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Chimedza, Tinashe L (2004) Criminalisation of Poverty in Zimbabwe. Centre for Civil Society : -.

Harare Central Hospital is refusing to allow 28 mothers with newly born babies to leave the institution until millions of dollars are paid for in maternity fees. The hospital says it recovers 87% of the fees through detaining mothers and babies but almost nothing under an older installment plan. Some of the women in one of the post-natal wards yesterday said that they were ordered to stay in the maternity wing by hospital officials after they had said they had no money.

The women - who were supposed to be enjoying their motherhood and celebrating their successful deliveries appeared dejected.

.. 'Some mothers are waiting outside in the hope that some relatives may come to the hospital to pay the bills to secure their freedom. There is nothing that we can do and there are guards here we are told that the we remain here until payments have been made' .. The Medical Superintendent Mr. Chris Tapfumaneyi confirmed there were 28 women with babies in the post-natal wards who were being held for failing to pay for hospital fees. 'Yes, I can confirm there were 28 mothers who had not paid anything and we could not let them go when they owed us money' said Tapfumaneyi.

The Herald covered this scandalous tory on its front page because it exposes the hypocrisy that has become inherent within the policies being implemented by the government. The detention was illegal, inhuman and represented a premeditated and calculated attack on women and children's rights. Surely to detain, add more bills and refuse to discharge from the hospital poor and unemployed women represents the height to which the ruling government is prepared top massacre the rights of poor people?

At its height the action taken by the hospital in order to recover its fees can only be described as the 'criminalisaton of poverty in Zimbabwe'. The message from the Hospital Authorities was a clear one, if you are poor don't bother coming here, our services are reserved for those who can afford to buy them. While the government attempted to clean its hands from the matter we must question and expose its deliberate complicity in the issue at a policy level. The action taken by the Hospital cannot be separated from general government policy that has seen the introduction of user fees in hospitals in the name of 'cost recovery'. The criminal and inhuman detention of the women and their children is a taken by the Hospital Board to achieve government policy targets. The government has expressed its desire to see the hospitals become profits centers, rather than develop policy targets that are human centered the government has shown its commitment to move towards the 'profit centered policies'.

In this analysis one must be reminded of the earlier advice of the Minister of Health and Child Welfare, Hon. David Parirenyatwa, that Hospital Boards must play an important role to 'wean' the hospitals away from the government. In his piece of advice consistent with general government policy the Minister was expressing central government's drive to see the public health institutions become as profitable as Microsoft and this can only be done by selling the product to those that can afford those who can not can do window shopping. In detaining the poor women and children the hospital was acting to fulfill targets set by the government, so it is government policy that has ended up detaining inhumanely those women and children.

Government's Hypocrisy Exposed

The ruling regime has paraded itself as a paragon of equity and social justice by consistently pointing to the 'agrarian reform' programme. Yet this latest action by a public health institution exposes these inhuman double standards, the government cannot exonerate itself from this criminal act until there is evidence of a shift in policy process and content. If the government of Zimbabwe through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe is willing set up a 'Troubled Banks Fund' using taxpayer's money and is prepared to put in billions of dollars in the Agricultural sector in the name of equity then why not supporting access to social services by the poor women? If Members of Parliament have the time and audacity to propose 'amnesty' for criminals who have pillaged the Zimbabwean economy surely there must be someone in that Parliament left with a heart to question government policy on health and stir it towards becoming people centered.

Over and over again we have seen policy contradictions at the heart of this government. Senior government and ZANU PF officials relentlessly attack the working poor in Zimbabwe through high taxes and restricting access to social services yet and when they appear in international meetings and conferences they sing and ramp over the 'imperialist' role played by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. When they are at home in Zimbabwe they implement policies that drive the very marginalisation and exclusion of the people they purport to represent. For them it is policy and business as usual to squeeze the taxpayers, deny them access to social services and squander public resources in unnecessary expenditure like in the army and in the ministry of information. If those women are 'newly resettled farmers' then surely the fundamentals of the policies of this government must be questioned, exposed and challenged.

This hypocrisy must be questioned, exposed challenged and brought forward in an era in which the ruling regime has been 'exonerated' by other progressive movements as a victim of 'imperialist machinations'. The government and ruling party officials have cried foul while stamping on the poor. This propaganda has generated confused support from other progressive social movements in the world and in Africa. This rhetoric must be unpackaged and demystified for progressive democratic movements to understand the role that the ruling elite have played in effectively disempowering people from participating in policy making processes.

Tracing the foundations and source

Yet there is an international link to this criminalisation of the poor. Commenting on a protest organized by the Zimbabwe National Students Union in 2002 against the restriction of access to education the Information Minister, Jonathan Moyo, supported the introduction of user fees and said it only served to complement governments efforts in educating the nation. Yet over time there is massive evidence pointing to the contrary. One needs to look at the state of public education institutions and the public health system and there is a complete picture of a government whose commitment to social equity can be questioned and challenged. The introduction of user fees and the reduction of expenditure in the public services sector have come with it a substantial restriction of poor people's access to the health and education services.

