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BUKAVU, SOUTH KIVU, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – Arlette Muya’s husband serves in the Congolese army in Beni, more than 500 kilometers (310 miles) from her hospital bed in Bukavu, on the southern shore of Lake Kivu. She checked in there to be treated for typhoid, she says, but when she couldn’t pay her $60 bill, the hospital staff didn’t let her check out.
That’s common in DRC, where hospitals keep patients from leaving until their bills are paid. And like many hospitals there, the military facility where Muya was treated doesn’t provide food for its patients. With no family nearby to bring her provisions or help pay her bill, Muya struggles to get what she needs.
But in a country where homegrown charities are unusual, an organization devoted to caring for hospital patients brought Muya rice and beans.
“I encourage them to act likewise with other people from other hospitals,” she says.
Elisabeth Kasongo, a mother of four, says she founded Support Action for Suffering because she wanted to help people who have little money and few opportunities – and she wanted that help to come from local people.
“Initially, people in the neighborhood were reluctant to embrace my charitable ideas,” says Kasongo, 53.
But now, in a country where the average person earns just $410 per year, Kasongo has built a charity that operates entirely with local donations. Each member family is encouraged to donate 4,500 Congolese francs (44 cents) a month.
Some of the money goes to buy meat, rice, beans and fufu, a starchy dish made from flour or tubers. The rest is used to pay medical bills. In many health facilities, patients like Muya are detained until they pay their bills in full, all the while fighting hunger and falling deeper into debt.
“This is a concrete way for us to reach out to the vulnerable people, through our charitable initiatives,” Kasongo says.
Kasongo says her attendance at a local church inspired her to organize the group, which includes people of various faiths. She urges people to live together in unity and love.
Support Action for Suffering has 100 members. When the group gathers at Kasongo’s home, young people slice blocks of soap into bars as women and girls gather up firewood, saucepans and other kitchen tools. Men and women cook the food over a huge fire.
The group distributes its contributions to medical facilities throughout Ibanda, the Bukavu municipality where Kasongo lives.
A nurse at the military hospital, known among locals as FAC, for Force Arme Congolaise, says some women who can’t pay their bills are forced to work off their debt by cleaning floors. But thanks to Kasongo’s group, that situation is no longer common, says the nurse, who asked to remain anonymous. The group paid bills for three patients in the month of June alone, he says.
Deo Bushenyula, a member of Support Action for Suffering, says the group targets health facilities that treat the most serious medical cases.
But the group doesn’t limit its service to hospital patients.
“Our mission is to assist vulnerable people wherever they are found,” he says.
Sometimes, he says, Support Action for Suffering pays school fees for orphans. Last May, it gave food to 80 inmates at Bukavu’s central prison.
Fabien Mushagalusa, head of the Nyawera neighborhood, says the group helps people all over Bukavu. Such charity encourages the people of DRC to set aside their ethnic conflicts and other divisions. Members of Support Action for Suffering show love and compassion with what little they have, he says.
The group, he says, “is a great relief for certain poor people in my neighborhood.”
Kasongo says she plans to continue her advocacy work in the hope that a spirit of giving will spread throughout Bukavu.
“Even if I gain nothing from what I do, I am confident that one day it will pay,” she says.
Sylvestre Ndahayo, GPJ, translated this article from French.
BAMENDA, CAMEROON – Mathias Asongwe repairs an old corn mill in front of his house. Nearby, his older children wash clothes and peel seeds from egusi, a type of melon. Father and children share these tasks in the wake of Asongwe’s wife’s death in childbirth last December.
“It was a dark day for me,” Asongwe says. “I never, ever imagined that my wife would leave me just like that.”
Asongwe’s wife, Hilda Ngum, was carrying twins. Her water broke about 5 p.m. Asongwe took her to the hospital, where she labored until about 3 a.m., then gave birth to the first baby.
“She labored and labored for the next two hours, but the second baby did not come out,” he says.
The doctor sent Ngum to an operating room for a cesarean section, but the second baby was stillborn.
“I felt bad, but the presence of the other baby and the thought of my wife’s safe operation consoled me,” Asongwe says. “I knew we could still have another baby.”
