Ground Reports

Worst Place For Women To Have A Period? Indian Prisons

Menstruating women face many difficulties while going through their period around the world. The condition is worse inside Indian prisons.

By Puran Choudhary , 15 Mar 2023

Women in prisons still continue to suffer due to the lack of basic amenities during ‘that time of the month.’ About 80 percent of women, in their menstrual cycles, in jails are not provided with unlimited free sanitary pads, hot water, proper waste disposal or any sensitisation programme for menstrual health management, either for prisoners or staff, said a study.

‘Periods in Prisons’ is conducted by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Boondh across 11 womens’ prisons situated in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala, Odisha, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu which showed that in some cases women were left to buy sanitary pads from the prison clinics or wait until their families visited.

“A woman prisoner lodged in Ludhiana Central Prison shared that it was, generally, difficult to ask for pads from visiting relatives like her father or brother. She just buys the ones provided by the prison,” Madhurima Dhanuka, head of Prison Reforms Programme from CHRI recalls while talking to the MOJO Story.

Dhanuka adds that the pads provided by prison authorities are small in size, and all the prisoners get the same ones. “It is uncomfortable for many as they often have to keep checking to ensure that it has not leaked.”

CHRI, an independent organisation that works on prison reforms, police reforms and media rights, said that only two of ten prisons provided additional pads as per the need of women inmates. Women in prison get only five to eight sanitary pads per month despite demanding more from the administration, the report further stated.

“The practice differs from state to state and prison to prison.” While some prisons provide unlimited free pads, others only offer a fixed number of pads to menstruating women. “In prisons where a fixed number of sanitary pads are given, say one pack containing six pads (monthly basis) usually women prisoners who need less number of pads help those who need more,” Dhanuka explains, reflecting on women’s plight.

The measures suggested by Boondh, an NGO that works on menstrual literacy, policy, advocacy, activism and sustainable products, and CHRI highlighted that at least Five to Eight pads should be provided to women everyday, based on their cycles.

According to a report titled Women in Prisons Report, 2018 by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the majority of women prisoners are in the age group of 30-50 (50.7 percent) and 18-30 years old (29.4 percent). Currently there are 22,918 women prisoners in India which amounts to 4.13 percent of total prison population.

The study focused on six key areas such as the prison capacity and infrastructure, access to water, sanitation and hygiene infrastructure, procurement and quality of menstrual products, menstrual waste management and sensitisation of staff and inmates.

Adding to the woes of the long list of the worst places to deal with a period, women in Indian jails are not given any proper orientation about their rights in regard to menstrual hygiene. Dhanuka furthers that there is a lack in communication among other issues, “They (the prisoners) need to cope with lack of privacy, pain management and experiencing menstruation in a shared and closed space like prison than the comfort of their home.” In situations such as these, the women prisoners are left aloof.

According to the Dhanuka, there must be a set of Standard Operating Procedure (SOPs) and minimum standard rules on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) in custody. “It must include access to menstrual products and hygiene during police custody of women too.”

The Model Prison Manual

The Ministry of Home Affairs adopted the ‘Model Prison Manual’ in 2016 and sent it to all states and union territories for guidance. However very little of it is implemented by the prison authorities.

According to the Model Prison Manual, toilet articles and menstrual products including sanitary towels are to be made available free of cost to the prisoner. Unfortunately many prisons don’t quite keep up.

Despite the guidelines, currently there are no schemes proposed by the government which directly apply to women in prisons on menstrual health and hygiene. “MHM being an integral part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, it does not include MHM in prisons. The reason could be that MHM and prisons come under the purview of two different government departments” added Dhanuka. Prisons come under the Home Ministry Department while MHM is under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Not Just Periods

Women in prisons have to go through a plethora of issues, periods are just one part of the problem. CHRI research highlighted the existing standards, practices and infrastructure for women in prisons after interviewing more than 230 women prisoners in Haryana, Punjab and Karnataka between 2017 to 2019.