Yet this phenomenon has its international link in the development policies that have been supported and financed by the IMF/WB and more recently the World Trade Organization were the trade in services has been parceled, including those services that guarantee life. In the developing countries including in Zimbabwe the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Programs have seen the decrease in expenditure on public services and the introduction of user fees as a 'cost recovery measure'. All over Latin America, Africa and Asia there is piles and tones of literature exposing the failure of the policies that center on growth alone as a panacea to the developing countries' crises.

The policy of user fees has seen the hospitals like Harare Hospital using the inhuman detention method to recoup its fees from those unable to pay. It is a policy that says your money or your life. Apart form the health sector the policy of use fees has brought disaster not only in terms of access but also in terms of quality and human resources in the education sector in the country. Universities are now depleted of qualified personnel and half of the semesters are spent on strike, either the students are boycotting classes or the teachers and lecturers are refusing to teach. The failure to access these services has been made worse by the massive debts that have been accrued in Zimbabwe that needs to be repaid.

Debt Relief is a must

While the poor are being detained the words of Nkame Nkrumah ring in our ears: 'Shall we starve our children that we repay debts'? This was several years ago but we are still confronted by the reality of billions of monies being locked up as debt repayment and if the repayment must be on schedule the public resources must be squeezed and social services restricted to those who can buy them, those who can not we leave to die.

As this crisis surfaces it brings to the fore the extent to which access to social services by the poor is going to be more and more painful and an offense punishable by imprisonment. Yet against this apparent lack of resources in the health sector there are billions of dollars that continue to be locked up for debt repayment, it is your money or your life. This restriction is going to continue unabated even if poor people die, who cares if some 28 children with their mothers die because of lack of health services?Yet we are not told who owes whom, who borrowed what for what in what year, we are given horrific statistics of continued borrowing without anyone disclosing who borrowed when, for what and how much? Are we not using working people's resources to repay Mugabe's loans for his many houses? Or to repay loans for used for campaigning by the ruling party?

The Reserve Bank Governor has reiterated the government's commitment to repaying its debt but he must have gone further to disclose the list of the loans and reveal for transparency's sake how the loans were used. In Zambia there is surfacing information on how loans for the government were converted for personal use, what about the Congo we have not forgotten how Mobutu, 'The Only Cock That Crows", accumulated wealth from loans advanced for national growth. Neither have we forgotten the Nigerian Sani Abacha who even after his death his wife attempted to flee the county with cases piled with pillaged wealth.

There is no accountability in the exercise of the country's borrowing authority. Loans are taken without the country citizens knowing why the borrowing authority is being exercised and to whose advantage. As citizens who work for the development of this county this is supposed to be public knowledge and any future borrowing must be disclosed to the country through a democratic Parliament. A factor that brings in the importance of a continued and sustained struggle for democratic constitutional reform in the country that makes the Executive and the exercise of authority subject to democratic control and transparent.

With the Jubilee USA Campaign for 100% debt cancellation going on one is heartened that solidarity from groups in the North is growing but more and more its success will be determined by how much the progressive movements and NGOs in the South are building on these solidarity links and bringing the debates to the door steps of the developing world governments and increasing ordinary people participation in all these processes.

Way out?

The detention of the women represent a crisis that has been bred by the government by wrong fiscus commitments, at a policy level we are aware that the introduction of user fees and 'cost recovery' mechanisms was a policy adopted in line with the introduction of the Economic and Structural Adjustment Program in 1991. At the center of building a progressive way out of such a national and international scandal we begin to expose, challenge and look at alternatives to the policies that have driven the 'criminalisaton of the poor' Is this not evidence that privatization of social services criminalizes the poor and materially threatens their right to life?

These policies must be challenged in order to protect the rights and lives of the poor especially the women and children who are often without stable and disposable income to buy health services. This has become so scandalous and horrific that life does not matter any more. People are driven by the desire for accumulation and the development world is told to way for the 'trickle down' effect, but have we seen it?

We should look at the following.

i. The government must restate its commitment to equal
un restricted access to social services by people in this country,
especially the working poor.

ii. The government must publish all its debts and show us
who borrowed what when and for what reason.

iii. Restricted access to social services affects the poor
in communities especially the women and children who are being excluded in
decision making and national development policy processes

iv. The government must begin a serious process of building
inclusive, democratic and responsive institutions a process that can only
start at looking at democratic constitutional reform in this country.

Access to these services and the protection of the right to life can not be separated from the need of protecting other important rights like media freedom, for without this essential right people are unable to share information and participate in national policy making processes. They are effectively excluded from participation and contributing to their own development, a situation that perpetuates underdevelopment and thwarts empowerment. The right to participate in policymaking and implementation is therefore essential and crucial.

Tinashe L.Chimedza is a Zimbabwean Activist, working with different organizations focused on developing people centered democratic development policies and processes

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