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Female prisoners’ dignity restored

LAST week’s landmark Supreme Court ruling compelling authorities to allow female prisoners to keep their undergarments upon incarceration will help restore some dignity to women inmates whose rights were being violated by being denied basic necessities.


The ruling was a result of efforts by the pressure group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (Woza) since 2011.

While detained at Harare Central remand prison, some female members of Woza came face-to-face with the grim reality of prison life which they later described as inhumane and degrading.

Not only were they stripped of their undergarments, but they were also made to walk on top of human excreta as there were no ablution facilities for them to use.

“We ended up smuggling in plastic papers that we used as shoes because people were just doing their toilet business everywhere because there were no toilets,” said Jenni Williams, co-director of Woza.

The experience haunted the women long after they had left the prison cells.

“It was horrible. All of us were crammed in a single cell which was not only filthy, but had a hole overflowing with faecal matter. People ended up just squatting and relieving themselves anywhere in the room,” she said.

What was most degrading was that all of them did not have any undergarments, including those who were menstruating.

Horrified by the conditions, Woza leaders petitioned the court through the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) demanding that government ensure that the holding cells met basic hygienic conditions.

“The flushing toilets should be cordoned off from the main cell to ensure privacy. The holding cells at Harare Central Police Station should be cleaned daily with soap and detergents, and a good standard of hygiene should be maintained in the police holding cells,” reads the application.

Following the rulings authorities are now required to provide clean water, mattresses, blankets and toilet paper to detainees at Harare Central prison. The women are also to keep their undergarments, a move which will restore one’s dignity.

“We are pleased with the ruling because we did it for the ordinary woman on the streets and justice has been served,” said Williams.

She however said the only challenge was that women now needed to stand up and point out to the police that there is now a provision that protects them.

Zimbabwean women, like most women in developing countries, are largely docile and because of societal expectations and limited access to resources, will not speak out or stand up to authority, especially men.

Countrywide the situation is basically the same and in 2005 Supreme Court Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku ruled that police cells at Matapi and Highlands police stations were “degrading and inhumane and unfit for holding criminal suspects.”

Because of their biological nature, women are hardest hit when they are placed under conditions that do not have basic hygienic necessities including sanitary wear.

There have been several calls for the government to supply female prisoners with sanitary wear which is currently a scarce commodity at prisons and yet the market is flooded with cheaper versions which cost no more than a dollar.

Last year a report released by Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) and Zimbabwe Women Lawyers’ Association revealed that female prisoners continued to recycle sanitary wear and slept on dirty, lice-infested linen stained with blood and urine.

There are also reports that the prisoners use old newspapers or tissues as sanitary wear, a situation which can expose them to infections of the womb.

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