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Women in prison

Having spent a year in prison already, 25-year-old Rahima still cannot reconcile with her living conditions. ‘The air, the walls, the people, the place- all of it has been a shock for me,’ she says. She struggles to wear the blank and emotionless expression that the rest of her inmates wear everyday, yet every time she speaks of her experience in jail, she fights back tears.

‘It is difficult to cope with all that goes within the walls of a prison,’ she says. ‘There were times when the prison guards molested me…they do sexually abuse women,’ she says softly, hiding her face behind her white saree. As soon as the guards walk in her expression changes and she mutters, ‘we have no problems at all.’

‘How can you not love the darkness, the stench, the suffocation and the crowds?’ asks fifty-year-old Khaleda in her raw husky voice. Her big eyes and rough expressions complement her loud and dominating voice. ‘After spending twenty-five years I don’t think I would ever want to go back. I get a taste of everything here - be it having tonnes of friends or being tortured, all of it is ‘fun’, she says sarcastically.

Khaleda knows the secrets of the prison, yet she refuses to speak up. ‘You know why I came here? My husband married another woman for no reason. He brought her home with her two children. I had done nothing. But he still did that. So I ate the two kids,’ she laughs aloud. ‘And then I got involved in a trafficking case and a lot more.’

In twenty-five years, Khaleda has seen the darkest sides of the prison. She has lived inside crumbled cells with no space to even sit or breathe. ‘I don’t like the idea of being moved to this new unit of the women’s prison. I love the people there. The Dhaka Central Jail is overcrowded, stinky, a torture hole but it’s still been my home for the past so many years,’ she says.

Khaleda is one of 200 women who are waiting to be shifted to the first female jail in Kashempur that opened this month, but due to a lack of staff only 21 prisoners have so far been moved to the new prison.

‘One of the worst things that women go through while being in jail is that they do not want to come out of it,’ points out Salma Jabin of Ain-O-Salish Kendra. ‘Emotionally they are damaged and to make things worse their families and the society refuse to accept them after their release.’

There are more than 3,000 women like Rahima and Khaleda who are in jails across the country. That the jails are hugely overcrowded and inefficient has become an accepted fact, say experts. A 2005 report reveals Bangladesh’s 67 jails house more than 74,000 prisoners, including more than 3,000 female inmates. According to a survey conducted by the Dhaka-based NGO Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights, as of August 2007, the Dhaka Central Jail lodges more than 9,778 inmates and among which 679 are women. The prescribed capacity for this jail is 2,682 and the capacity for the female unit is 134.

Moreover, according to an investigation by the human rights NGO Odhikar, from 12 January to 10 July, 2007 a total of 2,86,000 persons were arrested across the country. Presently the total number of prisoners in jail is around 88,000. In the 11 central jails and 55 district jails, the total capacity is only 27,291. Therefore, there are three times more prisoners than there is the official capacity to hold in jail.

‘The jails across the country are grossly overcrowded,’ says Farida Akhtar, Chief Executive of UBINIG. ‘Women in prisons in Bangladesh are deprived of almost all basic, inalienable human rights. The living conditions are pathetic - inmates are often packed so tightly into cells that they have to stand all night. The fact that they are women means that they will be deprived and tortured more.’

‘Despite the provisions of the jail code, the food is substandard and inefficient,’ says Sazzad Hussain of Odhikar. ‘There are specific provisions in Jail Code for women and the facilities that they are to receive, but they are not followed.’

An investigation carried out by him and a team of investigators in Odhikar in late 2001 reveals, various problems such as jail authorities demanding bribes from inmates, lack of medical facilities, and harassment of female prisoners.

‘One of the major problems inside the jails has been bribery and corruption,’ admits Brig Gen Mohammad Zakir Hasan, also the Inspector General of the prisons. ‘In fact, for booking a seat inside the cell, a prisoner had to pay Tk 3,000 – Tk 5,000 depending on the jailor. In order to get food and even water one had to pay for it. The situation was such that, the prisoners had to pay for almost everything. The ordinary prison guards would charge from around Tk 200 to 500 for allowing visitors to see the prisoner. So, it was sort of a deal between the jail officials and the visitors of the prisoners to pay the amount and get things done!’

Sufia Khatun (45) interviewed by the team of Odhikar investigators after she was released on bail said in just two months that she spent in jail, her husband had to pay about Tk 20,000 in bribes. According to human rights NGOs, such activities still continue in the country’s prison system.

However, Zakir is confident that 90 per cent of such corruption has been reduced in the Dhaka Central Jail due to the recent steps taken by him and a group of intelligence officials. ‘I agree that in the rest of the jails perhaps 40 per cent of such corruption does exist but we are working continually to combat these. I have personally taken up the task of employing intelligence to find out the corrupt officials and report against them.’

