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Friday, 11 July 2008

The suffering of the women

Why life behind Zimbabwean bars is far from ladylike

Jenni Williams, the high-profile (because she is white) head of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) has walked free from Chikurubi maximum security prison, after being detained for 37 days following a street demonstration in Harare. She has brought with her harrowing descriptions of the privations she and the other WOZA members, and their fellow female prisoners, have been suffering.

"Women are living in terrible conditions in Chikurubi," she reported. "They face serious issues of hygiene, health, even violence, that make it impossible to live a life approaching normality."

These are some of the aspects of prison treatment which have horrified, if not exactly surprised, her.

Wrongful detention:  "There are several women there who are denied basic justice. I met one who has been at Chikurubi since 2004. Women like her just sit there, they are never even taken to court."

Semi-starvation:  Jenni Williams says that several inmates are on the verge of starvation. "For breakfast we were served porridge without salt or sugar. The main meal of the day would be two teaspoons of cabbage, half a glass of water, and sadza (maize porridge)."

Violence:  Guards often beat women at random, even those who were pregnant. "One woman complained about the amount of food she was given. She was beaten on the soles of her feel. It was very bad."

Hygiene: A total lack of essential supplies meant that women found it impossible to maintain hygienic standards. There was no opportunity to take a proper bath, and no soap. Supplies of proper sanitary pads were non-existent. And most women had no underwear at all.

"As we left the prison," Jenni remembered, "the other inmates asked us to leave them our underwear. We were glad to do so."

The official reason for keeping her and the others in prison for so long is that, if released for the presidential election run-off, they would have organised "violent Kenya-style demonstrations."

The truth is, the only violence the brave women of WOZA have any knowledge of is that committed against them by the state.

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