But 30 minutes after Ngum was wheeled out of the operating room, she died.
“It was a shock,” Asongwe says, tears running down his cheeks. “It was painful. It is still painful. My wife didn’t say a word. She died without saying a word. She died in her sleep. I can’t really explain why she died.”
Wanting an explanation for his wife’s death, Asongwe tried to speak with the doctor, but nurses told him the doctor had gone home. The nurses told Asongwe his wife had died from postoperative shock.
Every day, 20 Cameroonian women die of pregnancy-related causes, according to a 2014 press release from UNFPA Cameroon, the national office of the U.N. population fund.
Chantal Biya, Cameroon’s first lady, a year ago launched The Nation Cares program to reduce maternal and child mortality. The program was conceived in response to Cameroon’s expected failure to reach one of the Millennium Development Goals – targets the U.N. set in 2000 to address extreme poverty, health care deficiencies and other problems. Using 1990 as a baseline, the fifth goal calls on all U.N. member countries to reduce their maternal mortality rates by 75 percent by 2015.
Other countries have made strides toward achieving that goal. Equatorial Guinea, to Cameroon’s south, met its goal by 2010. Worldwide, maternal mortality rates came down by about 45 percent between 1990 and 2013, according a 2014 report produced jointly by the World Health Organization, the World Bank and the United Nations.
However, Cameroon only brought its maternal mortality rate down from an estimated 720 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to an estimated 590 per 100,000 live births in 2013 – a decrease of just 18 percent. And while some Cameroonian women face a much a lower mortality rate – 350 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, depending on their risk factors – some women face a maternal mortality rate of 1,000 per 100,000 live births. That’s higher than sub-Saharan Africa’s overall range of 380 to 730 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
Other sub-Saharan countries, including Somalia, Chad and Sierra Leone, also still have high maternal mortality rates.
Cameroon’s maternal mortality rate stems from inadequate access to quality medical care, including prenatal checkups and clinic deliveries, says Dr. Matilda Manjo, the Northwest region delegate for the Ministry of Public Health.
Women who give birth at home often rely on traditional birth attendants, and some attendants don’t use sterilized equipment, Manjo says. Unsanitary conditions can lead to potentially fatal infections.
Women who cannot afford transportation must walk for hours to get to health centers, says Dr. Gladys Tayong, a gynecologist and a regional public health chief with the ministry. Such women aren’t likely to have regular prenatal visits, she says.
Government statistics are at odds with what Tayong and other experts find when they meet women.
According to a 2011 preliminary report from Cameroon’s National Institute of Statistics, 85 percent of pregnant women get prenatal care. The same report found that 61 percent of mothers give birth in health facilities. While only 44 percent of women who live in rural settings give birth in health facilities, 85 percent of urban women do, according to the report.
And women who give birth at hospitals and clinics aren’t guaranteed good care.
Medical negligence is common, says Judith Awondo, the coordinator of Women in Action Against Gender Based Violence, an organization that encourages women to seek quality health care.
Mothers have told Awondo that midwives don’t respond to them, or they take too long to come to their aid. Some say midwives ask laboring women to go home and come back later, Awondo says. Those women sometimes give birth at home or on a roadside.
Many government health facilities are understaffed because health workers posted to rural areas sometimes refuse their assignments, Manjo adds.
She roughly estimates that “over 50 percent” of nurses assigned to rural areas do not end up working there.
“Everybody wants to work in the big towns,” she says. “This situation puts the pregnant women in those areas at risk.”
Tayong acknowledges that some health workers refuse postings, contributing to maternal mortality in rural areas, but she says it’s an infrequent occurrence.
Unskilled medical personnel and obsolete medical equipment also raise the risks of women in labor, Awondo says. Health workers have told her their equipment doesn’t compare to what is available in richer countries.
Tayong agrees that not all government hospitals are well-equipped. The government is doing its best to provide modern equipment to all hospitals, she says.
Cameroon’s maternal death statistics make expectant mothers wary.
“I fear for my life anytime I think of labor,” says Nicoline Okelle, a nursing student who is expecting her first child.
“Even though lecturers keep assuring us that the survival of pregnant women would depend on how well they self-manage their situation during pregnancy, I still fear that some mistake may come from the medical practitioners themselves during delivery,” she says.
