…a single glove is inserted into more than 10 women’s privates to search for hidden objects
…HIV in female prisons is more of a hygiene issue than it is sexual
…Drug adherence a challenge due to stigma in prisons
IT’S already been two years since Nkazana (not real name) left Chikurubi remand prison but gory memories and gustily images of her horrific experiences behind bars are still as clear and vivid as daylight.
By Michael Gwarisa
Apart from the poor nutrition, living standards and social welfare issues inmates experience daily in Zimbabwean prisons, the issue of HIV transmission and infection in female correctional centres has been more of a mirage than reality as many associate HIV infection only with sexual intercourse.
In male prisons, issues of homosexuality or men having sex with men are rampart hence the high HIV prevalence in male prisons. But for female correctional facilities one wonders just how exactly the virus is transmitted considering the absence of male like genitalia in women. Cases of lesbianism and women twisting a large bar of soap to take the form of a humongous penis and use it as a dildo have been making rounds even though their authenticity still remains a mystery.
Speaking to HealthTimes, Nkazana says her two months stay in Chikurubi remand centre enlightened her to the realities women in incarceration experience at the hands of wardens and prison officers who care less about the health and reproductive health rights of inmates. After spending her first night behind bars, what she discovered the following morning as she and 17 other inmates were making their way to the prison van for a court session was unfathomable.
“We were 18 of us, all ready to go to court, as per routine every prisoner is checked, examined for any hidden objects. There had been growing concern in prisons that women were inserting letters and weapons in their vaginas. It is assumed the women would take the letters to their relatives upon arrival at court containing either instructions on how they should destroy evidence among other things.
“However, to carry out the routine checks, the surprising thing was that the officer who was handling the examinations was inserting one glove in all the 18 women not considering that the glove collects fluids from inside the privates. You could visibly see the fluids and mucus like substance the glove would have collected from other women. She continued until she got to me, I was number 14 in the queue, that is when I told her that I was not comfortable having that dirty glove inserted inside me,” said Nkazana.
The guard protested but later agreed and changed her glove to inspect her. She says the following morning, the guards inspected her first to avoid being questioned.
“The women in front of me ignorantly allowed the inspection to go as if everything was ok. I watched as the glove sunk in all the 13 the women in front of me as they spread their legs like all was well. I know my rights and I know very well how HIV is transmitted and coming into contact with fluids of an infected person one is major cause for infection.
“I protested and they would give me the front slot up until the day I left prison but they would use that same glove they would have used on me on all the women. Complaining however got me into trouble as I was subjected to hard labour even before I was even sentenced.”
According to scientific studies, small amount of HIV in a body fluid or tissue does not mean that HIV is transmitted by that body fluid or tissue. Only specific fluids (blood, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk) from an HIV-infected person can transmit HIV. These specific fluids must come in contact with a mucous membrane or damaged tissue or be directly injected into the blood-stream.
If someone with HIV has a detectable viral load, they can pass on HIV through the following blood, semen (including pre-cum), vaginal fluid, anal mucus and or breast milk.
Data released by UNAIDS in 2016 indicate that HIV prevalence in prisoners was 28%. However, the Zimbabwe Population –based HIV impact Assessment (ZIMPHIA) estimates national HIV prevalence rate to have declined remarkably in recent years, dropping from as high as 24 to 14 percent.
According to Nkazana, the issue of menstrual hygiene is not prioritised in Zimbabwe’s prisons as women are left to bleed without anything guarding the flow from spoiling the floor and legs.
“My monthly flow days came when I was doing my two months at Chukurubi, I did not get access to sanitary pads. I had to use my legs and thighs to wipe away blood which was continuously flowing. Some inmates scolded me saying I was being dirty and spoiling the floors.
“Women in prisons at times tear off blankets and use them as sanitary pads. Even for those mothers who are serving with their little ones, they are not even given spoons to feed their babies with, they use bare hands which are at times soiled with menstrual blood,” she said.
Meanwhile, issues of HIV adherence in prisons and access to CD4 machines is currently a major challenge in Zimbabwe’s prisons.
Speaking in an interview on the side-lines of a Zimbabwe Aids Network (ZAN) Media Update workshop on Key Populations (KPs), Zimbabwe National Network for People Living with HIV (ZNNP+) project coordinator Clarence Mademutsa said the issues of adherence to Anti Retro Viral (ARVs) drugs in prisons was mainly caused by stigma discrimination.
“There are a number a challenges facing prison inmates in terms of access to basic Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services. Access to CD4 machines is limited and there is high stigma which also results in HIV positive inmates defaulting on their medicines.
“As it stands, adherence levels are very high but there are also those people who are defaulting because of Stigma and discrimination. There are some who are failing to collect their medicines just because in these closed settings, your HIV status once you start collecting meds becomes a public issue,” said Mademutsa.
Speaking at a Media Workshop in Chinhoyi recently, Health and Child Care minister, Dr David Parirenyatwa acknowledged the occurrence of sex amongst prison inmates in both male and female closed units and called for improved efforts in scaling up HIV and TB screening in prisons.
“The problem with HIV in prisons is that we don’t know whether those infected are infected before they come to prisons or after incarceration. Truth of the matter is that things are happening in prisons and the more we accept that men are having sex with other men in prisons the easier we can avail health services to them,” said Dr Parirenyatwa.