When Linda Masarira began the Occupy Africa Unity Square campaign, she probably had no idea she would spend her eight-year-old son’s birthday in one of Zimbabwe’s most notorious maximum security prisons.
As a political activist, the widowed mother of five is no stranger to incarceration. Since she first became a public figure in 2015, while protesting a Supreme Court ruling that allows companies to fire employees without compensation, she has been detained several times. But her most recent stay in prison, during which her fellow activists threw a birthday party for her son, has been the longest to date.
On July 6, Masarira, 35, was arrested along with 19 other activists for allegedly vandalizing a vendor’s stall during a protest. Since then, her co-accused have all been released on bail, while Masarira remains incarcerated in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare. In early September, after a prison officer reportedly threw her lunch on the ground, she organized the female prisoners to protest against alleged abuse by prison staff. In response, she was transferred to solitary confinement, which is located in the men’s section of the prison.
The treatment of incarcerated women has entered Zimbabwe’s public consciousness in recent months as pro-democracy protests sweep across the country, leading to bans and mass arrests. Social media campaigns such as #ThisFlag and Tajamuka (“We Have Rebelled”) have spilled onto the streets, as citizens express their anger at the government’s finance policy – including the nonpayment of civil service salaries and the introduction of bond notes – and call for electoral reforms before the 2018 vote. But as thousands continue to gather and march, the state is falling back on methods of repressive policing, allegations and threats, according to a report by the South Africa Institute for Security Studies.
After President Robert Mugabe publicly warned demonstrators that “they are playing a dangerous game,” Harare’s chief of police Newbert Saunyama on September 16 issued a one-month ban on the “holding of public demonstrations,” defying a High Court judgment that had declared a previous two-week ban on protests as unconstitutional.
The day following Saunyama’s announcement, nationwide protests organized by opposition parties under the National Electoral Reform Agenda umbrella went ahead, resulting in arrests across the country. According to the Tajamuka movement, clashes between protesters and police over the weekend ended in 87 arrests and 125 injuries and assaults nationwide. The movement’s spokesman Promise Mkwananzi says the police used live bullets, water cannons and torture when dealing with demonstrators, both male and female. “They [the police] have total disregard for the dignity of women, as some have been poked in their privates during these clashes,” he said.
In response to abuses reported by female protesters, the rights group Justice for Women issued the government with an ultimatum on Tuesday. At a press conference in Harare, the group’s spokeswoman, Coezett Chirinda, accused police of perpetrating acts of “serious physical and psychological abuse” against female demonstrators.
The organization went on to issue a statement condemning violence against female protesters. “These women were stripped naked whilst being assaulted and they have ghastly wounds on their bodies,” it said, stating that some women had been transported in a police truck “full of drunken antiriot police officers who took turns to assault them.”
Chirinda told the press conference that if the government fails to charge all officers accused of mistreating female activists within a week, the organization’s members will hold a protest naked. In Zimbabwean Shona culture, a woman publicly strips to symbolize her humiliation. “They strip and beat us naked,” she told reporters. “If they want to see our bodies then we are going to march to their offices naked so that they really see us.”
Any female protesters who end up in Chikurubi face a stay in a prison that has gained notoriety for widespread human rights violations. Inmates have previously complained of dire living conditions that include open sewage running through the cells and a lack of essentials such as food, toiletries and sanitary pads for women.
The prison has also gained a reputation as the detention center of choice for officials looking to silence antigovernment activists. Masarira is not the first female activist to find herself remanded in the same part of the prison that houses men convicted of violent crimes. After they were accused of murdering a police inspector in 2011, Rebecca Mafikeni and Yvonne Musarurwa, both youth leaders for the opposition party The Movement for Democratic Change, were moved to solitary confinement. Two years later, Mafikeni died in custody due to complications from meningitis. The courts had denied numerous applications for private medical assistance on her behalf. Musarurwa was released on bail in 2014, before being found guilty of murder and returned to Chikurubi, among the general female population, to await sentencing. She maintains her innocence.
Thelma Chikwanha, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, says the organization is currently representing three women in Harare who were arrested and assaulted during the protests over the weekend. “The clashes between police and protesters usually turn violent,” she says, adding that some of the women who were arrested were beaten with batons.
For Masarira, her time in solitary confinement – which is staffed by female guards – has been a chance to reflect on the escalating tensions between activists and police. Jacob Mafume, spokesman for the opposition Zimbabwe People’s Party, says that when he visited Masarira on September 20, she told him she was better off in solitary. “She stated that if she went back to the [women’s] section, she would not be able to be silent about abuses and beatings that go on [there],” he says.
Update: After this story was published, a petition by Linda Masarira’s lawyers led a High Court judge to grant her immediate release on Sept. 26.