Okelle’s fears were heightened when a woman she knew died giving birth five months ago.
“That has never left my memory,” she says. “I was traumatized.”
Okelle has taken all necessary measures to ensure a safe delivery, including eating a balanced diet and going to the hospital regularly for prenatal care, but she says she will have no peace until she gives birth.
“I am running out of patience already,” she says.
The government is working hard to reduce the maternal death rate, Tayong says. Rural health centers are getting equipment and more workers, and women are learning about the importance of prenatal care, she says.
Medical experts are also examining the causes of maternal mortality, she says. At workshops begun in September 2014, community leaders, government officials, health workers and traditional rulers review maternal deaths and identify their causes. Workshop participants then propose changes to help prevent similar cases.
Workshop participants are tasked with educating expectant mothers on the importance of getting prenatal care and giving birth in hospitals, Tayong says.
The government also has reduced maternity costs to encourage mothers to give birth in hospitals, Manjo says.
A cesarean section, which used to cost about 100,000 francs ($168) or more, now costs 40,000 francs ($67) at government hospitals. The government also provides obstetric kits, valued at 20,000 francs ($34), to all pregnant women for just 6,000 francs ($10).
For now, the fifth Millennium Development Goal is out of Cameroon’s reach.
“As to whether Cameroon will meet MDG5 in 2015, it is an impossibility,” Manjo says. “It is regrettable, but we are making conscious efforts to improve on the situation before 2020.”
But even the best prenatal care and hospital facilities can’t eliminate the risks of childbirth.
Asongwe’s wife started prenatal care when she was three months pregnant. And when the couple discovered she was carrying twins, she began making more frequent prenatal visits.
“We did all was required for her to have a normal delivery,” he says. “There is nothing we didn’t do.”
Nicoline Okelle has given birth safely.
SAN ANDRÉS SEMETABAJ, GUATEMALA – The flame of a candle atop a small altar lights up Angélica Matzar Matzar’s face as she prays in her living room in San Andrés Semetabaj, a municipality in Guatemala’s Sololá department.
Matzar Matzar, 29, lives with her 7-year-old daughter. The girl was a newborn when her father, Matzar Matzar’s husband, emigrated to the U.S. in search of work. Matzar Matzar prays for him to come back safe and sound.
“For me, it’s difficult to be without my husband,” she says.
Men harass Matzar Matzar because they believe her husband’s absence makes her sexually available to them, she says. They invite her to eat with them, or they say obscene things when she walks by.
“When I walk down the street, men come out to whistle at me and shout at me, ‘When can we meet?’ or ‘What a nice body you have!’” she says. “Sometimes they throw words that one shouldn’t hear.”
With her husband gone, Matzar Matzar takes on tasks that are usually reserved for men: tending to the corn crop, renovating their home, participating in community meetings.
She faces discrimination in every task, she says.
Her experience is common among women whose husbands live abroad. Wives left behind in socially conservative communities say they become targets of sexual harassment. They struggle to care well for their families because their communities look down on them when they do what is traditionally considered men’s work.
Guatemala does not keep a count of the number of men who emigrate to the U.S., says Sara Ortiz of the Office of Social Communication of the General Directorate of Migration. Ortiz spoke by phone from Guatemala City.
That’s because most men leave as undocumented migrants, adds Claudia Verónica López, who worked until 2013 as a researcher at the Research and Political Management Institute at the University Rafael Landívar in Guatemala City.
López, speaking by phone, says poverty drives the nation’s emigration.
Sololá, whose population is primarily indigenous, is one of the poorest areas of Guatemala. About 52 percent of the department’s poor live in rural areas, according to 2011 data from the National Institute of Statistics. Some 85 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line, which means living on less than 8,283 quetzales ($1,080) per person per year.
Nationally, 54 percent of the Guatemalan population lives under the poverty line, according to a 2013 institute report. This means the monthly household income for a family of five is under 3,236 quetzales ($420). Poverty increased in Guatemala by about 3 percent from 2006 to 2011.
