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During yard time, Yaoundé Central Prison is a hive of activity. A group of men play football, in a match that makes passions run high: cries, whistles and insults heat up the atmosphere. Smoke rises all around from the makeshift stands where women cook and sell their food, whilst other inmates walk around the yard, welcome their relatives, or do odd jobs to make a bit of cash.
You have to cross the rowdy yard, weaving between the people and packages, to reach the only haven of peace: a small room of around 35 square metres, divided into two areas, a kitchen and a sitting room. It feels like a refuge, the closest thing the women inmates have to a home where they can spend time with their children. A sofa, a table, a couple of pictures on the walls and a few toys turn the space into a home away from home during the hours when their children visit. It is a place of their own, where they can talk and try to deal with what they are going through; a place where they can hug, cry or simply play, away from the stifling atmosphere of the prison yard.
It is thanks to a Cameroonian association, Le Relais Enfants-Parents du Cameroun (REPCAM), that this room has been provided for children visiting their mothers at the Central Prison of Yaoundé, where both men and women are jailed, as in most of the country’s prisons, although in separate units.
REPCAM works with children whose mothers are in prison. Its goal is to help them to overcome the stigma, the fear and the pain surrounding their situation.
“What these children go through is almost worse than being orphaned,” explains Claire Mimboé Ndi-Samba, the founder of REPCAM. “When someone dies here, the mourning process is very long and the children are always surrounded and comforted by their relatives and neighbours. But when someone is imprisoned, and especially when it is their mother, no one says anything, nothing is explained to them. Silence is used to conceal the shameful deed, the children are scorned by their peers, and some end up thinking that their mothers have abandoned them.
Ending the silence and the taboo surrounding prison
REPCAM has been working to tackle this very complex situation since 2006. It has so far provided almost 1000 children with essential support, helping to cover their basic needs and offering them a simple explanation. “When we intervene, we tell them what has happened. You cannot lie to them. We tell them that their mother has committed some kind of offence. But, above all, we make it very clear that they have not been abandoned,” explains Meuma Claire, as she is commonly known. Explaining exactly what happened is left up to the mothers, who are able to decide when and how they want to go about it.
“We never ask them why they are in jail,” explain the social workers. “They tell us whenever they feel ready, and only if they want to.” They are usually poor women, from the most underprivileged segments of society, with little or no formal education. Many have suffered from violence, abuse or alcoholism and they are most often imprisoned for petty theft, prostitution, offences linked to family conflicts, inheritance disputes or drug dealing. There are a few exceptions: some of the women prisoners come from the political administration or big companies and have been jailed for crimes such as embezzlement or fraud.
According to data gathered by REPCAM in 2012, most female prisoners are aged between 20 and 30, and 80 per cent of them have at least one child. But society is unforgiving.
“They are not entitled to make a mistake and they receive much harsher sentences than men for the same offences,” underlines the report. Their families often disown them and it is not unusual for their husbands to remarry.
Overall, women only make up 2.1 per cent of the prison population in Cameroon, a very low percentage compared with other countries (the European average, for example, is aroundfive per cent), and this is one of the reasons why there is barely any mention of the issue. The chief aim of the association is therefore to help the children manage their own conflicts and rebuild the relationship with their mothers, mainly through group events and one-to-one meetings between mother and child.
“The group events are very useful, because they help the children to realise that they are not alone, that there are other people in the same situation as them, and this makes it easier to take it in.” The gatherings are usually held around key dates, such as Mother’s Day, the start of the school year or Christmas.
These meetings and the visiting room are a source of great pride for Mimboé Ndi-Samba, who set up the organisation after seeing for herself what it meant for a child to have his mother in prison. The child in question, Joel, who is now an adult, would steal books and anything within his reach in the hopes of being jailed, so that he could see his mother. His father had abandoned him after remarrying, leaving him to live on the street, without anyone to take care of him. It was in 2005 that Meuma Ndi-Samba decided to turn her life around. She left her job as the director of a school that belonged to her family and turned her efforts entirely toward the association.
She earns less now and is no longer in touch with her family – her father, who was a well-known magnate in the education sector, and her siblings couldn’t understand her dedication to an issue as delicate as women prisoners, which is a taboo in Cameroon. She dedicates all her time to the association and spends her days fighting with red tape, but she is happy.
Mimboé Ndi-Samba is backed by a team of volunteers and a number of paid employees, to help her get through the work. In addition to helping women prisoners who are pregnant or have young children, they have recently taken on the task of assisting minors, who are also jailed in the same prisons, although in different units.
Overcrowded and underfunded prisons
Cameroon’s prisons are overcrowded, with an occupation rate of around165 per cent according to official figures. There are two factors behind this: one is the increase in the country’s population, which went from 16.5 million inhabitants in 2002 to 24 million in 2016, and the other is the absence of new penitentiary centres.
This makes the situation all the more difficult, as sociologist Helen Namondo Fonteb exposes in her thesis on the living conditions of women prisoners in Cameroon. The problems include the serious lack of educational and reintegration programmes, the very limited visiting hours for relatives and the almost total lack of support for pregnant women, which Laurent Esso, Cameroon’s Minister of State and Justice himself confirmed in a meeting with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
As for the children whose mothers are in prison, they tend to demonstrate more aggressive and anti-social behaviour. In many cases, they reject their mothers, because they feel they have no relationship with them or have grown accustomed to living with their grandmothers or other relatives.
In the most extreme cases, the children of some women prisoners end up swelling the ranks of the homeless youngsters who have nowhere to go, no one to look after them and are forced to live on the streets. This represents yet another blow for these women who, aside from the difficulties they already face in Cameroon (simply for being women), find themselves also having to deal with rejection, the lack of social skills, and the loss of the confidence and the support networks needed to start a new life outside of prison.