The fact that prisoners are still human and therefore should have their basic rights respected should be fundamental to every society, however the reality is very much different in many places. The case of women inmates is peculiar because they are doubly vulnerable by virtue of being women and being in prison. This leaves them sometimes defenceless and at risk of serious violations. Women who are incarcerated usually come from marginalized and disadvantaged backgrounds and are often victims of violence, and physical and sexual abuse.[i] According to a 2015 survey[ii], about 2.7% of Cameroon’s prison population is made up of women. While this may not seem like a large proportion comparatively, female prisoners do have special needs and are more likely to be discriminated against.
Cameroonian prisons in general are considered to be in poor conditions due to overcrowding (mainly due to lack of financing), which are exacerbated by harsh treatment of inmates by prison personnel, and poor administration in general. The plight of the female prisoner in Cameroon is one of serious concern because prison management and administration are not usually gender sensitive. This is not to say that the plight of other prisoners is unimportant, but it is crucial to maintain decent administrative structures and prison systems otherwise they create additional problems for female prisoners.
The problems faced by the female population in prisons mostly boil down to financial issues on the side of the state. In some prisons in Cameroon for example, both male and female prisoners are expected to live within the same compound though in separate quarters. Sometimes this situation does not provide even the basic standards of decency as it is hard to maintain an acceptable physical hygiene, leaving the female prisoners exposed to abuse from their male counterparts and even prison personnel, and as a result are at a higher risk of contracting STDs and other diseases.
Most of the prison personnel, even those in charge of female inmates, are male and cannot be expected to fully empathise with and understand women’s conditions. The general level of poverty is also very high and as a result perpetuates corruption and other malpractices within the prison system. Women who are not supported by their families can hardly afford feminine care products or other basic needs. Often, this leads to forced prostitution in exchange for favours and special treatment.
Prison systems in Cameroon not only fail to meet the gender and biological health needs of imprisoned women, but also the standards of humane care established by internationally accepted standards of human rights. That said, the government and other institutions including NGOS make considerable efforts to make regular donations to alleviate the suffering of these female inmates, providing them with feminine care, and even beauty products as being locked up for a crime is not the end of one’s life as many inmates are led to believe.
In the midst of this, there is the case of an even more vulnerable sub-group consisting of particularly young women, and pregnant women or nursing mothers, who need to be specially considered. The 2015 human rights report produced by the Cameroonian Ministry of Justice observed that some female inmates with children refuse to hand them over to their families or benevolent persons as suggested by prison authorities, while other women get into prison already pregnant, leading to a very dire situation, as pre-natal or post-natal care is either inadequate or at worst non-existent.
Women in Cameroonian prisons and prisons all over the world especially in Africa deserve better treatment and protection from the States and persons directly involved in their administration. Special attention ought to be paid to their interests and personal development so that they can be productive members of society once freed.
The first important measure will be a considerable review of prison systems and policies. The population of female guards should be augmented, as they can much better relate to the situation faced by these women. More efforts should also be made to have separate prisons for female prisoners.
Secondly, opportunities for counselling and other more concrete forms of rehabilitation should be made available to these women to prepare them for reintegration into society, and to decrease any chances of them falling back into a life of crime. Educational or training facilities should also be provided to these women, so they can learn a trade in order to support their independency in and out of prison. As rule 46 of the Bangkok Rules[iii] prescribe, prison authorities, in cooperation with probation and/or social welfare services, local community groups and non-governmental organizations, shall design and implement comprehensive pre- and post-release reintegration programmes which take into account the gender-specific needs of women.
Other important aspects, like the general hygiene conditions and access to health care and material needs necessary for female inmates must also be improved. Physical and mental health issues must be addressed with adequate measures (as per rules 10 and 12 of the Bangkok Rules).
The overall goal should be to guarantee the respect of already established standards of treatment like the Bangkok rules amongst others, and ensure that prison serves the purpose of reformation and provides an enabling environment for personal development, with the view to combatting discrimination against women. This will ensure that the fundamental human rights of these women are safeguarded.
[i] Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 06 July 2011., imprisonment and women’s health: concerns about gender sensitivity, human rights and public health, http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/89/9/10-082842/en/
[iii] United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules). 2016(Updated)
This article was written by Rosaline A. Bates Anoma, Contra Nocendi's Advocacy Associate for Cameroon