People doing jail time in Zimbabwe’s overcrowded and squalid prisons may soon be receiving an array of contraceptives in a bid to prevent the spread of HIV, but the move is likely to reignite intense public debate on homosexuality.
According to proposals by the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare and World Health Organisation (WHO), prisoners could soon benefit from initiatives to curb the spread of the deadly scourge.
The director of the Aids and TB programme, Owen Mugurungi, recently told journalists during a seminar under the theme “Understanding multiple concurrent partnerships and male circumcision” that his ministry was working with the Justice ministry to address health challenges in the country’s prisons.
Mugurungi says they are embarking on the project after noting that there were frequent unprotected homosexual relations in the penitentiaries and upon release the likelihood to affect spouses and girlfriends was high.
Mugurungi said: “We will do whatever it takes, even if it means giving prisoners condoms.”
It is still not clear whether inmates would be allowed regular visits by their spouses and the criteria to be used in distribution. Nonetheless, the proposals are likely to reignite intense public debate on homosexuality.
Long time ruler President Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, some church leaders and traditionalists have condemned homosexuality while a large number of Zimbabweans have been speaking out against the practice during the constitution outreach meetings.
While Mugabe once famously described homosexuals “as worse than pigs and dogs”, some civil society organisations have insisted that there is nothing wrong in being gay arguing it was a human right.
Unprotected homosexual sex is however rife in the country’s prisons especially among the younger generation.
Other proposals by the ministry include screening patients for tuberculosis (TB) and isolating infected prisoners to curb the spread of the disease which is common in the country’s prisons.
Charles Sandi, in charge of tuberculosis in the ministry’s Aids and TB unit, said a specialist from abroad has been evaluating the country’s prisons health situation for the past three months.
“Basically, we are working with the WHO to review our HIV and TB policy in prisons. What we want to do is to strengthen the diagnosis of all prisoners and this entails immediately screening inmates for treatment, and when diagnosed we will try to ensure that they get supervised treatment,” he said.
“We want to improve infection control measures, through mainly isolating TB patients, but all we can do is recommend because we don’t know how they (Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs) will take it from a security point of view.
“Prisoners are normally not viewed as people with rights and sometimes the responsiveness is very slow, but we hope they will be changes.”
TB is an air-borne disease and thrives in squalor and where there is inadequate ventilation such as in prisons.