SAO TOME — Sao Tome and Principe is a nation comprised of two small islands off the equatorial coast of central Africa. Since earning its independence in 1975, the nation has depended heavily on external aid to create a functioning economy. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the islands were plagued by corruption, mass poverty and economic instability.
Presently, human rights in Sao Tome and Principe are a relative success story. The 2017 Freedom of the World report ranks the country at 2 on a scale of 1 (free) to 7 (not free). In fact, its aggregate score was an 81, just 8 points lower than the US. By comparison, the Netherlands sits atop the report with an aggregate score of 99, while Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tome and Principe’s closest neighbor, received an aggregate score of just 8 points and an overall score of 7 (not free).
The government and its constitution offer necessary assurances for basic human rights in Sao Tome and Principe. Despite this success, there are three key issues which continue to undermine those protections: the prison system, corruption in government and women’s rights.
- The prison system
Throughout the entire country, there is only one prison. This means that adults, juveniles and women are all detained together. It also means that people who are awaiting trial stay in the same facilities as those who are convicted. This problem is exacerbated by lengthy pretrial detentions which result in overcrowding.
As a result, high temperatures, insufficient ventilation and subpar food and sanitation standards are common. These conditions have improved slightly since the 2012 Human Rights Report, which detailed 268 prisoners being held in a facility made for 260 at the most.
Medical care within the prison system is also an issue. No accommodations are made for prisoners with disabilities and the prison lacks basic medical supplies. For medical emergencies, prisoners are rushed to the national hospital.
- Corruption in government
Related to poor prison conditions is the nation’s ongoing issues with corruption. The largest pocket of potential corruption appears to be the judiciary.
Even though judges earn substantial salaries, reports indicate they are accepting bribes. Furthermore, the U.S. State Department reports “the judicial system was subject to political influence or manipulation.” While the government does investigate potential corruption and abuse of power, officials often receive impunity.
The constitution of Sao Tome and Principe affords the freedoms of speech and press. The government does not limit access to the internet or appear to directly censor media content. However, the State Department does mention the possibility that “government-owned media intentionally interrupted the broadcast of critical speeches by opposition members of parliament.”
- Women’s Rights
The largest issue facing human rights in Sao Tome and Principe is domestic violence and social discrimination against women. Despite the government successfully prosecuting rapists for up to 25 years in prison, domestic violence continues throughout the nation. Reports suggest that “the full extent of the problem was undocumented.”
This is likely because women are still reluctant to take legal action. They inherently distrust the legal system to take them seriously, they fear retribution since many of the cases are spousal and at times they are unaware of their rights.
While strict laws are in place to prevent domestic violence, poor record keeping in the prison system means there is no data on the number of convictions. According to the U.N. Global Database on Violence against Women, around 28 percent of women in Sao Tome and Principe report suffering physical or sexual violence from their partner at some point in their lifetime.
Cultural customs often also play a significant role in women’s rights. Traditionally, domestic disputes are resolved within the family. This dissuades many from taking legal action. Likewise, cultural customs regarding child-rearing limit some women from accessing government programs designed to increase educational and vocational opportunities.
In general, the entire nation suffers from societal discrimination aimed at women. The older generation seems to be more affected than the younger.
According to the Federation of World Peace and Love, poverty plays a major role in contributing to these ongoing issues of human rights in Sao Tome and Principe. The U.N. Economic and Social Council calls Sao Tome and Principe a “fragile economy” subject to small market size, high dependency on external aid, climate change and scarce natural resources. In fact, the Gross National Income per capita is $1020, while the external debt is 117 percent higher.
Despite these setbacks and the remaining challenges that undermine human rights in Sao Tome and Principe, this is largely a success story. This nation has already achieved its Millennium Development Goals.
Throughout Sao Tome and Principe, NGOs and government agencies work hand-in-hand to address human rights concerns. The Office of Women’s Affairs and UNICEF maintain a hotline and counseling center for domestic abuse victims.
The Gender Equality Institute holds workshops and seminars to educate women on their rights. The U.S. State Department also reports that it is training police in how to best respond to domestic abuse cases. There’s even a government-run family planning clinic that seeks to combat rape by raising awareness.Despite a failing market economy, rampant poverty, and culturally biased traditions, Sao Tome and Principe
Despite a failing market economy, rampant poverty and culturally biased traditions, Sao Tome and Principe receives a massive amount of support from governmental agencies geared toward reform and NGOs providing oversight, training and resources. As a result, the people of this beautiful island nation enjoy growing national freedoms and an increase in educational opportunities.
– Brandon J. White