Alfred Kurai (not his real name) twitches uncomfortably as the “talk” begins. He says calling this an interview would make him feel dehumanised and uncomfortable. Kurai is a convict in a Zimbabwean prison. Having been convicted on a fraud charge 6 years ago, he is due to be released soon and relishes the prospect of soon meeting and reuniting with his wife and family.
His name has been changed to protect his safety, and his secret.
“First, it was because I wanted food. Here and there I would trade sex for food with some male inmates. Knowing I would be behind bars for a couple of years taught me to do what I had to do to survive,” Kurai said, avoiding eye contact. “Even after the food situation improved I would seek sexual favours here and there, not because I am gay, but because a person has needs, and with a decade to serve, you need that companionship.”
Kurai, who has a wife and 2 children aged 6 and 8, is part of Zimbabwe’s prison population of men who have sex with men (MSM) but do not necessarily identify as gay.
Legislators and civil rights advocates in the country are currently debating whether to allow access to condoms in prisons to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.
With the conservative SADC community making strides towards availing condoms in prisons, Zimbabwe, some lawmakers sees this as a policy whose time has come in the name of doing the right thing for the sake of saving lives and containing STI’s, HIV and Aids.
HIV prevalence rate in Zimbabwe’s prisons stands at an alarming 27 percent, while that of the general populace stands at 14 percent; evidence that a lot has to be done to roll back prevalence amongst inmates.
Other SADC countries including South Africa, which have constitutional provisions that allay the crossing of legal and moral dilemmas in same sex liaisons also have access to condoms for prisoners. This by and large does not present amorality conundrum as it would in the rest of the region and Zimbabwe in particular.
“Either way,” says a health care provider in Zimbabwe, “in the same way that we throw the moral religious argument out of the window when dealing with members of the apostolic faith churches who otherwise do not want to vaccinate their children, so must we see prevention and preservation of life as being paramount to the religious and moral argument.”
Zimbabwe criminalises same sex activity and furthermore has strict social morality laws that would somewhat conflict with the very act of availing condoms in prisons, which would be seen as being tantamount to “condoning” what is largely peddled in society as an “abomination”.
Kurai, who supports the proposed condom policy, says he has seen many fellow die in prison due to AIDS-related illnesses
He says he has been treated for sexually transmitted infections about twice each year he has been in prison. Reinfection means he is in danger of contracting other infections, including HIV.
“They says its homosexuality, but it is not. You think I do not miss my wife? I do. A lot. But she is not here with me, and nature has its ways,” Alfred said. “If you had asked this of me while I was a free man I would have been adamant that condoms in prisons are wrong, but when you experience this first hand, then you know it is hectic.”
Legislator and humans rights defender Jessie Majome is convinced that there was consensus that the bill would pass in the name of the pursuit of saving lives.
“The problem is that when elections come like now the priority on such bills falls by the wayside. Also, many people steer clear of controversial issues that can negatively impact their bid for re-election,” she adds.
And because it is electoral silly season, the bill may be dead in the water. Perpetually in limbo until after the elections which are due in August at the very latest.
“It should be up to us to make that decision,” Alfred said of his fellow prisoners’ access to condoms. “This is a penitentiary and not a place of punishment but reform. We know prevention is better than cure. Condoms prevent bigger problems. Without them we either die in here or go out to the world after release and endanger our wives and girlfriends.”
LGBTI rights group GALZ is at the forefront of lobbying for condoms in prisons but says it is not a gay issue.
“Legislators are debating a gay rights question around the condoms in prison debate, and yet it is not that. It is allowing people in a situation that can have them engaging in MSM activities, access to something that will help save their lives and prevent the spread of disease,” said GALZ director Chester Samba.
Samba disagrees with politicians’ arguments that the availability of condoms will encourage homosexual activity.
“The acts are going on, condoms or no condoms. Prisoners have rights, and amongst those rights is the right to health and preservation of their lives as well,” he said.
In socially conservative Zimbabwe that is a very rich task. But if other nations like Lesotho are leading in condom distribution, Zimbabwe may be shamed and may need to follow suit.
Speaking on their decision to allow condoms in jail in spite of their laws criminalising consensual adult same sex on their statues, Lesotho Health Minister Nyapane Kaya, says the introduction of condoms in prisons did not mean that they were promoting homosexuality in prisons. He says they had just accepted reality hence the preventive approach.
“Homosexuality is happening in prisons and this has ignited the interest in ensuring that quality health care services are provided in correctional services so that they are not left out.
“It has never been easy to introduce condoms and the idea was not meant to promote so one of the lessons countries like Zimbabwe can learn is that it has never been easy to offer such services in correctional services, it is still not easy.” Prisons Deputy Commissioner Huggins Agrey Machingauta is on record for saying the legislative arm guides their policy.
Appearing before the Parliamentary Thematic Committee on Human Rights in 2011, Machingauta said providing condoms in cells for purposes of homosexuality was tantamount to legalising a crime. He said prisons will only provide condoms in cells should Zimbabwe legalise homosexuality.
“Yes, yes. Let me say a big yes, we know that this activity (homosexuality) takes place in our prisons because we receive reports. I have been an officer-in charge in a number of prisons and we used to receive reports whenever the parties are not in agreement and even when they are in agreement, but there is a witness to the act that these two were committing sodomy (and) we take corrective (sic) measures,” he said.
“In terms of the Prisons Act, it is an offence and we actually have legal powers to try and punish. On the issue of condoms, we cannot issue them out to inmates until this House (Parliament) passes legislation to legalise homosexuality in Zimbabwe,” he said.
Yet with the burden of treatment and conscience of letting people get infected, getting ever so big, perhaps it is time indeed for prevention to yet again be better than cure.