National Women’s Day 2018: Where are the women prisoners?

Yesterday, August 9, across South Africa, people acknowledged, in various ways, National Women’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1956 Women’s March on the Union Buildings, in Pretoria, to protest the pass laws and much, much more. On August 1, across South Africa, thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of women and gender non-conforming people engaged in an “intersectional women’s march against gender based violence” and stayed away from all work and commerce. This was under the banner, #TotalShutdown. Organizers asked people to find ways of supporting those women who were forced to work that day. Additionally, for women in rural areas, where a march to a High Court might not be feasible, women were asked to `simply’ stand together, to unite and stay away from work and commerce. In between August 1 and August 9, on Sunday, August 5, Barbara Hogan, anti-apartheid activist and politician, returned to the Women’s Jail, now turned into a museum, on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Hogan remembered her stay in that prison from 1982 to 1983. On Women’s Day, in Women’s Month, and in the #TotalShutdown, where are the women prisoners? Where are South Africa’s women prisoners, generally, and where are they in the movements for women’s emancipation and power?

According to the most recent Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services Report, covering April 2015 to end of March 2016, South Africa has 236 operational prisons, of which 9 house women prisoners. Only 2.6 percent of prisoners are women. As Johann van der Westhuizen, the inspecting judge of Correctional Services, noted, this is “one of the lowest percentages in the world. Not bad for a population that is just more than half female. This means slightly more than 4 000 women are in jail — some with their babies.” Not bad? No. Johann van der Westhuizen continues, “Women’s prisons are also overcrowded. I was told that a cell for 25 with 37 inmates was not overcrowded. And that, in other instances, additional mattresses were put on the floor, almost doubling the number of inmates.”

The number of women in prison is low, and yet the women’s prisons are notoriously overcrowded. How can that be? Part of the answer appears in van der Westhuizen’s report, “Due to the high turnover rate of remand detainees, remand units were found to have deplorable health conditions and dilapidated infrastructure compared to those occupied by sentenced offenders.” Pollsmoor Remand was 251% overcrowded, and was “short” 2448 beds. According to the Department of Correctional Servicesmost recent annual report, 2012 to 2017, the number of male remand prisoners has declined fairly steadily, from 44,742 to 41, 397, while women’s numbers have risen, from 998 to 1,128.

What does that look like “on the ground”? For women prisoners, and especially for those awaiting trial, from overcrowding to access to healthcare to food to hygiene and sanitation to access to education, reading materials, decent work or any work, exercise and recreation, to contact with the outside world, the conditions are “horrifying.” At Pollsmoor, for example, more than half of the women prisoners are awaiting trial. Many wait years for a trial that is often thrown out or postponed indefinitely.

Reflecting on her experiences in prison, Barbara Hogan commented, “Prisoners do not need to be told that policeman beat up prisoners. They know it.” Last year, in August, the Women’s Jail opened a new exhibition, paintings from that jail by anti-apartheid activist Fatima Meer. The paintings’ very existence testifies to the myriad forms of women’s persistent, resistant and defiant organizing. At the same time, they speak to the ongoing squalor and dehumanization of women behind bars. The conditions of women prisoners, in particular women remand prisoners, is not an oversight. Those women have not been forgotten. They have been dumped, disposed of, and that’s public policy, not some accident. Prisoners do not need to be told that, but the public does. Someday, along with the Union Buildings and High Courts, women and their supporters will march to women’s prisons across the country to acknowledge, learn from, and build on the intersectional women’s organizing taking place each and every day among those women who are forced to sleep standing but never surrender.

 

(Paintings by Fatima Meer; Mail & Guardian)

Instead of Women’s Day, What About Women’s Enjoyment of Freedom Day?

 


In South Africa, August 9 is National Women’s Day, and August is Women’s Month. This August, the Tshwaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, a South African women’s rights and well-being organization has a simple and direct question for everyone, “So just how real are women’s rights?”

They began, publically, to answer that question yesterday, August 11, with a new report, “The Right & The Real: A Shadow Report Analysing Selected Government Departments’ Implementation of the 1998 Domestic Violence Act and 2007 Sexual Offences Act”. On one hand, the answer paints a dismal picture. Only 8% of police stations meet their obligations under the Domestic Violence Act. Compliance would include helping a victim to find shelter and obtain medical assistance, serving notice on an abuser to appear in court, arresting an abuser who breaks a protection order, and, critically, keeping records of domestic violence. Failure to comply means misconduct, and should result in various forms of sanction and punishment. It hasn’t. Police stations ignore their responsibilities with impunity.

In 2007, 57% of police stations were compliant. Now … less than 8%. That’s not a drop, not even a steep drop. That’s a nose dive.

The report focuses on the failure of the South African Police Services and the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (which includes National Prosecuting Authority), as well as the Departments of Health, Social Development and Correctional Services. The press has covered this failure as a failure to protect women and women’s rights, which it certainly is.

But Tshwaranang’s analysis goes far beyond the failure to protect.

The real of women’s rights is more than, bigger than, and more profound than “protection”. The real of women’s rights is freedom, and specifically the enjoyment of freedom:

“South Africa’s Constitutional Court makes it clear that, `few things can be more important to women than freedom from the threat of sexual violence.’ So important is this right to be free from all forms of violence that, along with the rights to life and dignity, it imposes two sorts of duties on the state: the first obliging the state to refrain from acting in ways that infringe on these rights, and the second compelling it to develop legislation and structures guaranteeing those rights….It is not only sexual violence that constitutes a rights violation of the sort requiring state intervention: `Indeed, the state is under a series of constitutional mandates which include the obligation to deal with domestic violence: to protect both the rights of everyone to enjoy freedom and security of the person and to bodily and psychological integrity, and the right to have their dignity respected and protected, as well as the defensive rights of everyone not to be subjected to torture in any way and not to be treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.”

Imagine a South Africa in which all women are free to move around as they please, dressed as they please. Imagine a world in which all women are free to move around as they please, dressed as they please. Imagine a world in which democracy means the enjoyment of freedom. Instead of celebrating Women’s Day, what about Women’s Enjoyment of Freedom Day?

 

(Photo credit: Halden Krog / Times Live)