Swaziland closes a pregnancy to prison pipeline

Vuyesihle Magagula is 21 years old and seven months pregnant. In December of last year, her mother, Shell Dlamini, went to Court and had her daughter committed … to prison. Vuyesihle’s boyfriend, Colani Dlamini, then informed Vuyesihle’s father, Zephaniah Magagula, about Vuyesihle’s incarceration. Vuyesihle’s parents are separated.

Vuyesihle Magagula sat for a month in Mawelawela Correctional Facilities for a month. There never was a charge against her. There never was a claim that she had committed any crime or broken any law.

Today, January 22, 2013, the High Court ordered Vuyesihle Magagula to be released from prison. The Court agreed with Vuyesihle’s father that his daughter was of sound mind and had not been charged with any offense. Therefore her imprisonment was a violation of Chapter III of the Constitution of Swaziland, “Protection and Promotion of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.”

The Court also agreed that prison is not a good place for pregnant women.

Prison is not a good place for pregnant women nor for women who have not been charged with a crime.

Swaziland has 12 prisons. Mawelawela is the one for women. The Swazi prison system is full to bursting, with government reports that there’s no more room at that inn. Much of the overcrowding is made up of prisoners awaiting trial. Something like 25% of prisoners are remand prisoners. But they’re treated exactly the same as convicted prisoners, sharing the same cells, occupying the same time. Torture is common, beatings are common, and rape is common as well. Juvenile offenders and juveniles awaiting trial, children, are often thrown into the adult prisons. There aren’t enough beds, and so what is a State to do?

Of the twelve prisons, Mawelawela isn’t the worse. It’s not overcrowded. Around 15% of its prisoners are awaiting trial. Some children are living with their mothers at Mawelawela. They’re not in special wards. As elsewhere, juveniles and `detainees’ are part of the general population. On the other hand, Mawelawela is said to be “clean”. That’s something, right?

Mawelawela may not be the worst place, but it’s not the right place. Prison is not a place for `wayward girls.’ Vuyesihle Magagula is not the first to be sent to prison for `protection.’ Last December, as she sat in prison, His Majesty’s Correctional Services Commissioner, Mzuthini Ntshangase, announced that prison was open to unruly and naughtly children. Send them over to us, and we’ll teach them. Ostensibly, girls like Nomthetho and Tebenguni are given `a second chance.’

A second chance. Swaziland has the world’s highest incidence of HIV, with 43% incidence of HIV among pregnant women. Vuyesihle Magagula is the face of HIV in Swaziland, and, whether or not she’s HIV+, prison is not a solution to anything.

In the last ten years, infant mortality in Swaziland has increased by 26%. Maternal mortality has increased by 160%. And somehow, in this landscape of mathematics and morbidity, prison is a second chance?

Around the world, `troublesome’ and `troubled’ girls, girls like Ashley Smith in Canada, are sent to prison … for their own good. Ashley Smith died while seven guards watched. They were only following orders. Let’s apply the common and juridical sense of the High Court of Swaziland to the world. Prison is not a good place for pregnant women. Prison is not a good place for children. Prison is not a school, mental health facility, or resource for stressed parents and strained communities. Invest in children. Close the prisons, and open schools, clinics, community centers, and libraries. Do it now.

 

(Photo Credit: pikerslanefarm/Flickr)

 

Swazi women have always been on the move

Swazi women are on the move. Actually, Swazi women have always been on the move, organizing, opening spaces for women, opening spaces for democracy. Every year, the international media `discovers’ Swazi women on the move. But Swazi women know they have never been still and they have never been silent.

As Swazi feminist and labor organizer Cynthia Simelane explained recently, Swazi women have a longstanding tradition of organizing. Over 20 years ago, in 1990, women got together and started the fabulously named SWAGAA, Swaziland Action Group Against Abuse, an organization initially dedicated to addressing family violence and sexual abuse. They’re still going strong. In 2001, Thelma Dlamini, Siphiwe Hlope, Nonhlanhla Dlamini, Elina Hltatshwako, and Gugu Mbata, five middle-aged women living with AIDS, organized something variously called Swaziland Positive Living, Swazis for Positive Living, or Swaziland for Positive Living. Whatever its exact name, 12 years later, they’re still rocking, expanding, stretching, creating and representing. In 2009, Swazi women organized Swaziland Single Mothers Organization, which in the last year doubled its membership.

Between 2001 and 2009, Swaziland acceded to the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, in 2004. In 2005, the King, Mswati III, “acceded” to a new Constitution, which contained some victories for Swazi women, including a Bill of Rights which enumerates the rights and freedom of women: the right to equal treatment and opportunity; the right to assistance from the State “to enhance the welfare of women to enable them to realize their full potential and advancement”; and the right to protection for women from being “compelled to undergo or uphold any custom to which she is in conscience opposed.”

While the Constitution is far from perfect (and what State document isn’t far from perfect anywhere?) and while its implementation has been spotty, at best, it’s not nothing. Ask Mary-Joyce Doo Aphane. She’s the woman who used the 2005 Constitution to sue for her rights to property under her own name. And, last year, she won her historic case. What’s in a name? Plenty, especially if the person is a woman. Ask Mary-Joyce Doo Aphane and all the women of Swaziland.

2011 saw the emergence of the Swaziland Young Women’s Network, a multi-focused organization committed to young women’s empowerment and to transforming not only the State but also everywhere and everyone in order to create autonomous spaces, once again, for women, in this instance for young women. And they’ve been kicking it ever since, from taking on public transportation’s sexual violence to creating vibrant events for young women artists to organizing last month’s mini-skirt march.

Swaziland is more than one corrupt monarch. Swaziland is hundreds of named and unnamed women’s groups, traditions, actions and movements, where women have always organized for the realization of democracy, not in some distant future, but now. The next time some article `discovers’ Swazi women are organizing, remember … Swazi women have always been on the move.

 

(Photo Credit: Swaziland Young Women’s Network)