The views expressed in this article are the author’s and are not necessarily the views of the partners.
By Joyoti Chowdhury
The lack of proper menstrual hygiene management (MHM) facilities is a huge concern in the country. The conversation around MHM amongst menstruating prisoners in India has received hardly any attention.
The inmates who menstruate are conveniently excluded from our conversation around menstrual health and hygiene as they are marginalized and treated as an outcast by society. Indian prisons have been facing the issue of overcrowding for a long time, along with improper treatment towards inmates and denying them their basic rights.
In India, there are only 24 jails in the country, which are exclusively for women prisoners. The other women prisoners are placed in separate enclosures inside men’s prisons. The demography of women prisoners in India mostly belongs to the age group of 18-50 years (81.8%).
‘The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders‘ makes it an important requirement for the authorities “to ensure facilities and materials to meet their gender-specific needs, including the provisions of sanitary towels free of charge and a regular supply of water“.
According to the rules under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Model Prison Manual (2016), it was specified that “sterilized sanitary pads” should be issued to the women prisoners as per the requirements. NFHS-IV survey conducted to understand the hygienic methods of menstrual protection entirely excluded women prisoners (19,242) in the country.
However, there is a serious lack of implementation of the above provisions in all prisons of the country. In many prisons of the country, menstruating prisoners must often buy sanitary napkins from the canteen. They also often rely on family members who come to visit them for sanitary napkins. As a result of the existing cultural pressure around menstruation, they often find it too difficult to discuss this with the male members of the family who come to visit them.
The female inmates from Tihar Jail complained while earlier the sanitary napkins were supplied to them, this practice stopped suddenly. The napkins were then replaced by the coarse grey cloth, which they were asked to reuse. The report also suggested that in Tihar Jail, the supply of sanitary napkins is withheld by guards to assert their power.
The prisons of India lack adequate numbers of permanent female medical officers. As a result of the institutionalized cultural pressure, the prisoners who menstruate feel uncomfortable to raise the conversation around their complications and issues related to menstrual and reproductive health to male medical officers. The irregular visits by the female medical officers in the prisons are also a major concern.
According to a report by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), instead of the prevailing provisions of free sanitary napkins, most women prisoners are unaware of such assistance and thus resort to using clothes and rags. Such a pattern has been noticed in the prisons of the states Punjab, Karnataka and Haryana as per the researches have been conducted.
And that is not it. The prisons in India also lack proper disposal facilities of sanitary napkins. In the prisons of Karnataka, women inmates were instructed to wash their sanitary napkins before disposing of them with other wastes in the common dustbin.
However, this disposal practice is extremely unhygienic and unsafe. The dirty and unhygienic condition of the toilets inside the prison makes the concern more serious as it adversely affects the prisoners’ menstrual health. These unhygienic practices can expose menstruating inmates to fungal infections, Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) and Urinary Tract Infection (UTI) and make them vulnerable infertility. The stress caused by these issues heavily impacts the mental well being of the inmates.
It is significant to increase the effort to create awareness around MHM and MHH inside India’s prisons. The prisons should be properly equipped with basic WASH (water and sanitation) facilities. The recommendations made by CHRI and BOONDH organization suggest that in order to meet these specific hygienic needs, it is mandatory to ensure a regular supply of water in the prisons.
The water in the prisons must be tested at least twice a year to regulate the chemical parameters to ensure its quality standard as per the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. In order to assist the inmates in managing period pain, it is also important to provide them access to hot/cold/lukewarm water in accordance with the climatic conditions.
Hot water bags must be allocated for the inmates to use via rotation as a basic measure to help the inmates to manage their menstrual cramps and pain. There must be provisions of menstruation friendly separate toilets for inmates and prison staff with the proper lock system to ensure safety and privacy.
The awareness program should also address various cultural barriers faced by menstruating inmates in terms of seeking help. It is important to conduct these period awareness programs at least two times a year. This can also involve other strategic means such as movie screenings or discussions.
It is also a time when with a collaborative effort of government stakeholders and civil societies, eco-friendly sanitary care products should be promoted inside India’s prisons as they are a sustainable, healthy and affordable choice. This shall also provide the inmates with a wider scope of menstrual care products options that they can select according to their needs and preferences.
The arrangements must be made for the regular doctor visits should also be properly arranged for prisoners who menstruate. The awareness around menstrual hygiene and health should also be raised amongst prison staff members to desensitize them around these issues. The prison management should guarantee the inmates are provided with sufficient amounts of good quality sanitary napkins to ensure their right to experience menstruation in a dignified manner.
It is also important to address that having access to basic menstrual hygiene materials is not a luxury but should be viewed as a fundamental right of the inmates. These facilities should also be extended to police stations and court lock-ups.
In order to implement these recommendations, it is significant to view these concerns as political and immediate interventions must be created to address these critical issues inside the prisons of India. It is significant to ensure safe and hygienic environment facilities inside the prison to guarantee the fundamental rights of dignity and wellbeing of inmates.