x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Deport mothers to keep children out of UAE prison

Authorities must ensure that children do not languish in prison along with their mothers. In some such cases, the offenders can be deported.

Mothers behind bars pose an awkward problem for the justice system and society: How to reconcile the need to punish offenders with the need to get each child off to the best possible start in life? What have those innocent children done to deserve growing up behind bars?

UAE law gives jailed women custody of their children up to the age of two, with extensions possible under some circumstances. But some children - those without family to turn to or any other place to live - have no other option but to stay in prison with their mothers.

The case of the Indian woman, arrested on February 18 with her illegitimate 9-year-old daughter, demonstrates how children can pay an unfairly high price for their parents' mistakes.

As The National reported yesterday, the mother was sentenced to five months in prison followed by deportation after confessing to charges of consensual sex, illegal residency and escaping from her sponsor. The mother broke the laws, and can be said to deserve punishment.

But what did the 9-year-old child do to deserve this? She should be in school, and will not meet many good companions in jail.

Before the new wing for inmate mothers opened at Al Wathba jail in Abu Dhabi, children used to be taken to Dar Zayed orphanage in Al Ain and their mothers had the right to visit them twice a week.

Currently, many women in this situation choose to keep their children with them in the mother-and-child wing of Al Wathba. And so, many children grow up calling a prison cell home.

As Major Soad Saeed, the head of Dubai prison, told The National: "Providing these children with an appropriate environment is one of our biggest challenges." Some efforts have been made, for example by building playgrounds, but the situation remains dire.

Two other mothers, from the Philippines, were also sentenced this week, to seven months, on similar charges. One of them has a two-year-old boy, and the other has a two-and-a-half-year-old girl.

Such cases need careful handling, with flexibility to reflect the variety of circumstances.

Depending on the infraction, simple deportation can sometimes be a more suitable punishment when innocent children are involved.

After all, it is the interests of the child that matter above all else.