Protecting the rights of women prisoners, circumstantial children

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By Vusumuzi Sifile

The prison population in Zambia has grown remarkably, exceeding the holding capacity of most correctional facilities and exposing incarcerated women and circumstantial children to human rights violations and other challenges.

According to the Prison Care and Counselling Association (PRISCCA), the holding capacity for correctional facilities across the country stands at about 8,250, but the number of inmates currently stands at over 20,000. This means the number of inmates is almost three times the holding capacity. In addition, most of the facilities have become dilapidated and insufficient for the growing prison population.

This has created a plethora of challenges, such as congestion which in some cases exceeds 270%. This congestion has become a breeding ground for human rights abuses which result in inmates failing to access food and health services. This in turn exposes inmates to malnutrition, as well as infectious, contagious and airborne diseases. The Prisons Service provides essential basic needs such as foodstuffs, beddings, clothes and assorted recreation gadgets to circumstantial children, but they fall short.

Bearing the biggest brunt of these challenges are vulnerable groups such as incarcerated women and circumstantial children – that is, children who are in prison not because they have committed any offence or are in any conflict with the law, but because their mothers are there.

While Zambia’s Prisons’ Act has clear provisions that seek to enshrine the dignity of prisoners, especially female prisoners and circumstantial children, the living conditions are a cause for concern. For example, Section 56 of the Prisons Act makes special provisions for female prisoners with infants to be received into prison with the infants, and places an obligation on the state to supply the infant with clothing and other necessities, but this is not always the case. The law is also complemented by international instruments that seek to protect prisoners’ rights. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. These international instruments clearly spell out the rights of prisoners and circumstantial children, and prohibit torture and inhumane, demeaning or degrading treatment.

Through funding from the European Union Delegation to the Republic of Zambia, Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) is implementing a project to increase protection of rights and improved living conditions of prisoners and circumstantial children in Zambia. Dubbed “Prisoners’ Rights are Human Rights”, the project is in partnership with Development Aid from People to People (DAPP), covering the districts of Serenje and Mkushi in Central Province, Mpika and Chinsali in Muchinga Province, as well as Samfya and Mansa in Luapula Province. This is part of PSAf’s efforts to address inequalities, stigma, discrimination and other causes of violation of the human rights of marginalised groups such as prisoners.

An assessment conducted under this project shows that the provisions of national and international instruments outlined above are mostly ignored or not adequately enforced. Prisoners, especially women and circumstantial children, experience different forms of human rights abuses, and are in some cases deprived access to essential services such as food and health facilities.

There is need for government entities, civil society, cooperating partners and religious groups to work together to raise awareness and mobilise efforts to address these gaps. One of the ways is to use the media. The media can provide accurate information to influence evidence based advocacy around policy changes to ensure that prisoners have access to a safe and secure custody that respects their dignity and human rights in Zambia. Through in-depth newspaper features, interactive radio programmes and documentaries, the media can provide reliable platforms through which different stakeholders can access and share information on the living conditions for prisoners, especially women and circumstantial children. PSAf is supporting selected mainstream and community media journalists with fellowships, which are contributing to civic education on prisoners’ rights.

Being a prisoner does not make any one less human. Prisoners are human beings, and are entitled to all their human rights. Therefore, PSAf is working with various stakeholders to stimulate debates and policy dialogue, and to influence policy reforms and service delivery in the prisons. The coming in of more stakeholders can speed up the resolution of the challenges.

Vusumuzi Sifile is PSAf Regional Manager for Communication and Knowledge Management. For feedback, email: vusa@panos.org.zm.

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