‘Most of the women are in jail for trading drugs or prostitution,’ says Alena Khan of BSEHR. ‘The rest are mostly from poor families living in slums, and have been indicted for a range of offences, like theft, kidnapping, murder, child abuse. There are also a great number of Nepali women.’

In her capacity as a non-government jail visitor, Alena has witnessed the state of women in prison. ‘There are very few social workers who actually focus or work individually on women prisoners, which made it all the more difficult to combat the problems they faced.’

Another problem highlighted by the officials at Ain-O-Salish Kendra was that although the Jail Code states very clearly that the female unit must be looked after by female guards, this is not followed. There is an acute shortage of female police officers.

‘The rule that a female detainee or prisoner will be overseen by female officials is violated. The result is that they are subjected to abuse and maltreatment,’ points out Akhtar.

According to international conventions, there are specific standards and provisions that recognize the special needs and circumstances of female prisoners. For example, the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment recognises the need for specific measures to protect the rights and special status of women, especially pregnant women and nursing mothers. ‘Issues such as these are not recognized let alone implemented,’ adds Akhtar.

Although, women’s organisations consistently stress the issue of abuse and harassment, Zakir denies such allegation and assures that the state of women in jail has improved dramatically. ‘There could be exceptions but we have ensured higher security and protection for women. In fact we have extended various facilities like sewing, beauty treatment training and packet making to ensure they feel at home.’

According to Alena, the Dhaka Central Jail has a separate unit for women, but they are still vulnerable because despite the division, men keep an eye on them and jump on any opportunity. Hence, shifting women to a separate jail altogether, seems to be the only way out.’

‘If the plan of the female jail is well implemented, it will make a huge difference in the state of female prisoners. We are already seeing some improvement in other jails. For example the opening of the new day care was a significant step,’ says Alena.

‘In order to ensure that improvements are actually being made, we need to be allowed to step inside the jail at any time,’ points out Akhtar. She explains that the cumbersome process and the reluctance of the officials make it impossible for most NGOs and workers to investigate the current conditions inside these prisons.

Despite the improvements and challenges, the one thing that remains unchanged is the social attitudes towards women in prison. ‘If a male prisoners faces obstacles settling back to normal life, for female prisoners it is worse,’ says Farida Akhter. ‘They become the victim of this vicious cycle. Once inside the jail, they are harassed and outside the jail they are not accepted and looked down upon?’

‘Taking the most hurt people out of society and punishing them in order to teach them how to live within society is, at best, futile. Whatever else a prisoner knows, she knows everything there is to know about punishment because that is exactly what she has grown up with. Whether it is childhood sexual abuse, indifference, neglect; punishment is most familiar to her’ wrote Chris Tchaikovsky, a former prisoner and the founder of the international forum, Women in Prison.

‘The psychological trauma that these women go through is unimaginable. In fact, a majority of the times, it is seen that these women who are behind the bars, have their own story of abuse, torture or helplessness,’ says Salma Jabin.

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‘Other countries will not be waiting’

Four major international reports released this year including World Bank’s Investment Climate Assessment report released two weeks ago, indicated a drop in the investment in Bangladesh, how do you see the situation?

Only one report – the UNCTAD report on FDI – discussed investment flows and indicated a drop in the flow of FDI into Bangladesh. The other reports looked at the investment climate and concluded that while some dimensions of the investment climate has improved in recent years, there has been deterioration in others. The bottom line is that the overall climate that affects investors’ decisions to invest has not improved to the extent desirable.

The slow improvement in the investment climate has two major implications. Firstly, investment is lower than it should be – this includes not just foreign investment or investment in large domestic companies, but investment in small businesses – the small tool-maker, the irrigation pump repair shop, the road side grocer, the small farm producing vegetables for export.

Most of these small enterprises may not be very dynamic or productive but they create large numbers of jobs which is critical in a country with widespread unemployment.

Secondly, the poor investment climate discourages innovation and dynamism. We don’t expect all enterprises to be dynamic, but in any economy, you need some enterprises which are trail blazers.

To what extent are we really open to such opportunities? If dynamism could impact the economy positively, then why is it that new businesses face so much hassle in terms of registration, getting loans and other procedures?

Access to finance continues to be a major problem-in terms of getting loans and interest rates. Moreover, most loans are short-term; about 70 per cent have to be repaid in less than three years and 50 per cent have a term less than a year. Businesses also have to put up a lot of collateral in order to get a loan and in most cases, banks insist on land as collateral.

The root cause is the inability of banks to differentiate between less risky and more risky clients. The banks themselves do not have the capacity, and the systems and institutions that help banks differentiate, such as a credit information bureau, are absent or under-developed in Bangladesh.

