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Edited by: Chiedza Musengezi and Irene Staunton, Weaver Press Ltd, 2003, Distributed by African Books Collective Ltd.

“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 – 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 – 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 – 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.

* Reviewed by Karoline Kemp, a Commonwealth of Learning Young Professional Intern working at Fahamu.

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