In Zambia, incarcerated women are permitted to bring their young children to prison with them. However, they say neither they nor their children have enough to eat and they worry about malnutrition.
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Safia, an inmate at Lusaka Correctional Service, gets beans and nshima, a cornmeal porridge, to eat.
So that’s what her 15-month-old baby eats, too.
“There is no special food for children here, whatever I am given is what my baby feeds on and we just eat twice a day,” says Safia, a Rwandan who was arrested for an immigration offense. She asked that only her first name be used to protect her identity.
The portions are not enough to feed both mother and child. When the baby craves more, Safia makes a salt solution to give him.
Young children may stay with their incarcerated mothers in Zambia. When they turn 4 years old, they’re handed over to family members or social welfare officers.
According to U.N. guidelines known as the Bangkok Rules, pregnant women, babies, children and breastfeeding mothers must receive adequate food, as well as a healthy environment and a chance to exercise, all free of charge.
It’s not uncommon for children to accompany their mothers to prison.
Argentina, Turkey, England and Bolivia are among the dozens of countries that make allowances for incarcerated women to care for their children.
But in countries like Zambia, where food is scarce in the prison system, having children housed alongside adults creates extra problems. Incarcerated mothers in Zambia say neither they nor their children who are with them get enough to eat. They depend on single rations doled out to the mothers, and on donations from visitors or good Samaritans.
The mothers’ reports were corroborated by a study published in 2015 by DIGNITY — Danish Institute Against Torture, an organization that carried out research on conditions for women and children in Zambia’s prisons. Food is distributed to groups of women twice each day, but there are no extra rations for children. The women cook their own food.
The number of women and children in Zambia’s prisons changes daily, but on one day this year there were 622 women and 60 children, says Dr. George Magwende, the senior assistant commissioner for the Zambia Correctional Service.
The prison facilities were designed for adults, he says. Mothers are advised to leave their children with relatives, but that’s not always possible.
“The issue of malnutrition has never come as a concern, because we feed the mothers and we have ways to find the food for the children,” he says.
Among the ways, he says, is to ask for food donations.
Paul Swala, the Lusaka regional coordinator for Prison Fellowship Zambia, coordinates donations of food and other necessities for prisoners.
“Our utmost concern is food for children,” he says. “That is our priority when asking for help.”
But it’s not sustainable to rely on donations, Swala says.
There is talk of legal reforms that could ensure that children who are with their mothers in prison get enough to eat, but it’s not clear when those reforms might be approved or enacted, Magwende says.
Mothers who are sentenced to serve prison time often don’t see an option other than to bring their children with them, says Adesi Tembo who brought her then-two-year-old baby to prison with her when she was sentenced to a three year sentence. But once they’re there, they worry that the children will be malnourished.
“The food given to inmates is not balanced,” she says.
Mercy Salaka served three months in prison in 2004. Her baby was 5 months old when she entered the prison system.
“I could not leave the baby home because none of my family members could afford milk substitutes for the baby, but feeding a baby in prison was a real struggle,” she says.
At the time, she says, inmates were given food just once a day. Food donations arrived nearly every fortnight, she says.
Safia, the woman with a 15-month-old baby, worries that she’ll spend a long time in prison. She’s been charged with a crime, but has yet to face trial.
“Donations come but it’s not enough,” she says. “I am worried that my baby might have malnutrition in here.”
Prudence Phiri, GPJ translated some interviews from Nyanja.