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Behind Closed Doors: Crimes Against Women in Africa's Prisons

Severe overcrowding, poor sanitation, a lack of resources and brutal violence continue to blight prisons across the continent.
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Female prisoners in Jinja, Uganda. Photo by Endre Vestvik

In February, Tanzanian MP Magdalena Sakaya accused officers at the country’s Bangwe prison of seriously violating her human rights while she was incarcerated. A common claim, human rights abuses within African prisons have long blighted the continent, and Sakaya’s encounter once again throws light on an issue which in recent times has received little news coverage.

Why have these problems prevailed and how do they affect one of the most vulnerable groups in this sphere, namely women?

A forgotten problem?

Until the 1990s, little attention was drawn to the fact that African prisons were decrepit, failing institutions perpetuating a plethora of human rights atrocities. Outside the reach of NGOs, academic study and significant government interest, prisons were predominantly overcrowded places of incarceration. Although some rehabilitative processes were taking place, they were mostly ineffective.

Fast forward 20 years and African prisons are still undeniably at odds with human rights. The most recent World Population Prison List shows that since its previous edition in 2009, prison populations have risen by 71% in Africa. The penal systems currently in place were largely inherited from colonial powers - the concept of incarceration as punishment is not indigenous to Africa but was brought to her shores by colonialists, like so many other elements of the bureaucracy which exists on the continent today. And this legislative framework as well as the infrastructure remains significantly unaltered.

Therefore, while the inmate-to-population ratio may still be relatively small, the growing prison population has exacerbated existing problems of chronic overcrowding and insufficient resources for good prison governance. These shortfalls impede prison functionality and are part of a continued failure to protect the rights of inmates.

The plight of women

Women may only make up a small percentage of those incarcerated – approximately 1-6% of the total prison population – but an overstretched system ensures that their specific needs are seldom catered for. Gender inequalities and female disempowerment are deep and widespread in Africa, but women are particularly marginalised in the substandard environments of prisons run by predominantly male administrations.

Unremarkably, women in African prisons are overwhelmingly poor and uneducated, as becomes poignantly apparent in the analysis of the situations which lead women to be incarcerated such as abortion, infanticide and theft.

Jeremy Sarkin, editor of Human Rights in African Prisons, also claims that “sexism is apparent in the criminalisation and sentencing of certain conducts” and it is telling that adultery is another common reason women are imprisoned, along with murder and attempted murder.

The stigma surrounding the committal of women and the rejection of the accused by their communities usually force mothers to be imprisoned with their children.

Behind the bars

Arguably, the main aims of incarceration are: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation and rehabilitation. However, for most women who are imprisoned, it is usually the discrimination against them which persists. Magdalena Sakaya said: "women prisoners are treated inhumanly by female prison officers, and I am ready to be the government's number one witness on this issue."

Menstruation and how it is dealt with serves a stark example of women’s poor treatment in prisons. Firstly, necessities such as sanitary towels are rare. However, Lisa Vetten, a gender rights activist, writes in Uncharted Territory: the Imprisonment of Women in Africa that menstruation can not only fuel sanitation problems but it is all too often used to humiliate. In Zimbabwe, for example, she found that women had to use newspapers, tissues, pieces of blanket or prison uniforms as alternatives to sanitary towels, and in South Africa it was said that guards might demand to see soiled sanitary towels before issuing another.

Think Africa Press spoke to one former inmate of a Ghanaian prison who spoke of similarly abhorrent practices: “We were often scared to ask for sanitary towels when menstruating because you never sure what an officer’s response would be – nothing was guaranteed. At times, women wouldn’t change their pads for days because there was nothing else. The stench was unbearable.”

And maltreatment surrounding menstruation seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Violence in prison

Dwindling prison capacity means that women have to be incarnated with men in many African countries. Where women have no option but to share facilities, the limitations of separation (they are often apart at night but not during the day) and insufficient female wardens, leaves them exposed to physical and psychological abuse from male prisoners – typically rape – which meagre numbers of staff cannot prevent and indeed, sometimes participate in.

Even in cases where women are incarcerated separately, these facilities experience violence and abuse akin to that found in male facilities. Moreover, women prisoners are particularly vulnerable to abuse – sexual, physical and emotional – by prison guards whether in female or mixed prisons. Some women held in Tunisian prisons, for example, were found to have been subjected to sexual violence as well as electric shocks, beatings, cigarette burns and food and sleep deprivation. And in Nigeria it was reported that women may be sexually assaulted during interrogation – typically by inserting a candlestick or bottleneck into their genitalia to force them to ‘confess’ to their crimes.

The root of the problem

Overcrowding remains at the core of the myriad problems within Africa’s penal systems. Recent estimates have it that nearly all African prisons are dangerously above capacity – as of 2010, the most severe were found in Benin, Burundi and Mali with occupancy levels of 307.1%, 264.2% and 223.3% respectively. And of these numbers nearly half are pre-trial detainees, reflecting the apathetic justice systems for those who do not have the means to bring their cases to court.

South African High Court Judge Bertelsmann aptly summarises the problem: “It is no exaggeration to say that, if an SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) were to cram as many animals as our correctional services are forced to cram prisoners into a single cell, the SPCA would be prosecuted for cruelty to animals.”

This overcrowding not only impedes effective security and organisation within the prisons but has deep psychological effects on inmates and warders. Victor Dankwa, Africa’s first appointed Special Rapporteur of Prisons and Conditions of Detention wrote in his report that the sheer overcrowding “dehumanises prisoners; renders unattainable international standards relating to hygiene, sanitation, sufficient food and accommodation” and “encourages sexual relations” to name but a few problems.

Former inmate of a Tanzanian prison, Rev Kamara Kusupa, goes as far as to say that it is the “poor conditions” that prison warders live in “which forces them to act brutally against prisoners as one way of reducing their psychological stresses”.

Incomplete reform

When a light was shined on the conditions in African prisons in the 1990s, there were attempts at reform such as in: the 1996 Kampala Declaration ; the 2002 Ougadougou Declaration on Accelerating Penal and Prison Reform; and the appointment of a Special Rapporteur of Prisons. However, their direct references to addressing women’s issues are vague and the most notable of the declarations, the Kampala Declaration, completely ignores the plight of pregnant women.

In many states, budget allocations for prisons are smaller than those granted to the police and courts, and maintenance of prison buildings is slow or at times even non-existent. Consequently, the increments at which reform occurs falls desperately short of the action needed and there continues to be a heavy reliance on NGOs and other charitable organisations to help alleviate the swelling problems in Africa’s penal systems.

Since the dark days of the 20th century, Africa has no doubt turned a corner and its economic growth is one to marvel – it is estimated that by 2020, Africa's collective GDP could be $2.6 trillion. However, at what point African nations will start paying attention to the dire state of their prisons and the human rights abuses that go on within their walls, and start diverting a significant chunk of its new found wealth into their penal systems remains a mystery to us all.

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Brilliant article, highlights one of the common issues that are faced by women in certain parts of the world, that are often hidden.

An important article highlighting an often overlooked subject.AdvocAid is an organisation which focuses specifically on girls and women in the criminal justice system in Sierra Leone, providing legal aid, rehabilitation and after care services as well as advocay and law reform.For more information about our work and more information about women in prison visit our website

" women may be sexually assaulted during interrogation – typically by inserting a candlestick or bottleneck into their genitalia to force them to ‘confess’ to their crimes." I think we should send in International monitors to supervise such interrogations. Monitors could steralize all candles and bottles being used, as well as, measure the insertion depth to prevent harm. Prisoners have rights and lest we violate them. There is no gray area to debate, this case seems black and white.