A Tragedy of Lives - Mukai 07


A Tragedy of Lives - Women in Prison in Zimbabwe

Edited by Chiedza Musengezi and Irene Staunton

Published by Weaver Press, Zimbabwe Women Writers, Harare 2003, pp. 320.

Reviewed by Priscilla Mapfuwa in Mukai No. 38: The Jesuit Journal, February 2007

Often their offences arose from being mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters; they responded to economic pressures, to social and cultural issues but their responses crossed the boundary between what is permissible and what is not.

The book offers a revolutionary analysis of the lives of women in Zimbabwean prisons. It is an attempt to show the tragedies of women’s lives, particularly those women who have been forced by circumstances to commit crime. It recounts, in nine sections the day-to-day experiences of women prisoners in exclusive interviews. The names used in the book are not their real names so as to protect their privacy, in all the interviews the voices of the prisoners themselves are heard, showing up the different facts of female crime in Zimbabwe.

Indeed, the intention of the authors is not that of showing women as helpless individuals of circumstances but rather  as people capable of changing their lot should improvements be made in their social and religious spheres.

A tragedy of lives is anything but a happy read, it is pregnant with traumatic tales of women’s hardships in prisons originally designed for men. It is the tale of women suffering the double punishment of being convicted and trying to make do without sanitary ware during their menstrual cycles. It tells the tale of children born to the convicted women, themselves unwilling accomplices to  their mothers’ actions, forced to live in the prisons under the most terrible conditions. As Martha, a convicted commercial sex worker confessed, “My baby was a prisoner too even if he had not committed a crime”

The testimonies given by each of the convicted women are a celebration of the social and psychological elements determining Zimbabwean prison life, particularly Zimbabwean women’s life, in the last half century. Mercy reveals that the prison system echoes the social stereotypes on gender by relegating women prisoners’ lives to knitting, sewing, gardening and typing. She is one of two women interviewed who have gone as far as university, and believes that the prison system must afford women more activities to occupy their time, especially formal education across the board. Her argument is echoed by Viola, whose biggest regret in prison was, “I did not do any single course in prison. What used to happen was that one would be asked what one was good at. I was good at crotcheting – doilies especially”

The editors contend that the majority of women in Zimbabwe’s prisons are not hardened criminals but are the victims of gender roles that have been little rewarding, and have created a series of violent reactions. Maureen, a woman who committed an act of arson that resulted in the deaths of two children at her homestead, confesses that she was driven to commit the crime because her husband took the proceeds from her toil in the fields and spent it with his girlfriend in the city. Her refusal to accept what she terms “…married life should be” results in her receiving a four-year sentence, complete with the elements described in the foregoing.

Domestic violence is also a trigger for the crimes that women commit. In the interviews highlighted in the text, one realises quickly how repeated abuse leads to a violent reaction on the part of the woman who has been wronged.  Maria speaks of frequent fights with her husband, fights that she lost always as he would beat her badly and end up cutting her with a razor blade on her arms and inner thighs. She speaks of fights that she could not report to the police because society expects her to “suffer in silence”.  One day she won the fight, however; by striking her husband dead on the head with a pole she had picked outside the house.

Sometimes fear, terror and pressure combined with lack of adequate education and understanding of the causes of the women’s problems result in criminal acts of violent proportions.

The book questions the legal process in light of the conviction of women and poses serious questions on whether the legal system can in fact review some of the cases involving women with a view to granting the women the rights that they deserve under the confines of the law.

The book raises critical questions about the prison set up itself, because the contention is that the prison cells are made for men and not for women and that, should the latter have children with them in prison, then the children effectively become themselves prisoners and the effects of such a system are disastrous.

The book seeks to provide a lobbying tool for the reform of the prison system for women. The main question that the reader will pose will be if it were me how would I cope with this situation. It is an appeal to the very nature of the readers to reconsider social norms and fight for effective changes.

Interviews done in the work feature the voices of the affected women themselves, giving the reader an insight into the problems that women prisoners face.

The book comes highly recommended for lobby groups involved in prisoners’ welfare. Gender considerations in the correctional service are essential to ensure that there will be no perpetuation of gender stereotyping and allow for the equitable execution of justice. In the same light, gender groups and associations will find the testimonies essential for the propagation of women empowerment programmes geared at educating women and improving access to information and education.

Researchers in community integration and development will find the book useful and need to submit their findings to lobbying and advocacy groups specialised in providing a voice for the downtrodden. The editors have every reason to be happy that recommendations arising from this book have already found their way into the prison system. The prison services have improved the supply of sanitary pads to the prisons, and local businesspeople have also begun making generous donations of sanitary ware to the prisons. It is also heartening to note the creation of child centres and crèches to cater for the children of convicted women in the prisons.

A plus for to Weaver Press and Zimbabwe Women Writers for publishing this!