Review of A Tragedy of Lives - Fahamu

A TRAGEDY OF LIVES: WOMEN IN PRISON IN ZIMBABWE

Edited By: Chiedza Musengezi And Irene Staunton, Weaver Press Ltd,

2003,

Distributed By African Books Collective Ltd.

 

Reviewed by Karoline Kemp, a Commonwealth of Learning Young

Professional Intern working at Fahamu.

 

A Tragedy of Lives: Women in Prison in Zimbabwe takes us through

the lives of female prisoners in Zimbabwe. Edited by Chiedza

Musengezi, founder and director of Zimbabwe Women Writers and Irene

Staunton, publisher at Weaver Press, the format of the book brings

together prisoners and writers, as each woman interviewed was done so

by a member of Zimbabwe Women Writers. Tracked down by a writer,

these women were often difficult to find, and the process of

interviewing them was indeed also difficult, as recalling their past

proved painful for many.

 

Categorized according to the type of crime committed, „A Tragedy of

Lives: does a wonderful job of allowing outsiders into the lives of

female prisoners. While each woman‚s experience differs, general

themes prevail - poverty, abuse, violence and the difficulty of

providing for family member are pervasive, but each woman‚s story

culminates in the hope for a better future, and the means of

attaining that future do not always coincide within the law.

 

Reproductive rights (or the lack thereof), domestic issues, fraud,

commercial sex work, dangerous drug selling (mostly marijuana ˆ not

considered dangerous to many) and shoplifting were the primary causes

of arrest for these women. Most of the women came from poor families

and have had difficult lives. They were left with the burdens of

caring for children, husbands/boyfriends, parents, siblings, in-laws,

nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles with few resources and low

levels of education or skills training (many women had received

little education, as their parents before them could not afford the

fees). Given these difficult situations, many of the women had simply

sought out alternative, informal means of making ends meet, which

just so happen to be outside of the law.

 

While women make only a small (2-3%) proportion of prisoners in

Zimbabwe (and no doubt the rest of Africa), they are often imprisoned

for criminal activities that are non-violent. Their time in prison,

argue contributors to this book, could better be spent serving

community sentences, so as to avoid the women‚s absences from their

homes and families ˆ a situation which serves only to exacerbate the

prevailing poverty from which they were originally trying to escape.

Ongoing abuse and exploitation (mostly in terms of labor and access

to family members and supplies) by officials were some of the main

concerns of the women interviewed. But specific conditions in which

Zimbabwean women find themselves facing in prison, and their

particular needs as women, were again and again referenced in these

interviews. Of particular concern was sanitation, especially while

living in conditions not conducive to the needs of women. Dirty cells

with toilets that could not be flushed from inside, a severe

constraint on the number, or even complete lack of sanitary/menstrual

pads, combined with a shortage in soap (for cleaning clothes and

blankets) and limitations on the number of undergarments a prisoner

was allowed, all contributed to living conditions that were

violations of basic human rights.

 

Upon their release from prison, many of the interviewed women found

their reintegration difficult. A large number were not accepted by

their families, numerous women returned home to find their husbands

living with new women, many had missed watching their children grow

up. Finding work was also a challenge. For those women who had

committed petty crimes and were sentenced only to short

incarcerations, they did not qualify for the training courses that

some of the prisons offered (usually through foreign run charities).

A great number of the women became religious while in prison, mostly

due to the work of charity organizations, such as Prison Fellowship.

This newfound appreciation for religion was often cited as a major

motivation for these women to return to their homes and lead lives

free of violence or dishonesty.

 

A Tragedy of Lives ends with interviews conducted with officials

involved in Zimbabwe‚s prison system. While they provide a glimpse

into the policies behind the system, the interviews, in my mind, fell

short of any critical analysis. Many, if not all, contradicted the

very stories told in the book. The interviews with these officials

are thus an interesting contrast to those held with the female

prisoners they serve to highlight the dissonance found in any

institutional setting. Perhaps this is the theme of the book ˆ what

happens in reality is so often very far off from what should be going

on ideally, in any given situation. That „A Tragedy of Lives‰ is able

to convey this notion in such a personal way is impressive, and

should serve as inspiration for anyone interested in justice.

 

This problem is, in fact, common to all of Zimbabwe. Last week,

Tabita Khumalo of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trades Unions, along with

trade unions in Britain and South Africa, made an appeal for funds to

purchase sanitary pads that could be sold at affordable prices to

working Zimbabwean women. Currently, no menstrual products are

produced locally, and foreign exchange rates are so low that

importing them has become impossible. Pads are available on the black

market, but the high cost means that they are worth half a months

wages for most working women. This shortage has been played down by

political figures, and is seen as taboo. The lack of these necessary

supplies means that women are resorting to using rags and newspapers,

which can lead to infections.