Women Now

Women on a mission: Meet the woman who's helping mums in prison

Saleemah Ismail has dedicated her time to helping women behind bars. Especially those with children. She tells us why she believes in giving these mothers a second chance
 

The road to rehabilitation for incarcerated mothers is long and difficult. However, women who have been there can train to become mentors to mums behind bars, and help them through the process.

That was how the Peer Befriender Programme (PBP) – Singapore’s first peer-to-peer initiative for mums in jail – was born this year. Behind the programme is veteran social worker Saleemah Ismail, the founder of New Life Stories (NLS), a non-profit outfit that helps imprisoned mothers prepare to return to regular society. “What draws me to help these mothers is my belief that they deserve another chance.

Moreover, mothers play an active role in family units and are the primary caregivers of their young children,” says Saleemah, who first did volunteer work with the Singapore chapter of the United Nations Development Fund for Women 16 years ago.

Saleemah’s NLS office is currently prepping one former inmate and mother of four for a PBP role through training by professional counsellors while she works as a full-time administrator at NLS. Training for the role takes a year. Saleemah aims to train another three reformed women for these roles. The four will then work alongside a team of 20 volunteers.

Photo: 123rf

Saleemah says: “The reformed mums would play the role of mentors, sharing their experiences of adapting to a normal life, staying on the right path and functioning as full-time mothers again.” 

For some 70 rehabilitated women, Saleemah is a figure of hope who has helped turn their lives around in the past five years. She has become a familiar face who visits every week, giving comfort and guiding them towards a new beginning. 

“The greatest impact of a mother’s incarceration is her absence from the children’s day-to-day life. The mother’s sentence is theirs, too,” Saleemah says.

To maintain the familial connection and mitigate the separation trauma for mother and child, some 100 NLS volunteers check up on these children at home weekly.  “In some cases, we have continued our weekly home visits for as long as two years after the mother’s release from prison,” Saleemah notes. “We want them to feel they are not alone in their journey.”

During these visits, volunteers play the role of big brothers or sisters to children under 10, reading them storybooks written by their mums in jail. The 12-page handwritten books – produced under NLS’ reading programme – are a form of bibliotherapy, helping incarcerated mums maintain a bond with their children so they can ease into their full-time parental role when they are released from prison.

“The books have done wonders for the kids because they know their mums wrote for them,” Saleemah adds. “It turned their resentment into a positive connection with their mother. “Children who were withdrawn began to express their feelings.

This is part of the healing process for mother and child, and helps the women gain the confi dence to make positive changes in their lives, both inside and outside prison.” 

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This article was first published in the August Issue of our Magazine.

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