Omjameal Marshue Mohammed was 18 when she was convicted of selling marijuana and sentenced to 20 years in Omdurman Prison, Sudan's largest women's prison located near the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
Released recently after a judge reduced her sentence by a half because she was a young first offender, Mohammed, explained that selling marijuana was one of the few options she had to support her two children.
"My husband and I were living in Mayo camp [for internally displaced persons (IDPs), 20 km south of Khartoum], and he made very little money from his day job. We had two children and so we both began selling hashish to make ends meet."
There are currently an estimated 1,000 women in the facility, the majority of whom are serving sentences for brewing and selling alcohol, an illegal substance in Sudan since the country adopted Islamic Sharia law in 1983.
According to Arafaa Sheikh Musa, the secretary-general of Al Manar Volunteer Organisation - an NGO that assists and educates women in prison - the business of brewing alcohol and selling drugs developed in the wake of the civil war.
"More than 80 percent of those imprisoned for brewing alcohol or selling drugs are internally displaced southern Sudanese. They have families, have had to leave their homes, are living in camps and have no other means of generating income," Musa said.
On 9 January, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement brought an end to the 21-year north-south civil war that left 2 million dead and more than 4 million displaced. Most IDPs have yet to return to their homes and depend on petty trade – in anything from clothes to alcohol - to feed their families.
Petty trade, however, is prohibited under Section 20 of the Khartoum State Public Order Act, which was established by the Sudanese government in 1996. The punishment for anyone convicted of violating the act is a fine, a possible jail term and 25 lashes.
Under Khartoum State criminal law, the penalty for selling alcohol can include a fine of 20,000 to 100,000 Sudanese dinars (US $80-$400), a prison sentence of 15 days to 20 years and 40 to 80 lashes, depending on prior convictions and the nature of the trade.
"The women cannot afford the fines, so they will have to stay in prison double the amount of time they were initially given in order to work [for] the money that they owe," Musa explained.
Raising families in prison
In January 2004, an Al Manar study of Omdurman Prison found that 70 percent of the women were serving short-term sentences of 15 days to six months and 30 percent were being held for a period of one to 20 years.
A result of lengthy prison sentences is that the children of inmates face abandonment unless they go to prison with their mothers.
"These women are the caretakers of their children. The fathers are not around or working or have died during the war. So when the women are jailed, their children suffer," Musa observed.
At the time of her arrest, Mohammed had two daughters. The eldest stayed with a friend, but Zahra, who was only seven months old, went with her mother to prison. They shared a bed in a cell with 20 other women and their children for 10 years.
According to Musa, Sudanese authorities allow the children to stay in prison with their mothers because they realised that the children had no one else to care for them. The facility, however, is not properly equipped to care for all the children living there.
"The prison authorities are not responsible for the feeding or health necessities of the children, and the meals distributed are only enough to feed the mother," Musa explained.
The assessment by Al Manar in 2004 indicated that between 150 and 300 children were living inside the prison, of whom 88 percent were under age two. Because the majority of these children came from camps and squatter areas, 95 percent were not vaccinated against preventable diseases and - at the time - 77 percent were malnourished.
"A couple of years back the mortality rate of the children was so high, there were four to six children dying from malnutrition a month," Musa noted. She added that children were also succumbing to preventable diseases because there were no drugs available inside the prison.
To address the problem, Al Manar -- with support from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other organisations -- started a feeding programme and a drug clinic to provide the children with two meals a day and vaccinate them against preventable diseases.
"The malnutrition rate is now almost zero percent. We had only 13 children die in 2004 - from an outbreak of measles, not from malnutrition," Musa said.
Al Manar also offers legal assistance to inmates, writing appeals, providing them with lawyers free of charge and conducting workshops to inform the women of their rights and certain by-laws that may help to reduce individual sentences.
"The women can't afford lawyers, and even if they could they do not know their rights because they've never been educated in them. So they plead guilty, even when they are not. By the time we get to them to help, it is already to late to make an appeal," Musa noted.
Mohammed maintained that if she had known her legal rights before she was arrested she might not have had to carry out a 10-year sentence.
"I had no money and no house, so I couldn't use anything as collateral to pay for a lawyer. I had to take whatever sentence was given. If I'd known my rights before my arrest, I would have been able to defend myself differently," she said.
Al Manar also teaches women how to make handicrafts and other items, to provide an alternative to illegal petty trade.
Now that she had been released, Mohammed noted that these new skills would enable her to support her children. "In the courses I learned how to dye cloth and now I can make many wonderful and useful things. I want to start a business to sell these things so that I can make money to take care of my family," she said.
Musa pointed out that despite their interventions, most of the women were IDPs and lacked the money to establish a legal business. As long as petty trade remained illegal in Khartoum, the problem would continue, she said.
"On an average day there are about 800 to 1,000 women in prison. Every week, 40 will be released and the police will arrest about 50 more. Sometimes it is the same women being arrested. It is an ongoing cycle and not a very productive one," she added. "These women need to be given opportunities to make money. If there are none, they will continue to make illegal substances, and the cycle will just continue."