ZIMBABWE’s prisons are said to be of sub-human conditions. The unsuitable living conditions at the country’s correctional centres are also said to be more stressful for female offenders, some of whom are pregnant or have children in prison. Female Prisoners Support Trust (Femprist) director Rita Nyamupinga (RN) says the conditions in the prisons have deteriorated to a level where a lot of inmates end up dying because they lack proper sanitary conditions, including access to healthcare services. NewsDay reporter Lorraine Muromo (ND) spoke with Nyamupinga on a range of issues.
ND: How long have you been working with female prisioners?
RN: I have been officially working with female inmates in Zimbabwe since 2012.
ND: In your work as Femprist with female prisoners, what have been the ups and downs, and what are your most memorable incidents?
RN: It has not been an easy task. There have been so many ups and downs as I tried to sell my vision to different people. It was not acceptable at all at first because prison is always associated with heinous crimes like theft. My first memorable incident was to be able to get into prison and have conversations with women in prison. It was touching to have to listen to their stories and to share experiences pertaining to issues of pre-incarceration, the period during incarceration, and post-incarceration.
ND: What are some of the challenges women prisoners encounter on a daily basis?
RN: With COVID-19 and lockdown having disproportionately affected women, this has made female prisoners the most vulnerable group. They have no access to basic support from well-wishers and families. Civic society organisations and faith-based organisations are the ones that have mostly assisted prisons in different ways. Women have extra needs as compared to men, such as sanitary wear during menstrual period. They also need frequent health checks, especially sexual and reproductive healthcare. These services are needed always and might not be readily available in prisons.
ND: On issues of hygiene, is the state of our prisons conducive for female prisoners, and do they get adequate and timely medical attention as and when the need arises?
RN: Most of the prison facilities were built for male inmates, except for a few which accommodate females. Prisons do improvise where possible to make the environment conducive. The medical facilities are there and inmates are attended to by trained medical staff except for emergency cases that need specialists which are, therefore, referred to hospitals outside prison.
ND: How do you deal with female prisoners who get incarcerated while pregnant? What happens to their children when they deliver? Are they allowed to keep them or they are taken by social services like what other countries do?
RN: Pregnant incarcerated women are attended to at prison clinics and are allowed to have antenatal procedures, while waiting for their due date. When a child is born in prison, the mother is allowed to stay with her child up to a period of 24 months. After that the child can be taken by a willing relative, but if there are no relatives to take the child, then the child can be placed in a children’s home.
ND: How do you help children of incarcerated mothers to live a normal and lively childhood?
RN: Various organisations mobilise resources for the children so that they experience normal lives under those conditions. Some prisons have crèches where the children spend the day with teachers learning.
ND: What are some of the major or common crimes committed by these women, please share one or two stories with us.
RN: Just like any other person, females have committed crimes like theft, armed robbery, fraud, murder, domestic violence, stocktheft, assault, gender-based violence and other minor cases like shoplifting. In March this year an 80-year-old woman killed her 90-year-old husband when he refused to assist her carry cowpeas which she was harvesting in the field. There was also a case of armed robbery where a woman was arrested as part of a gang which was committing a spate of crimes in Chiweshe, while armed with machetes and pistols.
ND: As an organisation what are the projects you do to ensure rehabilitation of these women when they regain their freedom?
RN: We are currently doing horticultural projects in Murehwa, mushroom growing in Chitungwiza and poultry rearing in Murehwa as a way of reintegrating the ex-inmates into communities. Our aim is to reduce recidivism because our goal is to restore the dignity of these women.
ND: What do you think should be done by responsible authorities to ensure that despite being incarcerated, female prisoners are treated with dignity?
RN: As part of the rehabilitation process these ex-inmates should be given an opportunity to participate in economic and social activities so that their rehabilitation is acceptable. Authorities should continuously engage other sectors in our communities so that they know about the reintegration programmes. Now that our prisons are correctional centres, a lot of emphasis should be placed on skills development for prisoners. As for women, an open prison system is the way to go.
ND: Last but not least, are female prisoners given the chance to communicate with loved ones on the outside?
RN: Prison visits are allowed at stipulated times and relatives are allowed and this is the easiest way of communicating. Unfortunately there are other prisoners that never get visitors. There are some inmates that have not been visited by their next of kin due to circumstances beyond their control, like not having busfare or even that the relatives are tired or angry because they would have wronged society. So, it becomes very difficult for those prisoners to get emergency supplies from home.
ND: You have been recognised internationally for the work you do with female prisoners, please tell us more.
RN: Yes, I have received several awards for working with female inmates and even this publication (NewsDay) gave me an award in 2014 for my work with female prisoners. Other awards include HIV/Aids Champion by Savanna Trust, Outstanding Female Human Rights Defender and many others. In 2020 I was recognised as one of the women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, and as a person who is often at great personal risk and has made some sacrifices. The award is called International Women of Courage and it is awarded by the United States government. The journey has not been easy and when I look back at the fight for gender equality, it is as old as time. For over 30 years as a human rights defender, I have realised that the world is full of injustices and my goal is to see a world that protects and respects the rights of prisoners through a just and fair legal system.