BEIRUT: Conditions in women prisons’ and services offered to women prisoners have considerably improved in the past 10 years, but there is still “a lot of work to do,” according to a newly released “Guide for Working in Women’s Prisons in Lebanon.”
The guide aims to help those wishing to implement projects in women’s prisons by providing general information on rights of prisoners and status of women prisoners in the country, as well as a 1999-2010 comparative study on women’s situation in prison.
Anita Nassar, the assistant director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World at the Lebanese American University, is the author of the guide, and of the 1999 study.
She said she noted “big, big progress,” in the country’s four women’s prisons over the past decade, describing Barbar Khazen prison in Beirut and Baabda, Tripoli and Zahle women’s prisons as “much better” than men’s prisons.
Giving the example of the Tripoli facility, she said it, in partnerships with NGOs, had installed hot water, arranged a room for training and implemented psychological and legal programs.
She added that the government, via the Interior Ministry, had also strongly contributed to the improvement, by “doing a lot of work, along with embassies.” In Beirut’s Barbar Khazen prison a decade ago, she said, “two to three women were sharing a 90 cm mattress; there were no chairs ... now they have beds, sheets and blankets.”
Speaking during the launching ceremony Monday evening, Interior Minster Marwan Charbel’s representative Charbel Matar said the situation in prisons had become “acceptable, especially over the past 10 years” and said the ministry was continuing its work to “develop and improve” prisons.
In 1999, the female prison population numbered 161 women, of whom around 60 percent were Lebanese, but this percentage dropped sharply over the past decade – only 23 percent of 305 women prisoners were Lebanese nationals as of the most recent statistics last year.
Nassar said the comparative study revealed that women were no longer convicted for the same reasons.
“Women used to be convicted 10 years ago on charges of drug addiction, prostitution and manslaughter,” she said, explaining they were now being arrested mainly for forgery and financial fraud.
She believed this was due to the fact that the level of education had increased in the country. “In 1999, we didn’t have any university graduates [in prison], now we have a couple of them,” she said.
Many of the foreigners are domestic workers, who, for the vast majority, have been convicted for being illegally in the country or having irregular work permits.
Overall, women still come from the same social background as 10 years ago.
“The majority are still unemployed at the time of their arrest,” she said.
Although the situation “has really improved,” Nasser called for “continuous work,” explaining that help often comes through grants or donations for specific projects but basic needs are sometimes not covered over the long term. She urged the various actors working in women’s prisons to coordinate their efforts in order to enhance the impact of their work.
“All of the different partners should really join forces, to be able to cover all needs without duplicating each other,” she said.
“An NGO could cover the education part, another one the legal support, another one health care,” she suggested, urging NGOs to “survey what’s being offered before deciding to implement a project” and collect funds for it.
As for the needs of women prisoners, she mentioned a lack of basic hygiene products such as sanitary pads and toothbrushes, but also other common goods “people take for granted” such as underwear.
Asma Kardahi, the representative of the United Nations Population Fund in Lebanon, who also spoke at Monday’s ceremony, said that although “prisons were designed for the majority, meaning men ... we shouldn’t forget that men and women have different needs.” She said that women’s prisons were not equipped to deal with pregnant women, and noted that women prisoners were more exposed to psychological diseases and suicide, and hoped the guide would be a step forward.
Nassar concluded, “the infrastructure has improved by some 70 percent ... but there are still needs, and a lot of work to do.”