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Risking lives: The fate of women human rights defenders in Zimbabwe
Research and Advocacy Unit and Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association
December 10, 2013

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The Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, in 2004, laid out the standard treatment of people in police custody in the case of a woman human rights defender Nancy Kachingwe. In that case, the Court spelled out that police holding cells should be of a reasonable size, with good ventilation, sufficient lighting, and clean and decent flushing toilets with running water. The Court also explained that persons detained in holding cells should be given clean drinking water and wholesome food at appropriate times. Emphasis was placed on the need to practice good hygiene in the cells, with the Court instructing that police cells should be cleaned every day; that inmates should be given clean, decent and adequate washing facilities including soap and that women should be given sanitary wear upon request. The Court also stated that inmates should be provided with a means to rest such as a chair or bench and that if detained overnight they should be given clean mattresses and blankets.

In a 2009 report by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) which looked at the process of detention and its effects on women activists in Zimbabwe, the findings were clear that the conditions set out in the Kachingwe were not being observed. The women who were interviewed in the RAU research complained that women’s sanitation was not being addressed. Women were not being provided with sanitary wear in police cells as well as in remand prison. Some suffered toxic shock from wearing their pads for long periods. The women also stated that the cells were dark, poorly lit, and dirty with malfunctioning sewer systems that could only be flushed from outside leaving the inmates at the mercy of individuals outside the cell to flush the toilets.

The report also indicated that the bedding was dirty, lice infested, and soiled with blood, urine or human excrement. The cells were overcrowded with a space as small as 3x 5 metres, carrying 30 to 40 people at a time. Food was not provided in holding cells and in remand it was of a poor quality. Women activists in police holding cells had to negotiate with prison officers to allow relatives to bring food. Those with special dietary requirements, who could not receive any food from their relatives, had no alternatives while in remand prison. The women activists did not receive proper health care. Most of them were detained and denied access to their lawyers while undergoing interrogation.

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