This is a guest post by Rania Rajji.
After two days of being transferred between offices, commanders and prison guards who all welcomed me with tea while making sure I did not become too comfortable, I finally met some of the silent and forgotten women of Juba.
In January 2011, the south of Sudan voted to secede and people filled the streets with celebrations that echo to this day. But in some pockets of the new Southern Sudan there was no fanfare. One such place was the women’s prison in the capital, Juba, where more than 40 women and girls still dreamt of liberation.
I stood for four hours outside the courtyard hearing them, feeling them, and waiting for the green light to enter. The process had begun the day before. I had spent three hours being transferred from one office to the other, overdosing on tea and sugar, until I was finally told the sun was too high in the sky and the women had no shade to sit in, so I had to return at 7:00 the next morning.
But after today’s wait I could finally go in. The lady guards who just 10 minutes earlier had been joking with me in Juba Arabic suddenly took a very imposing air. They gave me a clear directive: do not say anything you are not supposed to say, for we will be watching you. The guards then rang a bell and suddenly the prisoners—young girls between 13 and 17, older ladies and women with babies on their arms—came into the courtyard. Some had been sitting working on the ground, others were in the dormitories. They looked cautious, unsmiling, yet unsurprised to see me standing there. It felt as though an underground community had surfaced in the aftermath of a nuclear attack and came to meet me.
The guards asked them to gather before us and brought only enough chairs for themselves and for me to sit in. When I chose to leave my chair beside them and sit on the ground amongst the women, the guards were offended. They were indeed watching; keeping a close eye for one mistake so they could ask me to leave.
The day before, one of the guards I spoke with told me I should help to free the prisoners who were there for no reason. But now as I spoke to the young girls, her face changed and formed the same intimidating expression as the other guards. She interrupted my short-lived conversations with the girls with comments like “Don’t you know hiding drugs is like selling them? You deserve to be here.”
The girls did not reply. I wonder if they even wished to. They looked at the guard and then at me with vacant eyes, as if they had heard these words too many times before, and as if I was not the first visitor to violate their silence and tranquillity. But the guard continued indignantly: “This one and this one – they are all ‘women’. Their families found them in the brothel and brought them here.” The young girls looked at me with the same vacant eyes. Despite the guard’s comment, I was the one who felt ashamed. The women’s eyes expressed more truth than anything I could ever write about them.
Although money is being poured into making the prison more inhabitable, there are many challenges facing Southern Sudan in its newly gained independence that go beyond the plastic surgery of prison walls. All of them seemed to come to life that day.
When I asked why the younger girls were housed with adults, I was told that the correctional facility had long ago been destroyed by the war and had not been replaced since. When I asked why women with mental disabilities were placed in prison, I was told there were no mental hospitals to host them, so where did I expect them to go? And when I requested to meet the women on death row, the guards immediately became defensive and refused. One of them explained fearfully: “If you see them, you might go and lobby for their release and then the families of the deceased will kill them and us.”
When my time ran out and I was asked to leave, I could not take my eyes off of one woman. She must have been in her fifties. She stood in the sun with her ankle chainedto a bulky metal base that looked like some vestige of the Soviet era. She was staring into a void, rocking back and forth. The guards must have noticed the horror in my expression because without asking, and using an apologetic tone, they explained: “She was being violent. We had to tie her up, there is no other way. In the evening we will take her back in to sleep.”
“Will she be outside in the sun all day?” I asked.
“No, don’t worry we will move her to the shade.”
I was sweating profusely and looked around the roofless, treeless courtyard wondering which shade they meant.
Two other middle-aged women, “also crazy” as the guards explained, were sitting on chairs outside. One of them had a mark on her ankle. It looked like she had also been chained, although the guards said it was a mosquito bite. “This must be some mosquito” I retorted. Both women looked drugged and one of them could not keep her upper body straight. When I asked about her, the guards replied that the doctor had given them medicine to “calm them down”.
As I left the prison, I wondered what recommendations a human rights organization could make to the government; I could think of many and I already had a report in mind. The government has many responsibilities, including implementing the much needed judiciary and legal reforms, and prioritising the protection of vulnerable groups over political aims. But, I could also see the challenge of achieving all this work not so long after decades of war and negligence. The improvement of the prison is no longer about construction and management, or about justice, legal and health reforms, it is about basic human dignity. And it was this basic human dignity that was lost behind those walls.
For me, the most urgent task after my visit was to describe what I had seen: the way these women looked at me and the way I made their world a bit lonelier, so I wrote this text. I do not know the ideal way forward for the women prisoners I met that day, but I do know that the road ahead does not only consist of conventional methods like paying for new prison buildings, holding trainings for prison guards, and writing reports and recommendations that rarely concretise. What I saw in that prison spoke for all the wrongs that truly silence women and chain them, the ones we often do not address.
Women throughout Sudan face daily hardships and many still bear the wounds of the past. A local social worker told me that one in every three women in the south is a survivor of rape. In general, the women of South Sudan have to continue facing up to a harsh reality: a merging economy; poor access to education, justice and governance; a lack of infrastructure; but mostly a patriarchal and tribal society where a woman’s value is still often measured in cattle heads.
There is not enough justice, governance or equality today to make sure that these women are not forgotten behind bars. There is not enough good will either. Until things change, we – activists, journalists, individuals – need to look beyond the surface and into these hidden corners to understand why these things happen. We need to listen to the voices of those forgotten, in order to make sure that our work speaks for the most vulnerable if we cannot give them a space and chance to speak for themselves. We need to make sure that the governments in which donors and organizations invest their faith and money are not made of men who see no harm in sacrificing women to bear the weight of years of war. We need to speak out and reflect the human stories that we witness, for what matters most are the “humans” in our human rights work.
This is an attempt to make anyone who reads this story see what I saw, and how these young girls, older women, “sane or insane”, looked at me that day. It will be my way, if small, of helping them break their chains, and their silence.
Rania Rajji is Lebanese, born into and specialising in conflict and human rights and has worked with a number of organizations in various countries, including Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan. Lately, she has decided to freelance because being a human rights worker made her less of a human rights activist, so she is trying again. Rajji is interested in humans beyond human rights and the ways in which human rights can be expanded to reflect the calls and needs of human beings across contexts, gender, culture and religion. She enjoys being a cynic because she knows she is an idealist at heart.