The interviews showed that, across states, women prisoners are either confined in prisons, or in enclosures situated within male prisons. Many times women prisoners do not have access to crucial areas like jail hospitals, canteens, jail legal aid clinics, libraries, factories, playground, places of worship, recreational spaces and activities that the men can freely access.

The Prison Statistics of India Report 2021 stated that of the 4.13 percent women in prison only 16.5 percent are confined in women prisons in 15 states. Rest are confined in women enclosures ‘that are areas demarcated inside male prisons’.

“We observed the lack of proper infrastructural facilities for women prisoners which included untidy and broken bathrooms and toilets, inadequate number of dustbins, lack of cleaning and drying spaces”, which has adverse effects on women’s hygiene practices, Dhanuka states.

Vocational training is also limited to women inmates. Many of these women live in jails with their children, She added. Recalling another incident from their visit in prisons, Dhanuka talks about a woman in Mysore Central prison with an unusual problem. “This woman has heavy growth of pubic hair and she needed a razor or scissors to cut them and maintain hygiene. However, due to security reasons she was not given either.”

Rights Behind Bars

In 2006, the Supreme Court established guidelines to improve the care and development of women prisoners and their children in prisons, aligning with national and international obligations.

“More than 15 years after this judgement, implementation gaps exist due to lack of infrastructural facilities in women’s prisons and enclosures across the country”, Dhanuka stated.

Along with the shortcomings, the report mentioned minimum standards that must be met in prisons. “These standards are also applicable for police stations, and for court lock-ups, as women often spend long durations in custody during arrest or court hearings” the report mentioned.

Women prisoners should be provided with clean water and should have access to hot, cold, lukewarm water based on climatic conditions. Other recommendations in the report included soap dispenser, dustbin with a lid and old newspapers for disposal of pads.

On menstrual hygiene products the report highlighted that women should have options apart from disposable pads and cloth pieces. Cloth pads can be a viable option, three to four cloth pads per menstruator can be used for 4-5 years, upon careful reuse. It also requires minimum standards of water, soap, and private space. It produces negligible waste and is a one-time cost in years.

Lacked Basic Facilities

The prisons also lacked basic facilities and sanitation practices. The Model Prison Manual, 2016, emphasised the need for a lady medical officer inside prisons, especially catering to the healthcare requirements of women prisoners. The manual stated that, “Only lady doctors shall look after the medical care of women prisoners during their stay in prison.” However the ground reality was different, women did not have access to gynaecologists and if they did, it was limited.

In Punjab, none of the 14 prisons that housed women inmates had a permanent lady medical officer appointed inside. This was despite the fact that women inmates almost unanimously felt the need of one.

CHRI’s team found that Central Prison Bathinda just had a makeshift arrangement to accommodate women inmates, wherein, the de-addiction ward inside the jail was being used to house them.

When it comes to Haryana, at present, there are no permanent lady doctors in any prison. Though there are some visiting doctors. Most instances reflected that the women inmates had to depend on getting examined by male doctors, with whom they are not always comfortable, especially with regard to reproductive or menstrual health issues.

Not All Hope Lost

When asked if some prisons were taking measures on disposal of these sanitary pads, Dhanuka replies saying that there are some prisons that have put some basic standards in place. “In Tiruchirappalli, the prison follows the bio-medical waste management rules and provides separate dustbins with lids and safe biomedical bags in all blocks and in the staff room. The bags are then sent to the relevant environmental waste department,” said Dhanuka.

In some jails like Chennai in Tamil Nadu, Udaipur in Rajasthan, Bhagalpur in Bihar, Thiruvananthapuram and Kannur in Kerala, Shivamogga in Karnataka, and Sambalpur in Odisha, incinerators were purchased or either donated by NGOs to rightly dispose of the collected sanitary waste. Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, separate dustbins are used so that menstrual products can be collected, but are later burnt outside the prison as there is no proper disposal mechanism.