OPINION: Prison Term For Abortion? Reform The System Or Jail The Men Too

OPINION: Prison Term For Abortion? Reform The System Or Jail The Men Too
Woman pushes for legalization of abortion

The recent meeting of chiefs of prisons and correctional services of Eastern and Southern Africa organised by the East African Community Secretariat has come at a time when prison facilities in the region are nothing short of dungeons.

Due to the heavy rains being experienced, sewerage and drainage systems have broken down and a cholera outbreak has hit many areas.

As expected, prison facilities are particularly badly hit. Already, several prisoners from Kenya’s Shimo la Tewa Maximum Prison have died over the past few weeks.

The major challenges facing prisons facilities in the region include overcrowding, poor hygienic conditions, and a high level of prisoners on remand pending completion of their trials.

Women are especially at a great disadvantage; challenges of healthcare and hygiene for women detainees across the region have time and again come under scrutiny.

Lack of sanitary towels has affected many women in prison, leading to poor hygiene and deteriorating reproductive health. Family visits are messy affairs with no privacy, and visitors are forced to shout to be heard.

Limited rehabilitation and reintegration programmes have further led to unsuccessful reintegration of women prisoners and an increase in the numbers of repeat offenders.

Children of female prisoners are exposed to prison life, which affects them psychologically and mentally. Children arrive in prison by two distinct routes in Africa: They are either born to incarcerated women or they have been sentenced on account of their own allegedly criminal conduct.

Often, their crimes include such minor and petty offences as vagrancy, not carrying proper identification, loitering and truancy, begging, and being beyond a parent’s control.

For these slight infractions, children can be detained pending trial during the most formative years of their development.


It is disheartening that the plight of women and children has largely been ignored by penal policy makers across the region. As a result, these vulnerable populations are particularly marginalized within an already substandard living environment.

While some inroads are being made within the European, North American, and Australian penal systems to better accommodate women and children, the issue receives little to no attention in Africa.

This insensitivity is compounded by the fact that prison administration remains a largely male dominated world.

In the first instance, it is important to ask ourselves why women are incarcerated in East Africa? What are the major crimes committed by women? Why are a majority of women not legally represented during the judicial processes of their cases?

Women in East Africa – and in Africa in general – are overwhelmingly poor and uneducated. As a result, they understand neither the judicial process nor the magnitude of the penalties attracted by their crimes.

They are frequently incarcerated for crimes ranging from murder and attempted murder to infanticide, petty crimes, abortion, and theft.

Due to poverty, affording legal representation is a big challenge and many women find themselves unrepresented in courts. Sexism is also apparent in the criminalization and sentencing of certain actions. For example, abortion —which only women can obtain —is severely punished.

Although the plight of female prisoners is being addressed in current regional efforts at penal reform, it is important to eliminate vagueness in the law.

For example, even though the Kampala Declaration calls for improving the situation of women in African prisons, it merely argues for “particular attention” and “proper treatment” of women’s “special needs”.

Such vague aspirations — to say nothing of the wholesale omission of pregnant women — reflect a lack of political will and gender inclusivity in the reform of African prisons.

To effectively deal with the challenges facing prisons and correctional facilities across the region, not only for the benefit of women and children but for men as well, a concerted approach needs to be adopted.

It is paramount for the chiefs of prison and correctional facilities to come up with modalities of a regional approach to deal with the debilitating conditions in our prison facilities.

This is in addition, of course, to adopting a regional approach toward dealing with other gnawing security issues such as piracy and other maritime crimes along the coast, as well as emerging issues of radicalisation, terrorism and cybercrime.

By Anne Kiruku, East African News Agency



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