Zimbabwe Republic Police cells can never be a comfortable place for anyone, but being a female prisoner is more challenging due to poor hygiene standards.
This was one of the lessons learnt by Alpha Media Holdings legal assistant Sifikile Thabete, who was arrested recently alongside NewsDay deputy editor Nqaba Matshazi and reporter Xolisani Ncube.
The trio were detained at Harare Central Police Station overnight on allegations that NewsDay published a story alleging that members of the Central Intelligence Organisation had been secretly paid bonuses ahead of other government workers.
The experience was more harrowing for Thabete, who was being arrested for the first time.
Reliving the experience, Thabethe said she was never prepared for the arrest as she thought it was a straight-forward matter.
Under normal circumstances she was not supposed to be arrested as she represented the company.
“To be honest, I thought we were only going to report to the Charge Office and then be released, and so I went there straight from work, wearing high-heeled shoes, a blouse and a skirt, as well as a jacket,” Thabete said. “When I was thrown into the holding cells, I could not believe it was actually happening.
Thabete said a female police officer then ordered her to remove her jacket, jewellery, hair pins and even the socks that she was wearing before she was thrown into the cells.
“Luckily for me, my mother got wind that I had been arrested and she brought me clothes to change,” she said. “But, it dawned on me just how an imprisoned woman really survived in prisons where water is hard to come by and where sanitary wear is not readily available.”
As she was being ushered into the cell, Thabethe received the shock of her life when she saw a “huge rat”.
“The rat was the first thing that scared me. I could not sleep thinking that rats might bite my toes or even damage my shoes,” Thabethe said. The cell had six concrete slabs that were supposed to be bunk beds for inmates.
“On the other side of the slabs was the toilet which we were all supposed to use,” Thabethe recounted.
“We were shocked that it was in the same room where we were supposed to sleep. Luckily, there were only three of us in the holding cell.
The cell was dark and had a putrid smell of urine, and while we were asleep there was this strong smell as if someone somewhere was burning plastics.”
Although they were offered a blanket each, Thabete said she could not even touch it for fear of lice infestation.
“As we were being booked, I heard one man who was detained in the male holding cells exclaiming that he failed to sleep because of lice, and so I decided not to touch the prison blankets. I opted to sleep without a blanket,” she said.
“We were woken up promptly at 5 o’clock in the morning to take cold baths.
“The bath area was not so dirty, but it is not a bath place which one can use without slippers on their feet.”
Human rights activist Rita Nyamupinga from Female Prisoners Support Trust said sanitary wear was a challenge for many incarcerated women.
“After several calls for donations of sanitary wear for female prisoners, many organisations and people acceded to the calls and donated lots of pads,” she said.“But, as a rights activist who often visits female prisoners, I have since discovered that they do not have enough underwear to use with the pads when they are menstruating.
“They need plenty of underwear and I encourage that something should be done about it.”
Police have in the past been forced to upgrade cells at Harare Central Police Station following complaints by former inmates.