Women’s Jail: A Painful Past but Resilient Future by Kortney Ondayko

Women’s Jail: A Painful Past but Resilient Future
Friday, we visited the Women’s Jail located on Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg. It started in a rush as we were running late & had little time to tour both the Number Four prison, the Women’s Jail & the Constitutional Court. Though we hustled into the jail- turned-museum, our pace abruptly slowed as the reality of the space hit us.

The Women’s Jail is a very powerful & symbolic place as the museum is full of former inmates stories, experiences & memories that recount the oppressive policies of apartheid. It serves as a re-collection of the memories and experiences of the women who spent time there – it serves as a place to better understand the past, to read the truth, to seek justice but also to influence the future.

To read these women’s stories as if they were there standing with you, narrating their experiences, was haunting but empowering. It was haunting because you are standing in the exact place that these experiences of discrimination, inhumane and unjust treatment took place. You read the stories and imagine it happening right next to you & at that moment you feel helpless. But, at the same time, you feel empowered by reading their stories. You feel empowered that eventually, these women were able to tell their stories. That their stories are taken seriously.

Even at the most intense & somber point of the Jail, the Wash Room, I was inspired and given hope for the human rights of South African women. The Washing Room is a big open space with no roof- where wardresses would strip down inmates and violently search them for hidden objects among other degrading events. However, as I walked out of the Wash room, while struggling to comprehend the realities of where I was, I ran into a group of women. They were dressed up and walking with purpose into a room with a white piece of paper next to the door labeled: Women’s Liberation Dialogue. It appeared to be a conference or meeting of some sort where women gathered to discuss the needs, wants and status of their liberation. I was struck by the resilience of these South African women. They are being activist and fighting oppression in the very walls that oppressed them just 30 years ago.

I think I can speak for the group, when I say, that even though we had limited time in the Women’s Jail the experience was powerful & taught us about both the past and current situation of women in South Africa.