by Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
In 2003, gender activists from the Zimbabwe Women Writers group published a book entitled A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe. It revealed shocking human rights abuses in the country’s prison system.
Irene Staunton, publisher of the Weaver Press of Zimbabwe, not only published but also co-edited the book with Chiedza Musengezi, a founding member and director of Zimbabwe Women Writers. (Musengezi also co-edited other compilations of women’s voices, such as Women of Resilience and Women Writing Africa.)
The distinguished Weaver Press, which publishes books from and about southern Africa on political and social history, the environment, media issues, and women’s and children’s rights, among other things, works closely with the award-winning James Currey Publishers in the UK. Currey Publishers won the 2000 American Sociological Association’s Special Achievement Award for “the most extensive and impressive Africanist list in print.” In short, the Weaver Press keeps good company.
The Zimbabwe Women Writers expected that once A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe was published, it would cause a huge outcry that would surely result in prison reform. But nothing of the sort happened. The book wasn’t even reviewed, because newspaper publishers feared political prosecution because the findings in the book were so sensitive.
So the book gathered dust until one journalist from the independent press bumped into the book and dared to review it. As sure as the sun sets in the West, the researchers’ findings sparked widespread condemnation from society at large. Women’s organizations took to the streets to demand that the appalling human rights abuses must be addressed immediately, as a matter of great urgency.
The Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe (a network of women’s organizations) went even further: they handed Patrick Chinamasa, the minister responsible for justice, legal and parliamentary affairs, a petition. They not only demanded that he look into the matter “without any further delay” but they boldly challenged him: “failing which we demand your immediate resignation.”
The book is undeniably powerful, re-creating a devastating catalog of the “horrendous and dreadful state of Zimbabwe’s prisons.” The prisons themselves were conceived in a “callous and cruel” way; they were never “suitably built for women convicts.” Since women prisoners make up less than 3 percent of the prison population, they occupy space meant for male prisoners. “Very little ha[s] been done to accommodate women [or] women’s needs”.
The “traumatizing and haunting experiences that women prisoners face in jail” are told in the women’s own words: the Zimbabwe Women Writers interviewed and took the testimonies of more than 30 women, some currently serving sentences and others who were former prisoners.
In the introduction, the Zimbabwe Women Writers explained that the suffering these women endured in prison had created such low self-esteem that it was difficult to get them to speak freely about their experiences.
Once the women agreed to be interviewed, one researcher noted that the “interviews were emotional experiences; [the] women had to reflect back on periods of [terrible] loss, suffering and trauma.”
The researchers were told that in prison one was not allowed to “question the system”; doing so usually attracted corporal punishment. Prisoners were usually beaten on the soles of their feet; they had no one to report the abuse to.
One woman whom the book called “Martha” testified that after initially complaining, she was quickly silenced by threats: “I told them I was going to report them to the magistrates who come to find out about our living conditions. They threatened to extend my stay in prison if I reported them. It was too serious a threat…”
Prisoners spoke of either being given inadequate sanitary protection or sometimes none at all. To cope, many of them to used newspapers, pieces of cloth or pieces of cotton rolled into balls and shoved into their vaginas to make do as tampons, just to avoid spillage. This was disgusting and a risk to their health. “Thandi” described the results all too clearly: “We got an itchy rash, which normally wore off by washing with soap and applying Vaseline. We only got Betadine solution (an antiseptic) from the clinic if it was very serious…”
“Mercy” said her method had other problems:” I pushed mine (the ball of cotton wool) quite deep to avoid embarrassment. Then I got stomach pains and each time I pulled out the little balls, I noticed…clots of blood…but I ha[d] to feel secure…”
Prisoners were only allowed two pairs of underwear at one time, which was not enough when one is menstruating. However this was an improvement over the past, when generally no underwear was allowed. An exception was made for those who were having their periods: they were given “prison underwear”, but they had to pass it on to others after they had completed their cycle.
As “Priscilla” told the researchers, “It was disgusting to wear pants that were worn by someone else. I was afraid of contracting diseases…we were forced to wear them during menstruation.”
Then there was “the curse of women who served their sentences with their children.” Researchers noted this was as though the children were being punished for their mothers’ crimes.
Zimbabwean law allows the admission of infants into prisons with their mothers (Section 58 of the Prisons Act: Chapter 7:11) until “such a time that they are weaned and relatives are willing to care for them”. In the absence of such relatives or friends, children can be handed over to the Department of Social Welfare.
Women spoke of how it tormented them to see their children “succumb to malnutrition or diarrhea due to poorly cooked food and inadequate rations”. In addition, mothers had the arduous task of constantly restraining their children from playing near tins of undisposed-of urine and used sanitary pads.
“Mercy” told the heart-breaking story of what happened to her baby: “You can’t say, ‘Can I have some warm water…for my baby please?’ When you ask, you are sometimes told, ‘this is not home’… After two weeks my baby started to show signs of deteriorating health; she couldn’t eat anything… I asked to see a doctor…they wouldn’t let B…see a doctor. So when my family came, I asked them to take her…after about a month…my baby passed away…”
”Martha” had also served her term with her child:
“I went to one of the prison guards and said, ‘Look vanambuya (grandmothers), look at the poor quality of food my baby is fed.’ As soon as I said that they beat me up…they took turns to beat me with a baton…they said I was acting proud and important.”
Another mother, “Lillian,” had this to say:
“Children suffered the most. They did not get good medical care in time. If you asked for help for your child, they would tell hurtful things like, ‘Prison has no free medicine.’ ”
“Lillian” added that the children were traumatized forever by prison life:
“…Children do not forget. She shocks me now and again with her prison memories…sometimes when I am bathing and I take [too] long, she will stand at the bathroom door and shout, ‘Mama, if you are late, ambuya gadhi (the woman guard) will beat you up.”
There were unsafe and unclean births in prison cells as prison nurses ignored the cries of mothers in pain until too late.
“Regina” remembered: “Babies were delivered, despite the prison clinic nurse’s assertion that prison cells were not equipped to deliver babies…”
Another woman, “Beti” shared her memories: “Pregnant inmates were supposed to be checked constantly, but this was not the case…Assistance was only available [after] one had already delivered.”
“Lillian” declared: “Pregnant prisoners suffered the most. We would…shout for help through the window when they went into labor. The nurse would shout back, to tell us that if it was a first pregnancy then she would be fine. We feared a lot for pregnant prisoners. The nurse took a long time to take them to the hospital. They would humiliate them…”
There are many shocking stories the ex convicts testified to in this 320-page book. What happened has drawn outrage and condemnation from Zimbabweans. The Women’s Movement is now leading the drive for much needed reforms in the prisons, on behalf of all Zimbabweans.
In reviewing the book, the Women’s Law Center said the book “should become essential reading for law reformers, legal experts, social workers and prison officials, as well as anyone interested in the lives of others”.
Julie Stewart, a professor at the University of Zimbabwe’s law program, who is one of the contributors of this book, summed it up when she said in her introductory remarks:
“Every woman who reads the accounts of urinating into cooking tins in the dark in a crowded cell, or trying to deal with a sodden sanitary pad leaking menstrual blood with inadequate facilities and no privacy, has to feel that this is cruel and inhuman treatment…Nothing more needs to be said.”
Hopefully, the findings in the book will finally get the attention that it deserves. Hopefully, it will bring about a complete overhaul of Zimbabwe’s prison systems, particularly for our fellow women.
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.