Invisible children, invisible hunger

Martin Coria | October 19, 2015

Jail Cells Bars Casting Shadows On Floor.

Children in households with one of its members incarcerated are more likely to experience hunger. With more than 1.3 million people in prison, a growing number of children across Latin America share one thing in common: an incarcerated parent. A risk-factor poorly researched and understood by child advocates, policymakers, practitioners and donors, parental incarceration has deep economic, emotional and social implications for children.

According to estimates included in a ground-breaking 2013 report funded by CWS, there are at least 1.5 million children and youth with an incarcerated parent in Latin America. As 90 percent of the incarcerated are men, most children live with their mother in violence-infested neighborhoods. The majority attend low-performing schools and some have to work to make up for the income loss and/or perform adult roles.

I have heard far too many testimonies of prisoner families who had to sell – even in middle-income countries- their best clothes to purchase food for their children.

Many families of the incarcerated must sell assets and use savings to pay for legal fees and in some countries a majority of them are forced to pay for “protection” in prisons to police, prison officials or other prisoners. Each month, a significant portion of household income is used to pay for prison visitation expenses like transportation, food, hygiene supplies and clothing. The number one job of women who care for the children of the incarcerated is household/domestic work paid by the hour. In my home country of Argentina, the hour is currently paid 40 pesos (some U.S. $3).

Due to incarceration affecting basically the poor, many households were at high-risk and vulnerable before the incarceration of one of its members and incarceration adds more pressure and creating new risk-factors. Children are at higher risk when their mother is the one incarcerated.

Like any other children, the children of the incarcerated need three nutritious meals a day. In some countries, existing government pro-poor programs provide some but only partial relief to these families. More and better services designed to reach and serve the specific needs of these highly vulnerable families are needed.

After two years of work, CWS and partners were granted a hearing with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the highest body in matters of human rights in the Americas. If convinced, the Commission has the right to make recommendations to all states of the region.

Today, CWS and partners are telling the Commission that we believe children of the incarcerated are innocent, committed no crime and have the same rights the rest of children have — including the right to live free from hunger and violence.

Martin Coria is CWS’s Latin America and Caribbean Regional Coordinator.