Prison Life:Zimbabwe Style
A few months ago we visited Chikarubi Prison on the outskirts of Harare. It's reputation alone filled us with trepidation and we were definitely on edge as we sat, waiting to be accompanied from the gate to the women's prison. Several groups of male prisoners marched past on their way back from working in the fields. Accompanied only by a guard on horseback, the prisoners stares made us feel exposed and vulnerable. We were in hostile territory.
Eventually we were taken through the various security checks and delivered to the fenced off women's prison.
Unlike any prison I have seen on TV, the security seemed to be remarkably lax with the fence damaged in places and women walking about, cooking on an open fire or sitting in groups. One of the prison officers was making use of an inmates skill at hairdressing to have her braids replaced whilst other officers chatted to her.
However, this domestic scene, was deceptive, as we were soon to discover.
Having been asked to gather the female prisoners for our visit, it became very obvious that some of the women were not only ill-suited to using a Butterfly Menstrual Cup but were in fact medicated to the point of being little more than empty shells. Their eyes were glazed and stared blankly at us whilst their mouths drooped open. It was a chilling sight. I asked one of the prison officers what was going on. She replied that these women were mentally ill and would remain in prison until a family member collected them. I have no idea what their crimes were but it without a doubt, they should not have been in Chikarubi.
Having recovered our equilibrium, we set about the task of educating female prisoners, guards and health workers on how to use a menstrual cup and how to keep it clean and sanitary.
It seemed as though the Butterfly menstrual cup was going to positively impact on the lives of all these women. Their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn about the menstrual cup only served to emphasis their lack of access to any other form of menstrual care.
We left, feeling that we had done a good job and would be writing a report in a few months time that glowed with success. How wrong we were.
The following weeks we spent hours trying to get follow up reports from the staff, no information was forthcoming and we began to realise that this had a been one of those ventures where everyone appears to be on side and willing to engage but in reality no one was going to help the prisoners by distributing the cups or providing a storage facility.
Our last conversation with the prison clinic informed us the best we could hope for was the Butterfly Cups being given to prisoners as they left the prison. As most of them had not even got a court date, this would be at some indeterminate time in the future. The reason given was that the nurses were not prepared to handle a product that had been in someone's vagina - even if the cup had been cleaned and sterilised.
This whole project had been sponsored by YPO and we were devastated to think we had failed so conclusively to provide relief for these women who's lives were desperate enough already and were responsible for wasting the money of our sponsors.
Fast forward to last week and we received an unexpected email from the Dutch Embassy asking us to facilitate a project to deliver menstrual cups to women in prisons....
Believing that, at this point, the only possible way for us to succeed is to engage with the hierarchy of the prison system we decided to attempt the impossible and make an appointment with the Senior Assistant Commissioner Officer Commanding of the Harare Province.
Welcome to the New Zimbabwe! Not only did we get an appointment but at the meeting there were Heads of Administration, Rehabilitation and Nurses attached to the Dept of Health for prisons. All attending were open minded and proactive. So much so that next Thursday we have been invited to revisit Chikarubi to deliver a second round of education and to ensure that the project actually succeeds The Senior Assistant Commissioner Officer Commanding himself will be in attendance.
I look forward to writing a new blog in the not too distant future that really does "glow with success".