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Overcrowding, Broken Toilets: Reality Of Bleeding In Prisons In India

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

The word jail brings all sorts of negative images in one’s mind. Dingy-dark rooms being one of them. But what we see in series like ‘Orange is the new black‘, and ‘Criminal Justice‘ is just the glimpse of reality. A recent report by the American Bar Association highlights the human rights violation of Safoora Zargar, one of the many women activists arrested in recent times. It hints at the dismal status of women in prisons of India.


report called ‘women in prison’ published in 2018 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development underscores the problems that women face in Indian jails. They are home to 17,834 women, and 81.8 % of these women are of menstruating age, and yet there is not enough discussion on menstrual hygiene management in Indian prisons.

Contrary to popular belief of prisons being isolated places, one of the critical problems identified in the report is overcrowding. The national average occupancy was at 114.4% in 2015. Merely 18 prisons in India house 17,000 women.

Toilets In Prison

A toilet without proper hygiene and proper privacy for the prisoners

The disproportionately low number of toilets exacerbates this overcrowding and robs women of their agency to manage their periods with dignity. Inside jails, periods become a matter of public domain, and privacy becomes a privilege. With a lesser number of toilets, there is always a fear of intrusion. In prisons, toilets are usually situated in the holding cells or outside, without any privacy and safety. There is a risk of male intervention making women vulnerable to sexual abuse and embarrassment.

Although the national prison manual prescribes 135-litre water per inmate, in reality, they do not get sufficient water to keep themselves clean. To make it worse, they cannot wash the few clothes they are provided regularly. It directly translates in fear of leaking and staining when on periods. They do not always have the option to change or wash their blood-stained clothes.

The fear of stain is constant since, in most prisons, women do not get menstrual products at all, or they get a limited number irrespective of one’s need. Since women’s menstrual cycles vary in length and frequency, limited access forces them to wear sanitary pads for extended hours leading to the risk of infections.

Since the distribution of menstrual hygiene products depends on the discretion of the prison officers, there is a possibility of abuse of power. Being imprisoned means begging and bargaining for sanitary pads which is evidence of the power imbalance. The prison staff may also coerce inmates for favours or threaten to keep them in line. This situation gets worse since the scarcity of female staff means depending on male staff for one’s needs. In the words of Catrin Smith(in prison), personal control is taken away, bodily needs become secondary to the regime.

There is a lack of medical facilities in prisons, which means one does not get adequate help for illnesses. Male doctors posted in women’s prisons might make it difficult for inmates to consult due to the gender divide. This can worsen their health. Higher stress level also affects the menstrual cycles of women.

For representation only

Detained women suffer too as there are no facilities to access sanitary napkins as and when needed. Since these women are detained for a short time, their needs are often overlooked. Sanitary napkins are not readily available even for complainants.

Given the fact periods can come unannounced, it leaves them with no option but to suffer. Hence there is a greater need for police departments to be gender-sensitive and to provide necessary facilities to every woman who has a business there.

What Can Be The Solution?

India is a signatory of the Bangkok rules which prescribe the standard of treatment of women in prisons. It states that feminine hygiene products should be made available, free of charge, to the inmates. It also recommends gender sensitisation of the prison officers to ensure that the rights of the prisoners are not violated.

The 2018 report also prescribes some necessary implementations such as the availability of basic hygiene facilities and clean toilets for all the inmates. If needed, link prisons to local Swachh Bharat initiatives to construct more toilets or repair current one’s.

In the case of overcrowding, the excess numbers of prisoners can be transferred to another location. Further lady officers should be made available, including lady medical personnel for female prisoners. Sanitary pads should be issued free of cost as per their needs, and inmates can be trained to produce low-cost sanitary napkins.

To conclude, states must update their respective prison manuals as per the national and international guidelines. The recommendations given by the 2018 report should be implemented. It might be hard to empathise with prisoners, but the baseline of our justice system is to be rehabilitative, not punitive. Prisoners are also entitled to human rights, and we should not strip those away from them.

The author is a part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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