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Children in prison with their mothers – not their crime yet their sentence

 Despite these children being connected to their mothers, a lot more challenges continue to face them (Shutterstock)

Thirty years after the adoption of the charter, we still have a long way to go in accelerating the implementation of Agenda 2040: Fostering an Africa fit for children.

As we celebrated the day of the African Child yesterday June 16, this is an opportunity to take stock of the progress and what needs to be done.

Of particular note are the children who accompany their mothers to prison. According to the Kenyan constitution, Persons Deprived of Liberty Act (2014), mothers in prison are allowed to have their children accompany them until they attain the age of 4 years.

The development of these children aged between 0-4 years is influenced by the environment in prison.

The first 1,000 days (approximately three years) of a child's life are profoundly impacted by the environment, nutrition and responsive care.

According to Unicef, these are the days when a child grows, develops and when foundations for their lifelong health are established.

While the constitution has done well to keep these children connected to their mothers, a lot more challenges continue to face them.

While some prison institutions try to improve the conditions for these children, many fail to provide age specific diet therefore compromising on good health and nutrition.

Despite its provision in law, separate quarters for mothers with young children are lacking in many women prisons. This exposes the children to toxic language, aggressive behavior and fights among the imprisoned women raising security and safety concerns.  

Opportunities for early learning and stimulation are not available as many prisons lack child care centers. Not only are the spaces for play and learning missing, there are no properly trained caregivers who are equipped to handle children or understand the crucial role in providing responsive care.

Due to little or non-existent budget allocation, most prisons rely on well wishers to provide food donations, diapers, clothes, learning materials, beddings and other basic items.  This has an impact on the growth and development of these children.

Unfortunately, the injustice continues after exit from prison. There is a no structured process for their reintegration once they attain the age of four years and are required to leave the prison to join the community.

Some children end up in charitable children institutions such as children’s homes and risk double institutionalization. Others many not receive the psychosocial support they would need to settle into a world that is foreign to them especially if they have left their mothers in prison to finish their sentence.

But all is not lost. Aspiration 8 of the Agenda 2040 outlines how children can benefit from a child sensitive criminal justice system.

Such a system would begin with preventive measures that ensure a pregnant woman or a mother with a child can be given non-custodial sentences for petty offences.

Deliberate extra attention should also be provided for the child due to their age by providing an enabling environment within the prison system that provides for their developmental needs.

Support should be given to the personnel within the prison system who are the caregivers to these children. The role of a caregiver cannot be underestimated and the capacity to handle these children needs to be built.

While Kenya has made significant strides in improving the conditions for these children, the judiciary needs to review the laws for sentencing of women with children. The prisons have an onus to equip the institutions with child friendly areas and train caregivers.

Families should step up their support towards mothers who have children with a destigmatized approach. As the first duty bearer for the children, the government should implement policies affecting children and structures required for their proper development.

Only until that is done will we achieve an Africa fit for children.

The writer is the Children and Girls Program Lead at Clean Start Kenya

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