The Predicament women face in Prison
The number of women and girls caught in the criminal justice system has skyrocketed in recent years. Out of the total 200,000 prisoners found in Ethiopia, currently, 3.7Pct are women. Women prisoners face multi layer challenges such as discrimination and treatment with cruelty and violence in detention centres and police stations. On top of these, problems including gross overcrowding and inadequate food, water, sanitation, as well as medical care, put female prisoners in danger. To make matter worse, many of women are imprisoned with their children, whom they have to raise within the prison compound. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale who visited Kaliti Prison recently reports the difficulty faced by women prisoners.
The moment after the stringent search at the entrance of the Kaliti Women’s Prison, located near Debrezeit Road, is almost surreal. Inmates in orange uniforms stare silently into space in front of their cells, surrounded by the loud voices and equally loud footsteps of the military guards in a garagewarehouse-like compound. The women’s compound, established in 2011 as part of the Kaliti Prison, accommodates a maximum of 1,000 inmates. But even though it is a women’s prison, male prisoners are also kept there. Most of the guards are also men.
For many of the female prisoners held in Kaliti, life has become more than challenging. Many of them are imprisoned with their children, whom they have to raise within the prison compound. The lagging of the legal system has made it hard for many of them to be able to access justice ib a reasonable time frame, leading to many of the women being imprisoned for up to a year without sentencing. Many have nowhere to turn.
Many women including Tsega Haile have nowhere to go. Tsega has been held in Kaliti Women Prison for the last eight months without a sentence, with her ill, barely one year old baby. “I was arrested a few weeks after I gave birth to my second baby. Every time I go to court, the prosecution postpone for the next month. I have no one to look after my first boy, who is living in a rented home.”
She was arrested for signing a blank cheque, for which the police have not been able to produce witnesses. “I have complained to the courts and the prison administration repeatedly,” she recalls. “I have also complained to the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) and many other NGOs. Although they promised to help me, I have had no justice so far.”
In Tsega’s opinion, although basic needs are met for the most part, there is still an issue of accessing justice that women prisoners have to face. “Some prisoners even say it is better than outside, because they have nothing out there. “Almost all prisoners have babies they raise in the prison,” she says. “There are water shortages. The guards do not want to take us to the clinic, or let us make calls. One day on the way back from the court, a female guard told the prison administration that I tried to escape, and I was beaten badly.I haven’t gone to court since. Imagine me trying to escape while my baby is in prison.”
Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) took power in early 2018, the condition of prisoners in Ethiopia’s detention centers and prisons has become a point of national debate. However, there has been little said about the conditions of women prisoners, some of whom were detained in the harrowing ‘secret prisons’ kept by the government to detain those suspected of terrorism-related charges. In general, the issues facing female prisoners, whether health and sanitation related, or legal, have not received much attention.
There are currently 345 women prisoners in Kaliti, while 424 have been released in the last six months, mainly following government pardons according to the Superintendent, Alem Tilahun. There are currently almost 200,000 prisoners across six federal and 120 regional prisons in Ethiopia, excluding police stations, which are used as pretrial detention centers. Women make up around 3.7Pct of the total prisoners in the country. The Federal Prison Administration (FPA), which reports to the Ministry of Federal Affairs, oversees Kaliti, Qilinto, Zewauy, Shewa Robit, and Diredawa prisons. There 120 major prisons in regional states. There are also many unofficial detention centers, including sites in Dedessa, Bir Sheleko, Tolay, Hormat, Blate, Tatek, Jijiga, Holeta, and Senkele.
Reports by Human Rights Watch and the African Human Rights Commission reveals that individual cells in Ethiopian women’s prisons are extremely narrow, often forcing prisoners to sit without being able to stretch their legs. These cells are not designed to meet the needs of prisoners with special needs, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, or breast-feeding mothers, and often affect prisoners who need prenatal and postnatal treatment and access to showers to maintain their hygiene.
Behailu T. Weldeyohannes, a global health advocate, in his research entitled ‘Reforming Prison Policy to Improve Women-Specific Health and Sanitary Care Conditions’ state that Ethiopia lacks a specific policy and regulations to deal with women-specific health rights, recognized under regional and international human rights instruments, and ensure they are equally available to women prisoners.
“Existing statutes do not specifically recognize women-specific health and sanitary care as women’s rights, except under limited circumstances during pregnancy and childbirth. Gender-based violence is a grave human rights violation and a serious public health concern with significant impact on the physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health of women inmates. Prisoners who were victims of gender-based violence also lack the ability to access reproductive and related health care services in prison, because of stigma and fear. On top of that, the prison policy does not properly address women prisoners’ health and sanitary care needs. Denying women prisoners basic services, such as sanitary pads, is a form of degrading treatment,” writes Behailu.
