Inside the four monstrous, broken glass-topped walls of Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 2 (CC2) on Friday, a sea of women in blue pajamas shielded their faces from the sun with simple woven fans as they clapped along to the music and dancing.
A troupe of dancers entertained the prisoners with a series of traditional wishing, farming and peacock-themed performances, which delighted the women whose hairstyles and age groups ranged from the wrinkled and weather-beaten to the sleek and alabaster.
The dancing also enthralled a small clutch of a dozen children—three of them just babies—who were hugged close by their incarcerated mothers during the events to mark the 102nd International Women’s Day message.
Som Sour, deputy director-general of the General Department of Prisons, told the 500 women gathered in the sun-baked prison courtyard that this year’s celebration was about “equal rights, equal opportunities,” meaning that in every working field, women should be treated as equals to men—even in prison.
“Women have equal rights and opportunities. So although you are here, you still have rights,” Ms. Sour said.
“All of you here need to think and change minds and attitudes to be good people for your family and our society,” Ms. Sour added in her speech.
The Cambodian prison system permits pregnant women or mothers who already have young children to keep them in prison with them up until the age of 3. This came about after a new provision in the draft Prison Law was passed by the National Assembly in 2011, overturning a previous article that allowed children up to the age of 6 to stay with their mothers.
As staff from local human rights group Licadho handed out bags of red apples, shampoo, toothpaste and washing powder, eight pregnant prisoners lined up first. Depending on the length of their sentences, they will most likely give birth in the hospital and return to CC2’s health post with their babies, where imprisoned mothers and their children stay.
“Life here with a kid is not easy, but I will finish my prison term in the next 10 months,” said a prisoner named Kuntha, who said her 1-month-old baby was “really healthy.”
Security was much stricter than previous years for the prison celebration of International Women’s Day. Reporters were allowed observe the events but were prevented from bringing cameras and anything else but notepads and pens into the prison with them.
Licadho deputy director Thy Svay said he was happy with how the event had gone.
“We wanted to celebrate women’s rights,” he said. ‘We wanted to remind the women of their rights in prison.” Mr. Svay said the main complaints from female prisons are to do with health problems. He also said that it is “hard to find out about violence in prison.”
According to Licadho, the incarceration rate of women has overtaken men, and rose 39 percent between the end of 2010 and mid-December 2012, to a total of 1,270 female inmates with some 67 of them mothers whose children live with them in prison.
Chronic overcrowding in the prisons has been blamed on a rise in the number of drug-related arrests, as well as the excessive use of prison detention ahead of trial, meaning potentially innocent people languish in jail waiting months for their day in court.
Boeng Kak anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha, who was arrested and imprisoned on September 4 for three years, was present at Friday’s performance but was prevented from speaking with reporters by prison staff.