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Decriminalise petty offences now to stop hurting women and children

A woman sells fruits in the streets of Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire on July 18, 2019. The country has decriminalised petty offences, including hawking, which is illegal in Kenya. Photo: Robert Laban.

It is about 10am on July 18, 2019 at Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. The weather is warm and humid. Dark clouds stare down as the six of us march into La Maison d'Arrêt et de correction d'Abidjan (MACA) Women’s Prison section to inspect the facility, which is home to at least 222 - who are mothers, sisters, daughters to someone. Eight of these are minors.

Files of tens of women, mostly in African dresses, gently bend their kneels and salute us as they mumble; In Cote d’Ivoire, inmates have no uniforms.

“Bonjour Monsieur? Bienvenu…” each of them wants a piece of our ears.

Since I cannot speak much French, I trail my boss who is fluent. We are ushered into an area where the women are busy with the daily chores including laundry, preparing lunch while others are talking in twos or threes with their hands hinging chins while others were in akimbo. More others are soliloquising.

As my colleagues engage in conversations with the swarm of women crowing around us, I step back to talk to the environment.

About four children - who I could count at once - were among the inmates behind the about four times walls; I am about 5.7 feet.

One mother struggles to restrain the obstinate crawling daughter folding the aired dresses on the drying concrete veranda.

Another girl child of about six months guards her gourd of milk, probably from the police officers hounding unending orders from one corner of the about 50 mitres by 50 mitres facility to the other. The baby is not suckling; she is glued to the wall; she is looking at an image of a nurse in a milky dress and a white cap planted into her black hair labelled ‘nurse’. The nurse is attending to a patient in a health facility.

Next to the nurse’s image is a female mechanic, in a navy blue overall clutching a spanner and bent towards the engine section of a white car. Next to the mechanic, was a female teacher crippling something on the black wall with a white chalk as other images of children follow the lesson attentively.

Another image next to the entrance to the kitchen is of a mother sitting next to a fireplace, clutching her baby while preparing some meal. The glittering smile of the mother bewitches the baby to radiate back to the mother with love. The three, including the fire, perfectly complemented each other.

All this time, the mother of the baby in the prison looked into the dark clouds above the spiralling wires of the electric fence above the giant wall, wondering of the world yonder. But the baby in her arms may have been thinking life behind these giant walls lead to the illustrious careers in the images. A life of a good family at home where she enjoys the food of choice, a life of playing with peers, a life of learning with peers, a life of being a doctor, mechanic or even a teacher and other illustrious careers. The right to a shelter, education, and freedom of association, all have been handcuffed.

Due to language barrier, I could not immediately establish the mother’s crime, and if she had been arraigned.

But at this point, I recall the woman hawker, whose photos and video clips on one of the Nairobi City County breastfeeding a baby broke the internet a month earlier. It was claimed she was demanding for her ware confiscated by the county askaris. The crime was vending for her family on the streets of Nairobi City.

Arrest and arraignment of hawkers is not only against human rights of the victims and their families, but also criminalisation of life sustaining economic activities of vulnerable groups in the society.

Going back to MACA, two Nigerian women in their early 30’s claimed they were arrested for loitering by Cote d’Ivoire authorities. They also claimed that they have never been arraigned for the last two years they have been in custody; they are service a term they have not been sentenced to by law. Their families in Nigeria may not even be aware of this. Being Anglophones in a francophone country, it was not immediately clear if they have been granted an opportunity to complain to the prison authorities in a language they understand as per the Nelson Mandela Rules, which ironically were being commemorated on the day of the visit to the facility.

A visit to the registry could not give a breakdown of the offences of the 222 women behind the prison. But some draconian laws used to control movement of people during colonialism, have permeated into the modern society. Indeed, some countries in Africa have retained laws in the penal codes or municipal regulations, criminalising hawking, being vagabond, prostitution, loitering, being drunk and disorderly, urinating in public, doing laundry in public, among others. These laws are used to violate the rights of vulnerable people, including women and children. Worse, the victims wallow behind bars for months and even years as cases delay in courts; more others cannot afford legal representation. In most countries, the offences carry a maximum sentence of six months. 

Ghana, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Malawi and South Africa are some of the countries whose penal code criminalises all or some of these petty offences. It is, however, important to note that some sections of these laws have been repealed or the process is underway in countries like South Africa. The decriminalisation of petty offences is based on African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ Principles, which were launched in 2018. 

While laws are created to maintain order in society, anything that criminalises the status of someone or puts vulnerable people, including women and children, at a disadvantage need to be done away with through the legislative organs. This will decongest prisons and other detention areas, while allowing for the judiciary and security agents to concentrate on major crimes.