Chan Srey Yin’s baby is nearly six months old, but she looks younger. The baby’s head falls back as she sleeps, too heavy for her thin neck. Her spindly arms and legs hang limp; her bloated belly peaks out from under a stained shirt.
Crouching low to the ground Wednesday, Chan Srey Yin cradled Chan Samnang in her arms and scanned the courtyard at Prey Sar prison women’s compound until she was jerked abruptly to her feet by a female prison guard who ordered her to join another group of women.
For the 255 women and 18 children living in CC2, Prey Sar’s compound for female inmates, International Women’s Day on Wednesday meant little more than speeches and gifts from aid workers.
As they received packages of clothing and toiletries from Licadho, the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia and other organizations, the female inmates said their lives were bleak.
Thum Semla, who is 16 months into a 10-year sentence given to her for reasons she didn’t want to explain, sat with a group of friends across the prison yard. The 32-year-old said food, clean drinking water and medical care were scarce.
“The living situation is very difficult here,” she said. “We eat only twice a day and the water is dirty.”
Bun Srey, a Kandal province woman who is three years into a five-year sentence for kidnapping, agreed. The 35-year-old said she was worried about her prison friends and their children, who are often sick.
Though Cambodian women’s lives have improved somewhat in recent years, prison conditions for female inmate continue to be a blot on the country’s human rights record, aid workers said.
Jacques Bekaert, Charge d’Affairs for the Embassy of Malta, said he visits Prey Sar twice a month to meet with inmates and monitor conditions. He said prison conditions are deteriorating, and that women’s top concern is proper care for their children—often brought with them to prison because their families are too poor to take them on, or because they have no other relatives to seek help from.
“One of the big problems is that there is no money available to prisons to feed their prisoners,” Bekaert said. “Children are not registered as prisoners and do not get food. So if a woman comes in with two kids, she still only gets one meal,” he said.
An increasing number of women and their babies are falling ill in prison, especially from tuberculosis, he said, noting that those who spend childhood behind bars are denied education and chances for a healthy life.
Bekaert added that women end up relying on the goodwill of aid organizations for food, medicine and in some cases, hospitalization for the seriously ill and the pregnant.
CC2 Director Kim Chuon said he was not sure how to solve such problems for inmates and their children, saying government agencies do not have more money for prisoners.
“The government cannot take more measures,” he said. “Some prisoners bring children to prison because their families can’t support them. And mothers don’t want young children to live apart from them.”
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith and Minister of Women’s Affairs Ing Kantha Phavi could not be reached for comment.
Like the women at CC2, female inmates at PJ prison on Street 51 said they were struggling to get by.
Of the 159 prisoners, eight are women, all of whom share a dark, cramped cement cell. The few narrow windows and single flickering florescent bulb shed little light on the dank cement floor. The women said they are rarely allowed to leave their cell, which guards padlock from the outside.
In celebration of Women’s Day, guards agreed to let the women out during a short visit by NGO workers.
Lang, 36, who goes by one name, sat at a plastic table, weeping uncontrollably. She said she was sent to PJ two months ago, after she lashed out with an unidentified weapon against her abusive husband in a Dangkao district market.
She said no one had intervened when he struck her, but that when she struck back, police arrived. She said she does not know how long she will be detained and has not been allowed to contact her family. Above all, she said, she fears for her six-year-old daughter and eight-month-old son.
“I don’t know where my children are now,” she said.
Suon Soeun, 20, is sitting out her first pregnancy in PJ. She too weeps, saying she has seen her husband only twice since she was detained for stealing the equivalent of $10. He visited after he sold his blood to bring her a few thousand riel. She said she is afraid to give birth behind bars.
“I’ve had no checkups, no medical attention,” she said. “I’m not sure what to expect.”