Matzar Matzar’s husband, Ovaldo Sacuj Cuc, is living in New York, where he washes dishes, mows lawns, lays bricks and paints. He earns about $80 a day. He sends part of his earnings to his wife to buy more land and proceed with construction of their two-story house.
In Guatemala, Sacuj Cuc earned just 40 quetzales ($5) a day cultivating corn.
Under their culture’s strict social code, women whose husbands live abroad are neither widowed nor divorced and so must comport themselves as married women at all times, López explains.
In Guatemala, women are generally seen as sexual objects, and men are more inclined to sexually harass women whose husbands are not around, López says.
Erwin Martin Gómez, 23, drives a tuc tuc, a motorized three-wheeled vehicle used to provide transportation for hire in Guatemala. Some women see other men when their husbands are abroad, he says.
“There are women who don’t inspire respect,” he says. “When their husbands emigrate, they start going out with other men.”
Carin Sacuj Copen, 28, says she prefers to stay home rather than face harassment because her husband is not around.
“I don’t go out, nor talk with people,” she says. “I don’t go out on the street. I only visit an aunt of mine, and if I have something urgent to do, then I go out. Otherwise I’d rather stay home. I don’t want to give people something to talk about.”
Carin Sacuj Copen is Ovaldo Sacuj Cuc’s sister.
Traditionally, women whose husbands emigrate live with their in-laws, López says.
That’s true for Griselda Roselina Lastor Mendez, 20, whose husband went to the U.S. in 2014 to look for a job. In accordance with local custom, Lastor Mendez’s in-laws manage the money her husband sends, she says. They give her a portion of it for personal expenses.
Her in-laws ask her to stay in the house, and to leave only with a companion.
“I feel controlled,” she says. “I cannot go out to the street, and if I do, I have to bring someone with me. I can’t even visit my family. People criticize and make things up – that I go out looking for men.”
Some women have no choice but to work outside their homes. Rather than staying inside and performing traditional tasks such as caring for children, embroidering and knitting, the wives of migrant workers must enter a workforce that remains a male stronghold, López says.
Matzar Matzar has had to hire up to seven men to help her sow and harvest corn. But as a woman, she has found it very difficult to exercise authority over them.
She has encountered the same problem in building her house. The bricklayers were reluctant to help her buy the materials – a task she felt unprepared to do on her own. She told them what to do and how, but the men ignored her directives and did as they pleased. They did not value her instructions because she is a woman, she says.
Matzar Matzar also says she has trouble making herself heard at the weekly meetings of the Community Development Council.
At the meetings, neighbors assess the community’s needs and suggest government policies.
“In the committee meetings, only men regularly speak, and they discriminate against me as a woman,” she says. “They don’t take my opinion into account. I prefer to remain silent.”
Women who attend the meetings generally do so in the company of their husbands, says Julio Velásquez Cosme, president of the council in Panajachel, a town in Sololá department.
During a recent wastewater pipe excavation project in Panajachel, a woman was excluded because her husband was away, Velásquez Cosme says. The men would not allow her to participate in the excavation; they instead demanded that she pay someone to do her share of the work.
“Women, for the fact of not having their partner, are doubly discriminated against,” he says. “This happens because of machismo.”
Machismo is not unique to Guatemala, López says. But Guatemalan women face a severe version of it.
“In Guatemala,” she says, “men have a lot of power over women – at the economic level, at the social level.”
Fernanda Font, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA – It’s 5 a.m. and cold, but a few dozen women are already at the market in Mtendere, waiting for the most important delivery of the day. When a truck rolls in with a load of charcoal, they flock to it, eager to buy its contents.
“These days, the electric stove is not even an option because we mostly have no power,” says Lizzy Mulenga, one of the women.
Five or six charcoal trucks arrive at the market daily, she says.
Without charcoal, Mulenga, 42, and countless others across this energy-strapped nation would struggle to cook for their families. Mulenga has been cooking with both electricity and charcoal for as long as she can remember. But because the cost of electricity has been increasing, she has lately been using more charcoal than electricity, she says.
And since a power-rationing program that started in June darkens entire regions of the country for hours a day, even people who can afford electricity can’t count on getting it when they need it.
