Source: The Zimbabwean
Zimbabwe's prisons have not been spared the effects of the patriarchal society, with both guards and inmates on the receiving end of gender discrimination.
Decision-making positions in the correctional service are dominated by men, and activists hope this will now come under the spotlight as the new constitution has strong provisions to advance gender equality and the rights of girls and women.
The supreme law provides specific guidelines on how to achieve gender balance. This includes promoting the full participation of women in all spheres of society on the basis of equality with men and take legislative measures to ensure that women and men are equally represented in all institutions and agencies of government at every level.
The highest ranking woman in the prison service is a deputy commissioner, revealed the national spokesperson, Chief Superintendant Elizabeth Banda recently at a Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre programme on women and prisons.
"There is need for women in general to stand up and claim their space to achieve gender equality in line with the new constitution as the majority of female prison officers are still way below the ladder," she said.
Of the 17,484 prisoners in jails in the country today only 322 are females with 17 babies accompanying their mothers.
"Female prisoners in our custody are treated just like male inmates. However, we only have three female prisons - Chikurubi, Shurugwi Prison and Mlondolozi Prison in Bulawayo. The rest have female sections attached to male institutions," she said.
Banda said when women commit crimes they are punished twice. "As patriarchal society women are not expected to commit crime and as such they suffer twice as the society and even their close families stigmatise, reject and blame them before they serve their jail terms.
Banda implored the media to play a constructive role in covering court cases and prison issues involving women. "In most stories covered by the media women are put in the spotlight in cases which, if they were committed by men, would be easily brushed aside. Women usually commit crimes of passion which usually involve men like infanticide, common assault," she said.
Banda said the ZPCS was in a transitional phase from Zimbabwe Prison Services which was "shrouded in secrecy".
"The media could hardly get interviews and responses from the system. But we are transforming as we have now realised that rehabilitation of prisoners cannot be done by us alone - but collectively by all Zimbabweans," said Banda.
Following the successful completion of a pilot phase of the Connemara Open Prison for men, one for women is on the cards.
"Though resources are erratic we now make sure we meet the new guidelines in providing a nutritional diet. Expecting mothers in prison are accorded the right to access to pre and post natal care and we refer them to central hospitals for care," she said.
As for children accompanying their mothers in prison, Banda said they were either enrolled with social welfare homes or schools and they have established pre-schools where prison officers' siblings interact and learn together.
Rita Nyamupinga, the director of Female Prison Support Trust (FEMPRIST), said there were a number of underlying factors as to why women found themselves behind bars.
Most female inmates are not visited by their loved ones due to discrimination and stigma.
Use gender lens
"Poverty, ignorance of the law, crimes of passion, lack of legal representation and disassociation and discrimination by their close families are most of the contributing factors leading women into prison," she said.
Nyamupinga said there was need for the judiciary system and law enforcement agents to sometimes look at crimes committed by women through a gender lens.
"We are not trying to beautify or glorify women but sometimes a woman is raped and does not come out in the open until she gives birth. She then decides to kill or dump the baby but is caught and jailed for infanticide or baby dumping. Then while in prison for baby dumping the woman is made to breast feed the child and this is traumatic," she explained.
Nyamupinga said it was unfortunate that most female inmates were not visited by their loved ones due to discrimination and stigma.
"When we walk into prison our mission is to establish a relationship with the inmates to assist them in rehabilitation, reforming and reengaging the society when they walk out of prison. We also follow up with them when they are free to monitor and help them settle," said Nyamupinga.
Femprist strives to improve the livelihood of female inmates and that of their dependents.