Gender based violence represents another hurdle for women in Ethiopia. Self-defense against violence, usually within marriages represents a big chunk of the crimes for which women are incarcerated in Ethiopia, according to research by EWLA. The same study showed that most women prisoners were incarcerated for petty offences, and in some places, they were serving time without being sentenced. The study also revealed that women prisoners who were incarcerated for grave crimes were often convicted of crimes committed against their husband or partner, either in self-defense or for causes beyond their control, stating, “For instance, 40Pct of women prisoners in Assela, Ambo, Adama, and Zeway prisons were incarcerated for acts committed in self-defense. Except in a few urban areas, incarcerated women are not getting highly needed legal aid to prepare statements of defense, appeals, closing statements, opinions of sentence, petitions for cassation, bail requests, and other civil matters such as delegating a property administrator.”
However, advocating for and helping women prisoners was made even more challenging by the introduction of the charities and societies proclamation in 2009, which restricted the activities of NGOs working on issues concerning incarcerated women. The proclamation capped NGOs funding and forced them to present financial statements to the government. Close to 90Pct of NGOs , according to the Centre for International Human Rights Law and Advocacy left the country, while the ones left had their capacities cut by 85Pct. For instance, in December 2009, government froze the bank accounts of EWLA, which provided free legal services to 17,357 women in 2008.
Wendimeneh Lema, project manager at EWLA says the Association has not been active for the last few years, since the law was introduced. “But since the law is being amended, we can have 100Pct financial backing from abroad. We are planning to open an office inside Kaliti Women Prison.”
“Court cases are very sluggish especially for women. The environment in prison facilities is very bad. At least 41 women complain to us every day, in Addis Ababa alone,” explains Wendimeneh. “We must work hard so women do not go to prison in the first place. There is not much that can be done once they are forced to commit a crime and are sent to prison.”
Domestic violence against women and financial dependence remain fundamental bottlenecks in Ethiopia, driving women to prisons. Only 23Pct of women who have experienced physical or sexual violence reported the incidents. Only 16Pct women independently own property. The civil code does not allow remedies for child support without leaving marriage. Law enforcement and the judiciary are influenced by cultural stereotypes. These are some of the problems that drive women to crime, according to Wendimeneh.
He says women’s prisoners cases are usually related to marriage. “They do not know their rights and are unaware about the laws. Just as they have the right to marry, they have right to divorce. So many women and children are confined in a prison cells without ambulances incase of illness or giving birth. Human rights are breached.Women should be imprisoned for crime, but the main thing is how they are treated in prison..”
Historically, prisons in Ethiopia were built only for men and as warehouses for military and administrative units. The first ‘Prison Administration Establishment Proclamation’ introduced in 1944, stated that female prisoners should only be supervised by female officers. During the Dergue regime, in most prisons, male superintendents were responsible for the direct supervision of women prisoners, and the situation was worse for women prisoners who were dissidents to the military government, to whom the regime was notoriously horrible. As forms of investigation and punishment, prison authorities and superintendents used to abuse and rape prisoners, as well as sexually harassed them. Even after the fall of Dergue, prisons maintained their notorious gender blind order, and despite women prisoners’ suffering because of grave human rights violations, prison authorities kept detaining women prisoners in poor facilities.
Late last year, the Office of the Attorney General made bombshell revelations about the human rights violations, including severe injuries and killings at Maekelawi, the notorious prison facility, which was closed recently. The Attorney General also disclosed it found seven secret torture and interrogation chambers run by the intelligence officials in Addis Ababa.
For Mahlet Fantahun, Kaliti is heaven, compared to Maekelawi Crime Investigation Bureau, which had cell-zones known as Siberia, Sheraton and Tawlabet. Mahlet, one of the bloggers detained by the government for allegedly violating the anti-terrorism law, was released a year ago. Before going to Kaliti, she was interrogated at Maekelawi. “The worst penalty at Kaliti is the officers separate us from other prisoners. Relatives were not allowed to visit us,” she recalls. “But at Maekelawi, each day was a nightmare. I stayed in a cold, dark, narrow cell. During the night, I could hear the boots of the investigators moving on the upper floor. They interrogated us during night. They force us to do sports naked, in front of people. Many women were raped. There were close to 30 women prisoners at Maekelawi when I was there. Most of them were tortured.”
However, although the revelations stirred up controversy and conversation in Addis, there was still little said about the unique tortures that women faced in the secret prisons. “Man Ethiopians only know of the tortures done to men in prison. Women sleep on stone, in a room full of dirt. It was the first time I thought of myself as inhuman. They do not treat you as a human, let alone a woman,” tells a woman who was detained just for a night at a police station around Megenagna to EBR on the condition of anonymity. “I also heard women are put in a cell with mentally ill men, so they are raped.”
Though the law says detainees must appear before a court in 48 hours, women were detained for months. “There was no file opened on us. We were accused of plotting terrorism and establishing links with blacklisted political parties at the time. But there is no evidence,” says Mahlet. “Up to 40 women were in four-by-three room. There was only water at night, but we cannot go out at night. We were not allowed to go to clinic either.”
Mahlet stress Ethiopia’s law is stronger on women and petty criminals, rather than big crimes. “But, the changes currently undertaken by the government are encouraging for women. Women are coming to power levels, including as head of the state. This is encouraging, even in the face of prison memories.”
8th Year • Mar.16 – Apr.15 2019 • No. 72