To cope, Zambians are rapidly stripping the nation’s forests for charcoal. They say they have little choice. As the forests shrink, the atmosphere loses the moisture recycled by trees. That reduces rainfall, which ultimately reduces food production.
Poor rainfall has already hurt Zambia’s power production and crop yields. The national average yield for maize, for example, decreased by 26 percent in the 2014-2015 farming season, according to Zambia’s Environmental Management Agency.
“If the indiscriminate cutting down of trees continues, the country will battle with even more serious effects of climate change,” says Irene Chipili, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Parliament is debating a bill that would send guards to protect forests.
Meanwhile, ZESCO, the utility company that serves Zambia, has frozen its electric rates this year to make electricity more affordable.
Charcoal and then electricity are the most common sources of cooking energy in Zambia’s cities. An estimated 66 percent of urban residents use charcoal for cooking, according to a 2013 report by the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Zambia.
Dependence on charcoal is driving mass deforestation. Zambians clear an estimated 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) to 300,000 hectares (741,000 acres) of forest every year, according to the UN-REDD Program, a U.N. initiative for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.
Zambia has lost more than 13 percent of its forest cover since 1990, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The country’s deforestation rate is among the highest in the world.
Demand for charcoal supports unlawful production and trade. In Lusaka alone, police impound at least five trucks transporting illegal charcoal every day, says Geoffrey Nyirenda, a district forestry officer for the Ministry of Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection.
Zambians say they are using more charcoal because the cost of electricity has risen over the past few years.
In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, ZESCO raised the rate it charges residential electricity consumers by 41 percent. ZESCO applied for a rate increase in the 2012-2013 fiscal year but did not enact one that year. It raised its rate 25 percent in fiscal year 2014-2015, but a rate freeze is in effect this fiscal year.
Power shortages also motivate Zambians to use charcoal, even in cities.
Under a load-shedding program it began last month, ZESCO blacks out every part of the country for an average of six to eight hours a day.
The utility must ration power because poor rainfall during the 2014-2015 rainy season lowered the water level at Kariba Dam, a major source of hydroelectric power, ZESCO spokesman Henry Kapata says.
Demand for charcoal is high in Lusaka.
Mulenga, who sells charcoal in her neighborhood, has had more customers since the power rationing started. When she started selling small plastic bags of charcoal last year, she would go through a 50-kilogram (110-pound) supply in two days. Now she sells a bag every day.
The high demand has pushed up the prices of the commodity in Lusaka. A 50-kilogram (110-pound) bag of charcoal cost 50 kwacha ($6) when Mulenga started, she says. It now costs 70 kwacha ($8.40).
Albert Banda, another charcoal trader, says business is booming.
“Business is very good during the cold season, and now the load shedding has made it better,” Banda says. “Everyone is now buying charcoal.”
Banda used to sell 100 bags in two to three days, he says. He now sells 100 bags a day.
“I used to come to Lusaka twice a week, but since June, I have been coming here almost on a daily basis with 100 bags,” he says. “If I don’t come, then the charcoal is not ready, but we have increased our production capacity to meet the demand.”
Banda is aware that cutting down trees to produce charcoal harms the environment, but he says he must run his business to survive. Operating illegally, Banda transports his charcoal at night to avoid police roadblocks.
Even people who could otherwise afford to cook with electricity are using charcoal.
Erick Silwamba, a resident of the Lusaka suburb of Kabulonga, says he always has a bag of charcoal on standby.
“Load shedding has hit us badly,” Silwamba says. “We can’t avoid the use of charcoal anymore. I know the effects of cutting trees, but there is no cheaper alternative for cooking.”
The forestry department says it lacks the human resources to stop the wanton destruction of forests. To cut costs, the government laid off all forest guards in 1997, forestry officer Jackson Mukosha says.
The forestry department regulates the charcoal industry by issuing permits, but many people produce charcoal illegally in the unguarded forests, he says.
“The demand has gone up because even those that can afford electricity are not using it,” Mukosha says. “Half the time, they have no electricity because of load shedding, so the option that is readily available and cheap is charcoal.”
Lusaka residents say they would use less charcoal if electric rates came down and electricity was available all the time.
“No one takes pleasure in using charcoal that even cracks your palms,” Mulenga says. “If electricity can be cheaper and available, who would want to use charcoal?”
