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women in prison - Interview with Rita Nyamupinga, Female Prisoners
Makoni Muchemwa, Kubatana.net
March 20, 2012
Inside/Out with Rita Nyamupinga
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Rita Nyamupinga is a veteran activist. She has worked in the areas
of social and economic justice as well as women's rights with
such organisations as the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and
the Women's Coalition. During the height of political disturbances
in 2008 Mai Nyamupinga was incarcerated in Remand Prison. There
she gained firsthand experience of the challenges and conditions
faced by women prisoners, subsequently she established the Female
Prisoners Support Trust.
that you've been an activist for a very long time now. Do
you feel women in Zimbabwean society have advanced?
Yes they have. One thing I'm happy about is that space has
been created and women have been able to fill in those spaces although
there are some gaps here and there. From the time when I began as
an activist it was taboo for a woman to stand up and say 'we
are championing this cause' like sexual health and reproductive
rights were something we were not allowed to talk about - it was
taboo. Now we talk about it openly. Back then women were not supposed
to own properties, or have bank accounts, we were treated as minors.
did you begin as an activist?
It started when I joined PTC in 1981, just after Independence. There
were some issues that we thought as women were not being addressed
properly. I only had one child, before independence. Then when I
was working I fell pregnant, and I went on maternity leave but I
wasn't paid anything. You know, you couldn't have babies
(if you wanted to work), that alone would restrict you. The minute
you went on maternity leave you had to come back and reapply for
that job and you were not paid. That's how I became an activist.
That really touched me. To me that was a prescription for family
planning. You couldn't plan your family, you had to think
first before you had a child, what are the benefits and what are
the losses. You had to choose because the other children would be
growing, there would be more demands on you financially with school,
and if you went on maternity leave it meant you couldn't sustain
them. That's how I became a women's rights activist.
did you form the Female Prisoners Support Trust?
It was necessitated by me having been in remand prison as an activist
during the height of the political situation in Zimbabwe. What I
saw during the five days and seven days when I was in Remand made
me want to work with female prisoners. I formed it after realising
that there was a gap in the approach of civil society into the issues
that concern female prisoners. Yes we have organisations that are
working with prisoners in general, but they are not focussing on
women's needs and on women's issues. There are some
intricate issues that concern women, and which they cannot disclose
to the males that work with them. I know they are doing wonderful
work, but there is need for women to be in that space.
what conditions are women living in prison?
The women really need support from us women who are outside. There
are some women who are not able to meet their families. The way
we were socialised is that women are not supposed to commit crimes
that send them to prison. The social connotation of this is the
biggest impediment to women who are in prison. Some get support
from their families and some do not. When I was reading a book edited
by Zimbabwe Women writers called a Tragedy Of Lives, this book gave
me further insight into what happens to women in prisons. The way
women are herded into cells, as a group of 60 prisoners we were
kept in a cell meant for 10 people. When we wanted to visit the
toilet we were given a dustbin to use throughout the night. This
was intolerable to me for seven days, and I couldn't imagine
what it would have been like to be convicted and have to stay there
for several years.
programmes or activities are you planning on implementing?
We want to start with a mapping exercise where we will disaggregate
the prisoners according to location, age, needs and health. Out
of that we want to form study circles. This model really works in
trade unions. A group of people who are similar in age gets together
then they identify their needs and how we can help them as FEMPRIST.
I'm also taking inspiration from a programme I saw in the
Philippines where female prisoners there make crafts; proceeds from
the sale of these go to a fund which helps to support the prisoners'
families. This works well, because it's then not a burden
to their families when they are in prison and it doesn't trigger
other emotions. When they come back from prison they will have a
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