Detention without a cause


Date: January 1, 1970
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The recent detention of 28 women and the children they had just given birth to at the Harare Central Hospital for failure to pay hospital user fees, illustrates how despite all the women?s right and human right?s activism that has taken place in Zimbabwe, poor, black women still seem to have no one on their side.

The recent detention of 28 women and the children they had just given birth to at the Harare Central Hospital for failure to pay hospital user fees, illustrates how despite all the women’s right and human right’s activism that has taken place in Zimbabwe, poor, black women still seem to have no one on their side.

A central condition of Zimbabwe’s democracy should and must be the extent to which all women, regardless of not only race, but also class, enjoy their rights to the fullest extent possible. The fact that the country is undergoing fundamental social, economic and political transformation should not be the cover for the violation of women’s reproductive health rights and their basic right to health.

Poor, black women throughout Zimbabwe are suffering. They can barely make ends meet, lack adequate food, are vulnerable to HIV and AIDS and may find themselves in the position of caring for those who are ill without any material or financial support, and they are subjected to many forms of discrimination at public health institutions because of their economic status.

A group of civic organizations protested the women’s detention and went on to describe the state of the nation’s health care as “in the intensive care wards, if not in the mortuary”. But at the same time, the state should not be absolved of its responsibility to provide access to health to the most vulnerable – poor women.

The fact that poor women manage to get themselves to hospitals to deliver in a safe and hygienic environment is a crucial step towards saving the mother’s life in a continent where the estimated maternal mortality is 1 death in every 16 pregnancies. These women should not be turned away because they do not have money or health insurance, nor should they be detained.

Detaining women who cannot pay for having their children in hospital is a quick, band-aid solution to the more fundamental problems of women not having the economic means to meet their basic needs. The government must be at the forefront of protecting, not violating, the rights of poor women if sexism and class bias are to be rooted out of the country’s health system.

Zimbabwe has been on a roller coaster ride with structural adjustment economic policies since the 1990s. The government’s implementation of structural adjustment can be described as: ‘now you see it. Now you don’t.’ At one point government is seen to be controlling prices of basic commodities, subsidizing the cost of fuel and fuel products and rolling out social welfare programmes to protect the vulnerable. But before one can blink an eye, the price controls are lifted, subsidies are removed and we are reminded, as the 28 women were, that free health care for those most in need is a thing of the past. The public seesaws with this state of affairs, complaining and mumbling, but never really actively stating its case against economic injustice.

What is more frightening too is the detention of the women did not cause a public outcry. Besides the civic groups’ statement, everyone else – government through its Ministry of Health, UN agencies, Parliamentarians, ordinary citizens – were silent. After all I suppose most people think it was only poor women, so what’s the fuss?

Well, the fuss is that Zimbabwe is a signatory to the major international human rights conventions and declarations, as well as regional accords, which guarantee the rights of all women, including their health and reproductive health rights. It is therefore sad to see actions by the authorities, which signal that economics takes precedence and women’s rights and gender equality are only empty paper promises.

Isabella Matambanadzo is the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network, an organization committed to empowering women with information to make informed choices and decisions.

This article is part of the GEM Opinion and Commentary Service that provides views and perspectives on current events.

janine@genderlinks.org.za for more information. 


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