But ZESCO says Zambians were using charcoal even before the utility raised its rates and began rationing power.
“People are just accustomed to using charcoal,” Kapata says. “If you calculate how much they use on charcoal compared to electricity, you will actually find that they use more on charcoal.”
While ZESCO has increased its charges in recent years, Zambia still has one of the lowest electricity rates in the world, he says.
The load shedding is an indirect consequence of deforestation, Kapata says. Because rainfall has dropped, reservoirs can no longer produce enough power for the entire country.
To make electricity more affordable, ZESCO is not increasing domestic rates this fiscal year, Kapata says.
The power company had planned to increase its electric rates 13 percent in fiscal year 2015-2016.
The company is considering importing power from neighboring countries to ease load shedding, Kapata says. It also has launched a mass “Switch and Save” campaign urging customers to lower their usage by turning off lights and appliances whenever they are unneeded.
“We encourage our clients to save power because power saved is power shared,” he says. “If people can learn to save power, even with the deficit in power generation, we can have enough for everyone.”
Officials expect the load shedding will ease when the November-April rains begin.
A local company has introduced an alternative form of energy to end overreliance on electricity and charcoal. Emerging Cooking Solutions developed modern stoves that use biofuel made from agro and forestry waste.
Sales of the stoves, introduced in 2011, have been slow, but the company sold more than 500 stoves when power rationing started in June, CEO Mattias Ohlson says.
“You destroy six tons of virgin forest when making one ton of charcoal,” Ohlson says. “By switching from charcoal to pellets, we save six tons of forest, and drastically reduce carbon monoxide indoors.”
The Forestry Department has asked Parliament to reauthorize funding to guard the forests.
“Once the bill goes through in Parliament, we will have a new forest policy structure that will see us having the forest guards back,” Mukosha says. “We hope the policy will be well-implemented so that we can curb the illegal trade of charcoal and save our environment.”
Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.
KATHMANDU, NEPAL – Kumar Gajmer, 22, and Ganesh Gajmer, 17, stand at a gate near a yellow wall topped with barbed wire. An armed guard inspects their visiting passes.
The brothers step through the gate into an open courtyard, then turn toward the dilapidated building that has been their mother’s home for eight years: Bhadra Mahila Bandi Griha, the Women’s Central Jail.
Tara Gajmer, 40, was convicted in 2007 of selling heroin and sentenced to 15 years at this prison.
The brothers know this place. Children under the age of 16 may live with their imprisoned mothers, as Ganesh Gajmer did when he was young and, later, during school holidays. Tara Gajmer’s four children take turns visiting her every week or two, traveling 30 to 45 minutes from Kapan in Kathmandu’s northeast section, where they live with their father.
The building’s meeting area is narrow, and separated by bars. From either side of the bars, Tara Gajmer and her sons speak in low voices.
The brothers are concerned about their mother’s safety. Two major earthquakes, which struck Nepal on April 25 and May 12, and hundreds of subsequent aftershocks have severely damaged prison buildings. Large cracks in walls and ceilings are evident even in the visiting area.
“I have lived inside here when I was small,” Ganesh Gajmer says. “I know how old and poor the infrastructure is.”
Tara Gajmer assures her sons she is all right. For safety’s sake, she and other inmates sleep in tents outside the crumbling prison building.
“The building trembles even while walking, which is very scary,” Tara Gajmer says.
The brothers could not reach their mother immediately after the April quake, the larger of the two. A week later, a guard allowed Tara Gajmer to call them on his mobile phone. It was 15 days before the brothers were allowed to visit her.
“We were very scared for her,” Kumar Gajmer says.
“We do not want our mother to die in an accident,” Ganesh Gajmer says.
The seismic activity has destabilized buildings at Kathmandu Central Jail, the complex that includes the women’s jail. A building at one of the two prisons that house male prisoners collapsed in the April earthquake, killing 16 inmates and injuring another 74.
Government officials say renovations are underway, but prisoners and their advocates say the government is neglecting inmates’ safety.
The three prisons that make up Kathmandu Central Jail are located near each other. Central Jail and Bhadra Bandi Griha house male prisoners; Women’s Central Jail is the only women’s prison in Kathmandu.
