Female inmates fight ill-health, stigma

HARARE - Stigma and discrimination of female offenders is higher as compared to their male counterparts, a government official said at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison yesterday.

Provincial development officer in the ministry of Gender Ernest Chimboza was speaking during commemorations to mark International Women’s Day at the high-security prison.

He said society was most harsh with women. Many do not interrogate the cause of the crime or find ways of assisting the female inmates.

He said as a result of stigma, women are often left alone when they commit a crime and lose everything in the process.

“In cases of gender-based violence, women are judged by society heavily when they fight back and end up committing these crimes,” Chimbodza said.

“Studies have shown us that the bigger percentage of women experience gender-based violence silently.”

Since many female offenders still have very young children, the infants and toddlers often accompany their mothers into incarceration, leading society to also judge and treat them as convicts.

Behind the walls of Chikurubi, many women and children live lives of pain, stress and ill-health, but still proclaim their innocence.

Shunned by society, women in this jail suffer silently, tormented by the separation from their families, particularly their children. But while they may have grudgingly accepted their situation, they are fiercely against their children being forced to spend their lives in jails with them but have no choice.

Chimbodza said prison must not be punitive but rehabilitative.

“We heard of a former inmate who after serving, found her children suffering and not going to school while in the care of relatives. Right now, through the assistance of Female Prisoners Support Trust, she has temporary shelter for her family in Chikwaka,” Chimbodza said.

“It is our duty as organisations to lobby for proper rehabilitation so that we see a total reformation after the correctional aspect being offered by the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services.”

One female inmate, only identified as Vongai, said as a mother in prison, it was very difficult to take care of her infant son.

She is in remand prison pending finalisation of her fraud charge.

“The first thing that you have to is accept that you are in prison. Once you do that, it becomes easier,” she said.

“However, you can never get used to losing your freedom. My son was three months old when I was remanded in custody, and now he is six months. Since there are no luxury items in prison, he has to eat whatever is available. You just cannot afford to be choosy.”

As grim as all this sounds, most inmates are grateful that they have access to a well-run prison hospital within the jail. But they say the legal system is insensitive to mothers and older women.

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