Since time immemorial prisons have been constructed and run to cope with the needs of men who form the majority of prisoners the world over.
Women, a minority in penal institutions, have for long been admitted to the same prisons as male prisoners where they are expected to cope with the same routines and facilities.
The situation has been changing in other countries but in Zimbabwe lack of attention to women prisoners and their health needs continues.
Minors born to incarcerated mothers are being kept in prison and some say it is inhumane. The country’s 42 prisons currently house 35 children.
The longest serving minor is a four year-old born in prison within days of the mother being remanded in custody awaiting trial for a murder offence.
Running around in the playing ground, playing games, singing songs – these are some of the things most children cherish as they grow up. But for the 35 children locked up with their mothers in Zimbabwe’s prisons, this will remain just a dream until policies are put in place to give them a better chance at life.
Besides failing dismally to take care of the incarcerated women’s health concerns, authorities are accused of also failing to provide for children born to these female prisoners.
The prison food regime does not meet the nutritional requirements for children’s physical and mental growth, putting their lives at risk.
Zimbabwe’s prisons are overcrowded and terminally ill patients share cells with healthy prisoners and children jailed with their mothers are forced to share these conditions.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the system does not make provisions for children jailed together with their mothers.
Women and children’s rights activist, Sibusisiwe Bhebhe, says the state needs to address the issue of overcrowding and poor conditions within prisons.
Bhebhe also says of major concern is the government’s failure to protect the rights of pre-trial detainees, women and children and the untapped potential of alternative sentencing such as community service and open prison systems for pregnant and breastfeeding women.
She adds that the plight of the children living out their childhood in prison is testament to lack of concern by the government.
Bulawayo resident, Norman Ncube, says the presence of children in jail is a sign that family units have disintegrated and extended families are no longer willing or able to assist each other in times of crisis.
Another resident, Precious Mudenge, says keeping children locked up with their mothers is the same as making them pay for the sins of their parents.
She says locking them may affect their social and moral development which may make it difficult for them to fit into society when their mothers are released.
Women in prison have more health problems than male prisoners and Zimbabwe has failed to cope with their specific needs as a result most female prisoners don’t even have contact with health experts during their period of incarceration.
The Ministry of Justice says Zimbabwe currently has no capacity to look after all its prisoners, adding the government is always seeking help from non-governmental organizations for food aid.
The future of children jailed with their mothers, as a result, remains bleak