Bopha, who asked us not to reveal her real name, sits on the colourful rug that lines the floor of her rickety shack and, at night, serves as the family’s bed.
She cradles her 10-month-old daughter, while her five-year-old son fiddles with her hair, asking for attention.
“He really missed me when I was in prison,” says the 28-year-old mother-of-three who playfully fends off her son.
She reaches for a plastic bag that contains the family’s most treasured possessions, including her son’s medicine. While Bopha was in prison, he fell off his father’s scrap cart, lacerating his back.
It was poverty, she explains, that made her agree when a local drug gang promised to pay her if she would transport a small batch of crystal methamphetamine, known locally as “ice”, from one end of Phnom Penh to another.
It was impossible to keep supporting her three children on the $1 her husband earned selling empty cans collected from the streets, she explains.
But Bopha was followed by the police and arrested.
Unable to pay the $400 bribe the local police demanded, she was charged with drug trafficking in November 2014. From then on, she says, her family’s situation went from bad to worse.
‘Mothers behind bars’
Bopha told the Phnom Penh court judge presiding over her pre-trial hearing that she had three children at home who needed to be taken care of. But the judge didn’t seem to give much weight to her plea; she spent three months in pre-trial detention and served two months of her one-year sentence before receiving an amnesty.
“After they arrested me, I told the judge I have three children who depend on me, and my husband cannot take care of them because he is working,” Bopha recounts.
“But he told me that I have to abandon them and sent me to prison to wait for my trial. I was devastated. He only agreed that I take my five-month-old baby with me after I begged him and said that no one would be able to feed her otherwise.”
According to Mothers Behind Bars, a report published by local rights watchdog Licadho in May, Bopha is one of hundreds of first-time female offenders who pose little danger to society but are detained and separated from their families in contravention of local laws.
The report’s authors concluded that pre-trial detention and harsh sentencing for less serious offences seemed to be the rule rather than the exception in the southeast Asian country.
While there is no data on the number of mothers in Cambodia’s jails, the report claims that, as of December 2014, 70 percent of female prisoners in the country’s overcrowded prisons were in pre-trial detention, most of them for non-violent offences.
In 2014, the same organisation surveyed 479 female prisoners, finding that more than one third of females in detention centres were accused or convicted of drug-related offences. The remaining 31 percent were arrested for offences such as theft, damaging property, and illegal fishing.
That same year, the ministry of justice developed pre-trial detention guidelines in an effort to put a halt to what seems like a blanket resort to pre-trial detention. They stipulate that when an accused woman is pregnant or has young children and “there is no one else to take care of the children … provisional detention shall not be imposed if it is avoidable”.
When a parent is imprisoned, the dynamics of families change. The remaining parent faces additional pressure to both earn an income and care for their children emotionally.
Moreover, the presiding judge must ensure that the accused is charged with a felony that carries a minimum sentence of one year, and explain why he believes that one or more of the six reasons listed in Article 205 of the Code of Criminal Procedure apply in the case in question. These include: stopping the offence, preserving evidence or exhibits, and protecting the security of the charged person, among others.
A broken family
It is the children, often from the poorest families, who pay the highest price for their mother’s imprisonment, according to Bill Gorter, the director of This Life Cambodia – the only organisation in the country with a comprehensive programme of support for the families of prisoners.
“When a parent is imprisoned, the dynamics of families change. The remaining parent faces additional pressure to both earn an income and care for their children emotionally. Children with a care-giver in prison are likely to drop out of school. The effect of this increased family stress ranges from emotional distance between children and their parents to actual family separation in more serious cases,” Gorter explains.
When Bopha was sent to prison, her family fell apart. They had been living in a house that belonged to one of Bopha’s relatives. But they threw out her husband and two remaining children, leaving them to live under a nearby bridge.
Another relative offered to take care of Bopha’s eight-year-old daughter. So she went to live with them.
An uncertain future
Asked why so many mothers are put in pre-trial detention or handed prison sentences without consideration for their children’s welfare, Chin Malin, the spokesperson for the ministry of justice, referred Al Jazeera to recent amnesties granted to 59 of the almost 1,300 female prisoners at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The women, including Bopha, were released before International Women’s Day in March.
“This is just a starting point. This is why the government established a special interministerial committee on the conditions of women in prison a few months ago,” Malin said in a telephone interview.
“We want to release the women with children, but at the same time we need to follow the law and evaluate everything on a case-by-case basis.”
However, Marc Borg, a consultant with Licadho’s prison project, dismisses the ministry’s response. “Judges tend to order pre-trial detention without consideration of personal circumstances or mitigating factors, demonstrating a systematic failure to apply the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty.”
Bopha agrees. Although reunited with most members of her family, she still wishes the judge had taken her personal circumstances into account. The five months she was absent had a lasting effect on her family, she says.
Bopha’s eight-year-old daughter still lives with her relative and without proper parental supervision and no extra money, she is no longer attending school.
And money is still a major concern. Without a proper diet, Bopha worries that her children will fall ill. But she can see little way to make the money needed to provide them with better prospects.
The future seems uncertain.
“I don’t even know exactly why they chose to let me out of prison and not the other women … the police took the official document I was released with. I only have a copy,” she says worriedly.
“What if they return and take me back to prison?”