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Zimbabwe: from emergency response to long-term impact

18-02-2011 Interview

By the end of 2008, a combination of poor harvests, a cholera outbreak and dire economic problems had led to severe malnutrition and widespread health problems in Zimbabwe’s prisons. The ICRC, in conjunction with the prison authorities, launched an emergency operation to improve the diet of thousands of prisoners. Fillipa Neto Marques, the ICRC’s Protection Coordinator in Harare, explains the impact of these activities.

What were the ICRC’s priorities in Zimbabwean prisons over the last two years?

When we started in April 2009, the immediate priority was simply to ensure that inmates did not starve. The Zimbabwean authorities gave us access to all prisons so that we could help them improve conditions of detention, as we are doing in many other countries around the world.

As well as providing food and essential goods, the ICRC has developed longer-term programmes that will enhance the capabilities of the prison authorities in the fields of nutrition, food production, health care, sanitation and treatment. In a number of prisons, the ICRC has also renovated water, sanitation and cooking facilities.

The ICRC is now handing over full responsibility for the food supply to prison authorities. What changes will that bring?

The ICRC’s direct food deliveries were an emergency response to a situation in which malnutrition had reached critical levels. The operation involved therapeutic feeding for acutely malnourished prisoners and general food distributions to prevent further malnourishment. For instance, last year we supplied beans, groundnuts and oil to over 8,000 people in Zimbabwe’s 17 largest prisons.

The humanitarian situation has now improved, thanks in part to the support the ICRC has provided to the prison authorities. Following a joint ICRC/Ministry of Justice assessment, the Zimbabwean Prison Service is now in a better position to feed detainees independently.

The process of handing over the food support programme to the prison authorities will take place gradually between now and 2012. It will be closely monitored by a joint steering committee composed of the Zimbabwean Ministry of Justice, the Zimbabwean Prison Service and the ICRC.

The ICRC will continue to support the prison authorities by helping to boost production on prison farms, renovating water and sanitation infrastructure and ensuring that inmates have better access to health services and the judicial system.

We will also continue to monitor conditions of detention and the treatment of inmates, while maintaining confidential, constructive dialogue with the authorities on how best to improve the situation.

Supporting prison farms is one of your main activities. How does this help improve diet in prison?

We currently support several prison farms that are producing groundnuts, maize and vegetables for 8,000 inmates.

The main difficulties are poor soil quality and a lack of water, particularly in the winter. To increase production, the ICRC has therefore set up irrigation systems and provided training, seed and fertilizer.

At Mutimurefu Prison in Masvingo, for instance, the ICRC has supported the planting of 1.8 hectares of tomatoes, cabbage, spinach and leafy green vegetables. As a result, each of the 390 inmates now receives 200 g of fresh vegetables per day.

The main purpose of this project is to boost food production for inmates, thereby helping the authorities to manage the food supply more independently. We are aiming for long-term results!

In 2010, the ICRC:

  • visited 11,400 inmates in 26 prisons and provided them with blankets, soap and other essential items;
  • provided medicines and medical supplies for prison dispensaries;
  • supplied groundnuts, beans and oil for more than 8,000 inmates in 17 of Zimbabwe’s largest prisons;
  • helped 18 prisons to grow sugar beans, groundnuts and vegetables;
  • renovated irrigation systems on five prison farms;
  • renovated kitchens in eight prisons and renovated the water supply system in four;
  • provided knitting machines and vocational training to several prisons so that inmates could make warm clothing
  • helped more than 4,000 inmates to keep in touch with their families using ICRC writing materials.



Fillipa Neto Marques


Masvingo Remand Prison. Prisoners line up to receive their ration of sadza (maize meal). Since June 2009, the ICRC has been distributing beans and oil to increase the daily ration of essential proteins and vitamins.