Conditions for Women in Detention in Zambia: Needs, Vulnerabilities and Good practices

Dignity Publication; Series on Torture and Organised Violence No. 12 (2015) Jo Baker and DIGNITY – Danish Institute Against Torture [Download full report] 


“These things make you feel inhuman if you concentrate on them, so you try to forget them and accept life.” – Inmate

While conditions for women in Zambia’s under-resourced prison system are largely considered better than those for men, a closer look tells a different story. As a minority, it may be that various women’s facilities suffer from less (yet still chronic) congestion, are subject to lighter security restrictions, and allow more flexibility, at the discretion of the warden. Yet as revealed by this study, there is a broad, acute and harmful lack of consideration for the special needs of women in detention, in forms acknowledged by and less visible to officials and personnel in the Zambia Prison Service (ZPS or Prison Service). These gaps are detrimental to the dignity and wellbeing of female detainees and breach many of their human rights.

Key among these gaps are a lack of basic hygiene provisions and gender-specific healthcare. These present particular risk to the health of inmates, among others, who are pregnant, living with HIV, accompanied by young children or for those who, because of stigma or distance from family (which are both, in many cases, worse for men than women), have no outside assistance at all. Although the Prison Service should be commended for the continued opening of prisons to outside support and a human rights approach, it must observe its State responsibility to meet detainees’ basic needs.

Female inmates were largely found to be isolated from family, including children, and from other forms of outside support, which research has indicated is likely to be more harmful to women than men, in general, from a psychological and material perspective. For the women interviewed in Zambia, this was often the greatest cause of anxiety and despair (as summarized in the section, What Matters Most). Female inmates lack access to vocational, educational and recreational activities that are made available to men; they are also unremunerated, even though many women face extreme anxiety about supporting themselves and any dependents on release, given their frequent (and gendered) rejection from their husbands, families and communities. Key, also, are discriminatory barriers to complaint and information that place them at risk. The Offender Management role has been seen to fill critical gaps in admissions screenings and orientation for female inmates, in identifying special needs and connecting them with needed services and counselling, but it is under resourced and under supported institutionally.

Men and women are separated in law and to a great extent, in practice, and inmates were protected from gender-based violence and harassment by men in the facilities visited by DIGNITY, according to our research. In contrast to reports of police custody, a sharp decline in the use of physical violence and torture against women by prison staff has also been reported in recent years, among other improvements. Yet DIGNITY is concerned that sexual relationships with male staff are not fully prevented in some facilities, and degrading and harmful disciplinary measures were also found to be used by female staff, including body searching practices.

Attention to staff training, gender awareness and attitudes would make a great difference — particularly among female staff — as would measures to encourage free, regular and dignified contact with family and children; structured activities to engage and empower women (personally and economically); and greater attention to sanitation and health provisions, particularly for pregnant women, new mothers, and children. While these may be most important for women with long sentences, they are also urgently needed in small rural prisons, where women may have very little provided for them. The role of the Offender Managers, if adequately resourced, gender trained and institutionally supported, could be one of the most effective ways to ensure the well-being and dignity of women in detention in Zambia.

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