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Last Updated: Monday, 14 November 2005, 08:45 GMT
Helping India's prison children
Tihar jail in Delhi
India's biggest jail, Tihar in Delhi, has adopted reforms

Children in India can live with their imprisoned mothers until they are five years old, and in many cases receive better education, diet and healthcare than they would get at home.

But questions are inevitably asked about whether it is appropriate for infants to spend their first years behind bars.

Hyderabad jail in the south of India is home to 160 women and 15 children. The women are either awaiting trial - which can take many years - or convicted of crimes including murder.

Abi Nash, 24, is awaiting trial for the alleged murder of her neighbour. Her three-year-old son stays with her.

"Having my child with me makes me happy - if I was separated from him I would be very unhappy," she told BBC World Service's Everywoman programme.

"My daughter is six now, so she is staying with my mother, but they do come to visit me whenever they can. When my son is five and has to leave, I will be very upset."

Free education

Laxmi, another prisoner, said she looked after her son in jail because 20 of her family were in prison.

"There's no-one out there to look after my children," she said.

"At least in prison I can take care of my son."

Child behind bars in Indian prison
At five a child won't know the difference between an elephant, a tractor and a needle. There is nothing that he knows - he is just caged in those four walls
Sina Bedhi, India Vision Foundation project director

The women in Hyderabad jail are mostly from poor backgrounds. Ironically, this means that their children can sometimes be better off than if they were at home.

Raja Lasherda, the prison superintendent, says that everything is provided for the children.

The jail has a creche, schoolroom, hospital facilities and a playground.

Both the children and their mothers have a proper diet and the women are taught to read and write as well as how to earn money, by making soft toys or toothpaste.

"This is why the mothers are very happy - we are providing free education," Ms Lasherda said.

"Outside they cannot afford education for their children, due to poverty. Here we are providing free education, and everything to the children - except for freedom, we are providing everything better."

Social campaigner, Maheni Giri, said much of the welfare of these women and their children had improved in recent years - much of it due to the work of the Indian National Commission for Women, which she used to head.

"Before I got involved I found that these children were picking up bad habits - men were taking drugs secretly in prison and there was also a lot of ill-treatment of young boys, including sexual abuse," she said. "That disturbed us."

Under Ms Giri's influence, reforms were passed, including women-only prisons.

Delhi's Tihar prison, India's biggest jail, is among those which implemented these recommendations.

Abuse and slavery

But Sina Bedhi, project director of the India Vision Foundation - a prison reform organisation - said that if children spent their first few years in prison, they were often bewildered by things other children take for granted.

"He won't know the difference between an elephant, a tractor and a needle," she said. "There is nothing that he knows - he is just caged in those four walls. Imagine the kind of impression that leaves.

Child labourer
Some children end up as child labourers after they leave

"What we do is run a creche for the children inside, where we teach them. They have toys, puzzles, they pray, they know the mantras. It's about removing those impressions of sadness."

The foundation has also looked at what happens to children after they have to leave at five years old.

Ms Bedhi said there was no firm structure in place to deal with them.

In the absence of this, children often end up with their relatives - who in the worst cases have forced them to work or abused or neglected them.

The luckier ones end up in boarding schools, their education paid for by charitable trusts or sponsors.

Ms Bedhi called for children to be taken away to "a home that feels like a home" at the age of five.

"I would love to see a choice being given to the mothers - 'do you want to take your child in, or we have another option for you - this is what your child will get outside'," she said.

"I would love to see human life being treated with dignity."

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