Chikurubi is Zimbabwe’s most notorious prison. Its reputation is well-founded, said Sitabile Dewa. She would know; she spent several weeks there after being arrested in May last year on charges of attempting to overthrow the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Dewa, a gender justice activist, said more than 20 people are squeezed into a cell and share one toilet that does not flush. There’s no running water. The diet is poor and the prison clinic has no medicine, not even for mild ailments. There is no pre- and post-natal care for pregnant women or nursing mothers and their babies.
“The place is not fit for human habitation,” she said.
More than a year after Dewa was charged, the state dropped the case against her in August this year, citing a lack of evidence. But her ordeal did not end there. Ever since her arrest, she has been followed and unknown vehicles park outside her house.
Her experience is not unique. “The past two years alone have been dramatic and very difficult for women human rights defenders and activists,” said Dewa, the executive director of the Women’s Academy For Leadership and Political Excellence.
“We have witnessed the arbitrary arrests, torture, assault, abduction, sexual abuse and harassment of women leaders such as Rita Nyampinga, Farirai Gumbonzvanda, Noxolo Maphosa, Nancy Njenge, Namatai Kwekweza, Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri by suspected state security agents. The Covid-19 pandemic has also not made life easier for women as the government has taken advantage of the restrictions to clamp down on women who dare challenge the abuses and state excesses.”
Kwekweza, 21, echoes Dewa’s experience. She too is no stranger to the inside of a jail cell, having been arrested twice for participating in protests against proposed constitutional amendments.
“I have been jailed before twice, and can say the cells at Harare Central are in a dilapidated state. I speak for detained women candidly by saying that they too are people and have rights. Women cannot be put in cold cells with flea-infested blankets, concrete bunk beds with no mattress, filthy toilets with no toilet paper or sanitary pads and pad disposal [containers].
“The worst part is we were all made to take off our shoes and I remember vividly another woman, who had been arrested from Mbare upon my second arrest, having to walk barefoot on a wet floor during a cold July night to go to the toilet. These experiences are a form of torture and must never happen to detained women.”
She said the state was using heavy-handed methods to intimidate and punish young women.
“Rape, physical assault and prisons have been weaponised against young female activists for issues like protesting [against] hunger, corruption, constitutional amendments,” said Kwekweza.
Women leaders of opposition political parties and unions have been also targeted. In May, Mamombe — at the age of 27 she is Zimbabwe’s youngest MP — was arrested by police for attending a protest during the Covid-19 lockdown, along with youth leaders Chimbiri and Marova. They are all members of the Movement for Democratic Change-Alliance, the official opposition.
Before the women could be booked, they were abducted from the police station by unidentified armed men. They were beaten and sexually assaulted before being dumped on the side of the road the next day. Instead of investigating their complaints — and despite their visible injuries — the police instead charged the three women with fabricating allegations.
Last month, Mamombe was detained at Chikurubi prison on the orders of a magistrate who said she must be locked up pending a mental examination. It was only last week, on Wednesday, that another judge ordered her release, describing her detention as irrational.
Njenge, the 22-year-old gender secretary of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, said she has been followed and harassed for months by unidentified men she believes are state agents. She was arrested on 14 September for allegedly participating in an illegal gathering.
“There are pathetic conditions. Considering Covid-19, the cells are overcrowded and hence unsafe. Toilets are never cleaned and dirty blankets are passed on from one prisoner to the next. Toilets also are in the cell rooms and you can imagine how it’s like — sleeping on the floor with urine leaking from the chamber next to you.”
Njenge’s point about Covid-19 became all too real when she tested positive for the virus shortly after being released.
The targeting of women activists and leaders takes place against the backdrop of a crackdown on all forms of opposition to the government.
After its meeting in July, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights expressed its concern, saying that it was “alarmed by the arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists and women human rights defenders, including a member of parliament, who were also allegedly subjected to torture, rape and physical assault”.