include barracks, lawyers and prison wardens.
Previously, for them, the only getaway from the prison had been heavily guarded trips to courts for hearings where they accompanied their implicated mothers.
And it was after one of these trips that the idea behind the ELC took shape.
“We noticed that a majority of children up to the age of five years were unable to clearly communicate, even when questioned in their respective languages. There was a pressing need for a facility outside the prison where the children could get the exposure of a regular school,” says Barrister Haya Emaan Zahid of the LAO.
Previously, there had been an informal education facility set up inside the prison where a convict would teach children, but it proved to be inconsistent and had no accountability.
According to Haya, there was a dire need to take the children out of their depressing surroundings and carve a safe space for them outside the prison which would simulate the schedule of a school.
“We all wanted a school which was outside the premises because at the end of day, a jail is a jail,” said Senior Superintendent of Women Prison, Sheeba Shah.
What the law says
“Over here, there are no provisions for children who are incarcerated with their mothers; no one is bothered about them at all. In developed countries, children don’t live with their mothers inside prison,” asserts Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid, Chairperson of the Legal Aid Office.
According to Rule 326 of the Pakistan Prison Rules (PPR) of 1978, a child may remain in incarceration with his or her mother only until the age of six years, but the mothers face the quandary of where to send their children after they grow older.
“There are no shelter homes where the children can be sent. SOS only takes children of mothers who have been convicted with a longer sentence…so these children become the silent casualties in this scenario,” says Haya.
The PPR, under Rule 679, explicitly states that education is to be provided to illiterate prisoners and says that every prison should have a well-stocked library. However, the LAO team in its survey found that all three prisons in Karachi, Hyderabad and Larkana did not have any teachers coming in to educate either the prisoners or their children.
‘Much safer inside prison’
When the mothers of these children were brought in to look at the single-room learning facility, many of them were left speechless.
Children surround the balloons during the inauguration ceremony.
“It was always my husband’s wish to educate all our children. He is not alive any more but I’ll fulfill it for him,” says Sania*, a mother of two of the children enrolled at the ELC.
“I cannot let my children go anywhere else; my brother-in-law keeps forcing me to give him my little daughter but I won’t. We are safer inside the prison than we can be outside.”
Sania, an under-trial prisoner, has been in jail for a year with the charged of her husband’s murder.
“The lawyers say that I will be released soon, but I’m scared of what my brother-in-law is capable of doing once I am acquitted. He is the one who sent me to prison in the first place and sold our house; my husband’s business, everything,” says Sania, as her youngest son frolics around, holding a new toy he just found at the learning centre.
“One of my sons has already been taken away by my brother-in-law. What if he takes away all of my children?” retorts Sania, saddened by the thought of what the future might hold.
*Names of children and mother changed to protect privacy
Photography and design by Ibitisam Zahid Khanzada