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Afghanistan is a very poor country, placed 174th out of 178 in the Human Development Index. The literacy level is 50% for men and 20% for women and the average life expectancy is below 44 years. Only one in three people have clean drinking water and life expectancy is 43. It has suffered many years of war. This is a very challenging environment in which to introduce a formal, state-wide justice system based on written texts, record-keeping, databases (and a regular supply of electricity) and all the appropriate protections for the rights of suspects, defendants and prisoners that accompany such systems in the West.
Source: Alternatives to Imprisonment in Afghanistan. A Report by the International Centre for Prison Studies (February 2009)
Manca Juvan, the subject of a post on Sunday, also photographed in an Afghanistan women’s prison. Juvan is only one of several photographers to take on this subject matter – Anne Holmes, Andrea Camuto, Katherine Kiviat, and David Guttenfelder being others.
HOW TO APPROACH THESE PHOTOGRAPHS?
The portfolios of Juvan and her contemporaries had me thinking. Many photographs were from 2003 or later in 2007/08 (due to media coverage of allegations of abuse or the construction of a new prison).
I’d like to present a few images, but am I only comfortable doing so if I also provide an accurate summary as it is NOW for women imprisoned in Afghanistan.
Firstly, I just like to point out the two pairings above and below. Kiviat and Juvan (above) both show the same portal at Walayat women’s prison, Kabul. In 2004, one year later, Kiviat also photographed this door which is the same as that shot by Andrea Camuto (below). Camuto identifies the door as belonging also to Walayat women’s prison.
WAYALAT WOMEN’S PRISON
Wayalat still operates as a prison, but it no longer houses female inmates. A 2003 IRIN report detailed the dire need for humane facilities at Wayalat:
‘According to Lt-Col Habibuallah, in charge of Wolayat prison, the present building with its 17 rooms and four toilets was built some 90 years ago to accommodate up to 200 people. “There are 511 men and 32 women imprisoned here,” he said. There were no categories for offenders and the accused and convicted were generally mixed together, including some inmates on death row. “There are no basic facilities, no ambulance, no proper medicine and health care, and the increasing problem of overcrowded rooms is a tragedy,” Habibuallah said. Even the 35 staff members lacked access to a toilet and were forced to sleep on the roof or in the courtyard at night. “We have worse conditions than the prisoners,” he claimed. Women inmates fare slightly better. Located in a separate building, the painted cells house between five and seven prisoners each, but the lack of adequate health care is felt more by the detained women.’
Manca Juvan‘s work focused on the women and their children in Wayalat. Katherine Kiviat‘s work is part of a larger body of work describing the new roles and careers (including that of prison guard) of women in Afghanistan. The collection is called Women of Courage.
Andrea Camuto‘s work, shot in 2005, 2007 & 2009 followed returning refugees and the “forgotten” women of Afghanistan to the cheaper countryside rents, to the hospitals … and to the prisons if necessary.
The common theme for these photographers is the injustice suffered for many women whose imprisonment is based upon judgement for “moral crimes” and “bad character” including sentences for adultery (which includes inappropriate acts both in and out of wedlock), being drunk, wanting a divorce or even just leaving a husband for a night to stay with family after suffering a beating.
On the outskirts of Kabul, Pul-e Charkhi is Afghanistan’s most notorious prison. It has been used by every regime to house it’s enemies.The unearthing of mass graves in 2002 confirmed the Soviets’ use of the site for mass-killings and the Americans adopted and expanded the prison to house Taliban fighters. In 2006, there was a major rebellion and riot by the prisoners.
Anne Holme‘s work from Pul-e Charkhi was conducted in 2007. Holmes’ story is that of the struggle to raise children inside the walls, the quashing of legal rights and despite the “warden’s genuine concern” the inability of the justice system to provide fair hearing for the women.
In April 2008, David Guttenfelder visited Pul-e Charkhi. His work, Kids in Prison reveals disturbing figures – “There are 226 young children in Afghanistan’s prisons, including many who were born there. They have committed no crime, but they live among the country’s 304 incarcerated women.”
Pul-e Charkhi was a brutal living environment. This report details inadequate sanitation, frigid winter temperatures, rape and humiliation.
In the same month that Guttenfelder photographed – April, 2008 – the women and children of Pul-e Charkhi were moved to a new purpose built facility. Recognising the special requirements of female prisoners, Badam Bagh was constructed by the United Nations Drugs and Crime Office (UNODC) with the financial support of the Italian Government.
The two videos below offer some comparison between the two facilities:
BADAM BAGH WOMEN’S PRISON
LYSE DOUCET AT BADAM BAGH
To bring us right up to date, the best reporting is not that in the photographic medium, but straight news reporting. Lyse Doucet‘s report for the BBC is a must see.
(I have applauded Doucet’s journalism in the mens’ wings at Pul-e Charkhi before).
At a moment when the White House is to open talks with the Taliban and the media is comfortably using the phrase “unwinnable war”, it is perhaps responsible to consider the lives of those caught up in the broken justice system of Afghanistan. The prisons of Afghanistan are one of the last priorities for a society that is war torn and divided. Afghanistan hasn’t got the resources to support the basic human rights of those it incarcerates when the rights of those outside prison walls cannot be guaranteed.