All of the stone and clay buildings in the prison complex were constructed in 1914, says Murari Wasti, undersecretary of the Local Administration Section of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Nepal has about 17,200 prisoners, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs. About 1,200 are women. Forty of Nepal’s 74 prisons were damaged in the quakes, Wasti says.
About 200 inmates escaped from Nepalese prisons after the larger of the two quakes struck on April 25, Wasti says. The Ministry of Home Affairs placed ads in local newspapers calling on the escapees to contact local police to avoid being sentenced to additional prison time for escape. But only five fugitives in Sindhupalchowk district contacted police by the end of June.
The Ministry of Home Affairs this year granted amnesty to about 560 prisoners, releasing them on Republic Day, May 29. Prisoners convicted of minor offenses are released every year as part of the national celebration, but the ministry released more prisoners than usual this year to ease crowding in the wake of the quakes.
Prisoners live in fear of collapsing prison buildings.
“We cannot sleep at night because of the fear of being buried under the rubble of these old buildings,” says Sarita Shrestha, 31, a Women’s Central Jail inmate serving a five-year prison term for selling heroin.
A prison guard who spoke with GPJ on condition of anonymity says the buildings are so old that one can dig out pieces of the clay walls with one’s fingers. After the first earthquake, every building in the Women’s Central Jail showed some form of damage, the guard says.
Tara Gajmer confirms the guard’s assessment.
“Everywhere you look inside the building, you can see cracks in the wall made by the earthquake,” she says.
Indira Ranamagar, founder of Prisoners Assistance Nepal, which works with prisoners and their children, says the prison conditions were appalling even before the quake.
“The buildings were old and in dilapidated condition,” she says. “The earthquakes have made them uninhabitable.”
The prisoners prefer to sleep in courtyard tents, Shrestha says.
Female inmates with young children have been relocated to a prison factory run as a vocational training center by the Department of Cottage and Small Industries, Ranamagar says. The monsoon season began in June, but many prisoners continue to live in tents.
Even when prisoners are in tents, they are surrounded by crumbling buildings, so they are far from safe, Tara Gajmer says.
The guards and officials face as much peril as the inmates, a prison guard says.
“We will live together and die together,” she says.
The prison has had limited electricity since the earthquakes hit, and only basic bedding is available for women living in tents. Mosquitoes, which breed rapidly in the monsoon season, are a particular nuisance.
One prison official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the government hasn’t maintained minimum living standards at the prison.
Ranamagar accuses the government of negligence.
“It is a crime against humanity to leave people in such appalling conditions, even though they are tagged as criminals,” she says.
Government officials don’t deny that the prisons are dilapidated, but argue that the problem is one of many in the country.
“Nepal is a poor country with severe resource constraints,” Wasti says. “In such a situation, prison has not been our priority. But after this earthquake, the government will look into it.”
Kathmandu Central Jail received 90 million rupees ($887,000) in the fiscal year that began in July 2014; it spent most of that on food, says Bishnu Prasad Adhikari, accountant at the Kathmandu Central Jail. The capital expenditure allocation for the same period was only 600,000 rupees ($6,000).
“With destruction so large, we are not sure where to start with that money,” Adhikari says.
Nepal Police, assessing quake damage, identified Central Jail – one of the two men’s prisons – as the top priority for renovation, while work on the women’s prison was slated for the fiscal year that began July 15, says Yograj Rajauria, a Kathmandu Central Jail official.
Repairing prisons damaged in the quake will cost 1 billion to 2 billion rupees ($9.8 million to $19.7 million), says Jagat Prasad Thapaliya, an official in the Department of Prison Management. But only 5 million rupees ($50,000) has been released.
Temporary structures will be built to shelter prisoners during the monsoon season, but the inmates at Women’s Central Jail don’t have those yet, Wasti says.
Shrestha fears the rains will further weaken the damaged prison facilities.
“We do not want to die in these old buildings,” she says.
Rachana Upadhyaya was the first media reporter allowed to visit the Women’s Central Jail and speak with the inmates after the earthquake.
Rachana Upadhyaya, GPJ, translated all interviews from Nepali.
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