In this expert blog, Anju Anna John considers menstrual hygiene provision for women in prison and interventions to assess needs, raise awareness of women’s entitlements and best practices, and improve access to sanitary products in places of detention. This is the third blog in PRI’s latest series marking ten years of the UN Bangkok Rules.
The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules) – that are now ten years old – prescribe that places where women are detained should have the requisite facilities and materials to ensure women’s specific hygiene needs (Rule 5). These include the free provision of sanitary towels and regular supply of water. Despite this, period poverty in prisons continues to be an issue in many countries including those that are high-income like the United States of America. Period poverty is yet to take centre stage in the discussions on women in prison.
However, policies of some governments indicate efforts taken to address this critical aspect of prison life. In April 2019, the United Kingdom said that they would provide free sanitary products for everyone detained who menstruates, recognising that it is crucial to ensuring their dignity. The same year, the Malawian Parliament approved an increase of K30 million (approximately GBP 38,781) in their Prison Service Health Budget specifically to provide menstrual hygiene materials for women and girls in prisons.
In some jails, women either bought sanitary napkins from the prison canteen or resorted to using old cloth and rags posing a real concern to their menstrual hygiene
In India, prison visits by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) have revealed the lack of proper infrastructure in women’s facilities and the limited provision of sanitary products to ensure menstrual hygiene during their period of incarceration in many prisons. In 2019, CHRI’s report, Inside Haryana Prisons, highlighted the general lack of awareness amongst women in prison of their rights and entitlements. It was revealed that women were not aware of the provision of free sanitary napkins by the prison authorities. In some jails, women either bought sanitary napkins from the prison canteen or resorted to using old cloth and rags posing a real concern to their menstrual hygiene. Women prisoners told CHRI that they, at times, relied on family members to provide quality sanitary pads during visits. Though, they felt reluctant to ask when it was the father or brother visiting. This reveals deep-rooted societal taboos that restrict women’s access to clean menstrual management material.
At the end of 2019, 19,913 women prisoners were held across the 1,350 prisons in India. A vast majority of women prisoners across the country are confined to small detention facilities within male prisons, generally referred to as “women’s enclosure”. According to the Prison Statistics India 2019 (PSI 2019) published by the National Crime Records Bureau, only about 18% (3,652) of the population of women prisoners were housed in a women’s jail – a prison exclusively for women. As a result, the basic needs – including menstrual hygiene – of 82% takes a backseat vis a vis the male prison population.
This reality within Indian prisons persists primarily because prisons come under the purview of the state government. Therefore, while the Central Government had sent a Model Prison Manual in 2016 to all states and union territories in India for their guidance, many states are yet to adopt these provisions in their state legislation. The manual recommends the provision of free sanitary napkins by the prison authorities (Rule 26.85). The absence of uniform rules means that what is available inside prisons varies greatly between one state to another, and often even from one prison to another.
Based on its experiences, CHRI in collaboration with Boondh, a social enterprise that works on Menstrual Literacy and Policy, has initiated expert interventions on menstrual hygiene management in prisons. These initiatives, which include capacity building sessions with prison staff and awareness camps with women prisoners, have revealed some of the practices that prison staff required were done so without realising they were unhygienic. One such practice was the requirement of women prisoners to wash their used pads, prior to being disposed in the common dustbin.
Women… felt reluctant to ask [for sanitary pads] when it was the father or brother visiting. This reveals deep-rooted societal taboos
To address these concerns, and for increased awareness and outreach on this issue, a document has been prepared recommending the minimum standards to be adopted by prison authorities to improve the menstrual health and hygiene of women prisoners as well as the women prison staff. One of the key recommendations is to ensure access to clean water and basic facilities. This necessitates that prison authorities ensure adequate water supply for each inmate; access to warm water and soap to enable better hygiene practices; periodically conduct water quality tests to assess the minimum standards of water quality; and prison infrastructure should be such that it ensures the privacy and dignity of menstruating prisoners. Other recommendations include the provision of quality and sufficient quantity of sanitary pads. Equally important is the provision of safe disposal of used pads. Measures to ensure the reproductive health of women prisoners including provision of regular prison visits by female doctors must also be in place. One may also consider the setting up of menstrual product enterprises inside prisons, creating a livelihood option for prisoners as well.
Another key recommendation is the need for raising awareness among the prison staff and prisoners on issues of menstrual hygiene. CHRI believes that raising awareness is the primary step towards the practical realisation of one’s rights. Towards this, CHRI prepared a poster highlighting basic menstrual hygiene practices for display in prisons where women are detained. The poster has been translated in several local languages and disseminated to prison departments for display inside prisons. We hope that our efforts will bring to the fore issues related to menstrual hygiene in prisons beyond India as well. We look forward to collaborating with organisations working on prisons in other countries to take these initiatives ahead.
Photo by Annika Gordon on Unsplash.