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A Conversation That Requires Our Attention: Menstruation In Prisons In India

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ReimagineTogether logoEditor’s Note: This article is a part of #ReimagineTogether, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with UNICEF India, YuWaah and Generation Unlimited, to spark conversations to create a new norm and better world order in the post-pandemic future. How have you and those around you coped with the pandemic? Join the conversation by telling us your COVID story and together, let's reimagine a safer, better and more equal future for all!

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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.

Representational image

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 Offendersmakes 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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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