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Women prisoners need more support

More male prison inmates continue to enjoy news headlines for their academic activities. However, PRISCA BAIKE was puzzled that female inmates are hardly seen or heard from in that regard. In this third of a fourpart series, she discusses the challenges of formal education in the women prisons.

After 16 years in prison, former death-row inmate Susan Kigula was released early last year. And she is a very different woman from the one who entered Luzira women’s prison in 2000. She used her time in prison to further her education and, consequently, changed her status from a person who was once in conflict with the law to a legal champion.

“I studied Law and I’m proud to inform you that not only have I graduated with a diploma in Law, I graduated with a law degree from the University of London. I am now a lawyer,” wrote Kigula in an email to The Observer. She was out of the country and thus unavailable for a face-to-face interview.

However, this status did not come easy. Kigula, then a seior four graduate, realized that she needed to improve her formal education level. But in the women’s prison it was no easy road. She was compelled to engage both the administration and fellow inmates to secure a formal education.

Inmates at Kigo prison studying Primary 1 English

WOMEN'S PRISONS

Eight years into her imprisonment, Kigula had realized that male inmates were already receiving an education whereas females were not. The men’s and women’s wings of Luzira prison are separate and the two do not share any services.

Kigula mobilized four other female students and the five of them agreed on studying History, Economics, Divinity and Entrepreneurship Management after obtaining permission from the prison administration.

Consequently, Kigula recalls that she acquired a pamphlet on history from a welfare officer, and more textbooks from their parents. Over time, they were connected to the Upper prison school which started sending them notes.

In 2009, the five women sat for exams under Upper prison school. Kigula scored 18 points while her counterparts, who were majorly under her instruction, performed quite well.

Having proven themselves, the rehabilitation officers saw potential in the women and classes at all levels kicked off, with Kigula and her counterparts teaching the rest of the women in the female wing of the prison. However, despite the effort, there aren’t that many women's prisoners engaged in formal education.

Today, there are three women's prisons with education facilities. These are Luzira, Kigo and Jinja women’s prison, with plans to roll schooling out to other prisons.

MAIDEN LAWYERS

Since there was no university programme at that time, Kigula and her friends concentrated on growing the women’s school until in 2011, when Alexander MacLean, the founder of the African Prison project, who was supportive of her court case, encouraged her to study Law.

While her four colleagues did not pass the pre-entry exams, Kigula and three (male) inmates from Upper prison qualified for the course. It was a challenging time for her.

“I had no lecturers. I studied under a tree,” wrote Kigula, “But because I had set my goal to study and help the marginalized in order to bring justice where it was being aborted, I refused the circumstances I was going through to determine my future or stand in the way of fulfilling my dream and reaching my destination.”

She eventually graduated with a diploma in Common Law before she enrolled for a degree in the same discipline. While Kigula beat all odds to reach her destination, many female prisoners have not been as fortunate.

WOMEN ENROLMENT LOW

Women prisoners are not fully utilizing the opportunity to give themselves a second chance at education as they serve their jail terms. In the Luzira Upper prison for instance, only 45 of the 556 inmate learners are female.

Only 45 of last year’s primary leaving exams candidates were women, while out of the 141 candidates who sat for O-level across the country, only nine were women.

Although women prisoners are generally fewer than their male counterparts, only a few of them are interested in formal education behind bars.

“It is the most challenging task a woman in prison can undertake,” wrote Kigula. She explained that by the time they are jailed, most women are demoralized by the length of the jail terms they have to serve. Some are unaware where they left their children, which makes it difficult for them to concentrate on studies.

For instance, Luzira women’s prison had only two female candidates for last year’s PLE while Kigo women had only one female candidate in the same exam, yet there were other eligible female prisoners who chose not to enroll.

Further still, others think studying is a waste of time as they are unlikely to secure their husband’s support for further education when they are released, at the end of their terms.

The senior welfare and rehabilitation officer at Uganda Prisons, Anatoli Owakubaruho Biryomumaisho agrees with Kigula.

“Women generally have a low interest in learning,” said Biryomumaisho.

He explains that women have emotional issues which also affect their stay in school after enrollment. For instance, when they are not visited, they drop out of school despite having books, pens and teachers to teach them.

A welfare and rehabilitation staff in the computer centre at Kigo main prison

Some of the women, who are jailed while pregnant, deliver behind bars and their children are taken away by their relatives at the age of 18 months. The idea of a woman staying in jail with her child can weigh them down emotionally, preventing them from considering school.

Indeed, there are reports that Kigula almost dropped out of school at one time. The officer-in-charge, Luzira women’s prison, SP Stella Nabunya, recalls one such situation. Kigula reportedly once dumped a box of textbooks in Nabunya’s office due to a combination of stress and difficulties in the course.

“Of course, many inmates do not want to go back to school, even when the education is free, but we try to encourage them, but it is not easy.”

Despite the support she got from her family during her imprisonment, Kigula was no exception as far as the pain of an inmate-student-mother was concerned.

“I had left my one-year-old daughter and it weighed so heavily on me as a mother,” Kigula wrote.

Women's prisons have also not been well facilitated, especially with infrastructure. While their male counterparts have a few classrooms and tents, women mostly study under trees.

Luzira women's prison, for instance, only has one room that caters for primary one to primary six. The rest of the classes are conducted under trees, meaning there are no lessons on rainy days. This section has a science laboratory and a computer laboratory to ensure that women are not left behind in the two disciplines.

WAY FORWARD

Anthony Owino, the welfare rehabilitation officer in charge of gender, told The Observer that there is need to re-sensitise female inmates about the advantages of studying while in prison.

“When they get sensitized, they will know why it is important for them to study,” says Owino.

According to Biryomumaisho, there is need to acquire infrastructure to ensure that women enjoy some level of comfort as they go about their studies. The head teacher of Luzira prison schools, Gilbert Niwamanya points out that there is need for women to soar beyond their stress and low esteem, so that they can be able to take on formal education as a form of rehabilitation.

And he should know, since his jurisdiction embraces both the male and female wings of Luzira Upper prison. In tandem with Niwamanya, Kigula maintains that the issue of female prisoners’ children should be addressed if bigger strides are to be made in their formal education.

“These are the voiceless innocent victims of justice. No one cares, not even the prosecuting organs … what will happen to these innocent victims after their parents are imprisoned?” asks Kigula. She urges everyone to rise up and help these ‘forgotten angels’ so mothers in prison have full adherence to the educational programmes availed to them as part of their correctional process.

“They cannot embrace those programmes when their children are on the streets, facing child sacrifice, are in prostitution or undergoing sexual abuse,” remarks Kigula.

As Uganda strives to achieve gender equality, there is a great need for government to address the challenges faced by women prisoners to ensure that they fully partake in formal education which is critical to the country’s economic development as it advances towards becoming a middle-income state.

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