The credit information bureau has a very narrow coverage, in terms of the number of borrowers covered – and it only has information on recent loan repayments, not a long history of repayments, and excludes other payments such as utility bill payments which also can tell a lot about the credit worthiness of individual borrowers.

The main victims of this conservative attitude are the good investors and innovators.

Apart from the results themselves, what do you feel are the major constraints? Would you agree that this has been largely the failure of the government?

I do not see a sense of urgency in government to deal with the investment climate issues. At the very top level of this government, there is understanding of the need to improve and change things. But, overall in the government machinery, including in several top policymakers, the sense of urgency is absent. There is a fear of moving away from traditional practices and adapting to a change. The typical response is that things need to be carefully thought through, proposals need to be reviewed, and a host of people need to be consulted before a reform can be enacted or a policy can be adopted.

Of course, the government needs to do its due diligence. But there are instances where the government machinery has done things fast with all the due diligence and consultations.

So it can be done and has to be done. Other countries will not be waiting just because we are slow. They are reforming fast and we need to run faster if we are to survive in this competitive world.

Isn’t this here that the central Bank of Bangladesh should take appropriate measures?

The Bangladesh Bank also has tremendous influence in shaping the climate for investors, in some ways even more than the other bodies such as BOI and Ministry of Commerce. While there have been many improvements in Bangladesh Bank over the years, this important institution still lacks adequate capacity to understand the globalised world and what it implies for business in Bangladesh.

There is a conservative and risk-averse behaviour on the part of the central bank that is preventing our entrepreneurs from grabbing many of the opportunities that the globalised world is throwing up. Business people often complain, for example, about onerous foreign exchange regulations.

In the past two years, the caretaker government has taken a number of reform initiatives, to what extent have these reform initiations been effective, especially when reports point out that no tangible evidence has been seen as such?

The caretaker government has taken two major steps that are of strategic importance – Bangladesh Better Business Forum (BBBF) and Regulatory Reforms Commission (RRC). This has led to a structured form of dialogue between the private sector and public officials for the first time in the history of Bangladesh and this has been a major achievement.

The BBBF has representation from several ministries and agencies and because, it is headed by the head of government, it can address the inter-ministerial issues. The private sector has also done their bit by coming up with 250 plus recommendations, some of which have already been implemented.

There is of course still a long way to go and the bureaucracy needs to be faster in implementing reforms, but this a very promising start.

The RRC is another institution that has come up with some very good recommendations including two recent ones on reforming land administration and pension administration.

But the challenge is the same: how can you make the bureaucracy more pro-active in implementing the recommendations?

The chairman of RRC, Akbar Ali Khan, himself said this week that ‘there was lack of cooperation from different government bodies, especially the environment ministry, Board of Investment (BOI) and Registrar of Joint Stock Companies and Firms’.

The office of the Registrar is an important office in any country. A good business registry has comprehensive information on the birth, death of enterprises, its operations, annual reports and more.

The role of this office is crucial and it has not been carried out well. There is a need for streamlining processes, reducing discretionary power and eliminating corruption, improving staff capacity and office facilities. Recently IFC has supported the computerisation of the office but this system needs to be adequately utilised.

The Board of Investment is supposedly an investment promotion and facilitation body but has turned out to be an essentially regulatory body, and a poor one at that. Most of the BOI staff once worked for the Directorate of Industry and have an old petty regulatory mentality. Fresh blood is needed in the BOI. There is also a need for a change in the board composition, bring in more officials from the private sector, build better investment promotion and advocacy capacity, and move from being a regulator to a facilitator.

Work started on a three year Strategic Plan in February this year. But again you have the same problem – the Plan has been discussed by the Board several times but not approved yet. It has been nine months and we don’t know how much longer we will have to wait.

There have been many examples of projects of international agencies where developing countries like Bangladesh has been hampered tremendously – following years of criticism, now countries like India and China are resisting their need for aid. How should the governments of developing countries address these issues?

It is true that international agencies bring a lot of experience but this does not mean that they never make mistakes. Development is a complex exercise and sometimes our approach may be deficient. The important thing is whether we learn from our experience. The World Bank Group has rigorous evaluation procedures which help us do so.

The Government also has an important role in ensuring that aid is used effectively. It should do a better job at identifying the needs of the country and deciding where aid is required - in what form and for how long. It needs to coordinate donor activity better so that there is no duplication. There is also a need to develop the capacity to negotiate better with international agencies. We have seen this in India and China where they have dealt with donors in a much more sophisticated manner - it is not that they did not use foreign aid, but that they did it sophisticatedly.

It is important that the role and activities of donor agencies are subjected to continuous monitoring and assessment. But this has to be done based on sound logic, reliable data and good understanding of how donors work.

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