When Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) anaesthetist Stella Warren was arrested in Malawiâ€™s capital, Lilongwe, two weeks ago, she did not know that she would end up sharing a police cell with males and children.
Just after being thrown into the cell at Lilongwe Police Station a few weeks ago, Warren claims a crowd of men started chanting: â€œDona! Dona! Dona! (Itâ€™s a woman! Itâ€™s a woman! Itâ€™s a woman!).
She claims she had to endure the embarrassment of answering the call of nature while males and children were watching.
Warren says she had to use the same open space in the single cell alongside men to urinate in full view of them.
â€œIt is so scary to be put into a police cell with hundreds of men. There were also about four juveniles. I found an old woman who said she had spent about three nights in that cell and was helpless.
â€œShe told me that another woman, who was with her in the same cell, had just been taken to court the time I was coming in. I asked her how she was spending nights in one cell with men and she said: â€˜Itâ€™s only God who is looking after us hereâ€™,â€ says Warren.
Two hours after being thrown into the cell, Warren says another woman, KCH medical attendant Philippina Kaliati, joined her.
This took the number of female suspects in the cell to three, excluding the one who had reportedly gone to appear in court.
She says Kaliati joined her with two other male KCH staffâ€”Nelson Msiska and Simeon Lijejeâ€”who were also arrested in connection with the recent lock out of KCH management to force the transfer of five managers from the hospital.
Says Warren: â€œI am so traumatised. It is embarrassing to share the same cell with men and juveniles. There are no lights in those cells; which means you have total darkness during the night.
â€œYou can be raped in those cells without even recognising the person who has raped you. Some men were smoking Indian hemp [chamba] right in the cells. Such people can do anything to a woman and a juvenile.â€
Warren also claims police denied her access to medical attention after she had broken her left leg while getting off the police vehicle at Area 3.
â€œI suspected that I had suffered a fracture. They said I was being troublesome by demanding access to medical treatment. I was forced into the cell with a lot of pain on my leg.
â€œInside the cell, the open place which is used as toilet is so unhygienic. You step on the wet floor with urine to help yourself in the eyes of everybody. One male suspect, who seemed to have some command in the cell, lent me slippers which I used to step onto the urine,â€ says Warren.
In a separate interview on Tuesday, Kaliati corroborated Warrenâ€™s claims. She said she first resisted to enter into the cell after noting that there were male suspects.
Narrates Kaliati: â€œWhen the police officer opened the gate of the cell and I saw that there was a crowd of men, I thought she had forgotten that I was a woman. I reminded her that I was female and that the cell she had opened contained men. She said I was going to use the same one.
â€œI was so surprised to find children of about 10 to 14 years in the same cell. How can you combine suspects like that? How can the juveniles reform when they are put together with men and women in the same cell?â€
Msiska also corroborated that there were three women and about four juveniles in the cell he was thrown into.
â€œI didnâ€™t spend a night there, but I feel for women who spend nights in the cell. Itâ€™s a terrible situation for them to be among hundreds of men in one cell,â€ said Msiska.
He said police later dropped charges of all four KCH staff after releasing them on bail.
But Central Region Police public relations officer John Namalenga said Lilongwe Police Station has separate cells for men, women and juveniles, and sounded surprised when told about the claims.
â€œThere is no way male and female suspects can be combined,â€ said Namalenga. He referred The Nation to Lilongwe Police Station spokesperson Ramsey Mushani.
Mushani said Warren and Kaliati did not spend time in the cell, insisting Lilongwe Police Station has never put males, females and juveniles in one cell.
â€œItâ€™s only that the cell for women is very close to that of men and next to the one for juveniles. We donâ€™t know why these women are spreading those allegations,â€ he said.
â€˜Totally uncalled forâ€™
Home Affairs and Public Security Minister Uladi Mussa on Tuesday also sounded surprised when told about the mix of suspects.
Said Mussa: â€œAre you sure the suspects are being [put in one cell]? Itâ€™s news to me. Government policy is that you have cells for men and cells for women. Juveniles are also supposed to be put separately. You canâ€™t combine them. Itâ€™s totally uncalled for.â€
Malawi Prison Service public relations officer Evance Phiri said the law guiding handling of suspects in the countryâ€™s cells prohibits combination of male and female suspects.
â€œPolice cells are not in our hands. But you cannot combine male and female convicts. The same applies to suspects. Itâ€™s what the law says. There are no conditions whatsoever under which suspects can be combined. Even if itâ€™s a family, you canâ€™t combine them,â€ said Phiri.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) chairperson Sophie Kalinde also sounded surprised when told about the combination.
Said Kalinde: â€œIt is not even a question of human rights. It is about the respect of the provisions guiding the way police and prison cells are managed. Males and females are supposed to be separated. Itâ€™s about the way the cells are structured.â€
Kalinde said MHRC will investigate the issue.
The revelations come at a time government has insisted that the Malawi Police Service is reformed, especially with funding from the United Kingdomâ€™s Department for International Development (DfID).
Lilongwe Police Station is said to be one of the model police stations in the country which is recognised for its â€œoutstandingâ€ performance in piloting new functions in the Malawi Police Service and rolling them out to other stations, according to the stationâ€™s outline on the serviceâ€™s website.
â€œSuch functions are custody unitâ€”observing procedural detention of suspects and ensuring their rights are respected in accordance with the Constitution of Malawi,â€ reads the outline posted on Malawi Police Service website.