Content warning: blood, gender dysphoria, menstruation
Stains of blood on one of her only three uniforms. //
A dark, lonely cell;
a hostile officer on guard outside. //
The stain spreads.
Periods and prisons are two words rarely used in sentences together. While social media platforms are experiencing a boom with regard to menstrual awareness and menstrual rights, inmates who bleed are largely left out of the discourse.
In addition to the alienation faced by prisoners, the conditions in Indian jails further remove them from the outside world. In such a setting, social stigma around menstruation makes it almost impossible to start a conversation around periods. An added challenge is the misinformed assumption that only women menstruate. This view perpetuates ignorance, discrimination, and abuse towards transgender persons and non-binary folks.
State of menstruators in Indian prisons
There are only 24 jails in India exclusively for women. In co-ed prisons, women are kept in separate enclosures. Studies show that 81.8% of women prisoners belong to the menstruating ages of 18-50 years. When dependent on family members for their period products’ supply, women have to cross the barriers of societal taboos and shame. The last resort, is of course, what most menstruators in India rely heavily on even today: using an old cloth or a rag as a substitute for a pad.
The menstrual movement has largely disregarded the menstruators in prisons, and the choices which face them.
Period poverty, that is, the lack of access to proper period products, is rampant across prisons in India. Menstrual rights like access to sanitary products, hygienic private toilet spaces, and clean water are further denied to incarcerated menstruators.
Rules and Regulations: gathering dust
Rule 5 of the Bangkok Rules (2010), which have been recognised by India, mandate the surety of facilities and materials to meet gender-specific needs, including provisions of sanitary towels free of charge, and a regular supply of water. Despite this, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), prisons in Haryana, Punjab, and Karnataka, there are serious infrastructural gaps. A news article also reported that women in Punjab’s prisons had to pay Rs 10 for a 3-pad packet of sanitary pads from the canteen.
Firstly, women prisoners seem to be unaware of the fact that they have a right to free sanitary products, and inevitably end up using rags. Then there is the paucity of female medical officers whose temporary visits to prison only aggravate the taboo of honest conversation around menstrual and reproductive health. There is also a lack of awareness and supporting infrastructure for ideal menstrual product disposal practices.
This is not to say that there are no recognised best practices or a lack of administrative coverage of these concerns. The Ministry of Home Affairs’ Prison Manual (2016) required that “sterilised sanitary pads should be issued to women prisoners as per their requirements”. At the same time, the menstruating prison population of at least 19,242 women prisoners was left out of the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-2016). The Survey’s conclusion that 58% menstruators in India maintained proper menstrual hygiene is then not a real depiction of the state of menstruators in India.
The social structure of an Indian jail
An alarming concern is the overcrowding in Indian prisons. In 2015, 18 prisons in India had 17,000 women; the capacity was 114.4.%. The consequentially inadequate ratio of staff per prisoner worsens the mental state of inmates by pushing them to live in inhuman conditions. The menstrual experience is then made further complex.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the dismal state of menstruators in Indian prisons. It has exacerbated irregular doctor visits, lack of supply of period products, and discontinuation of MHM (menstrual health management) practices.
There is a larger power play at work too, with the guards bearing eerily more power sanctioned by the state.
A study in the Tihar Jail found out that the sudden stopping of sanitary pad supply was a measure taken by prison guards to assert their power.
This unabashed violation of human rights is a serious issue that needs urgent attention.
In this context, it is important to remember that the repercussions of maintaining improper hygiene are long-term; fungal infections, reproductive tract infections (RTI), urinary tract infections (UTI), and cervical cancers are potential. In addition, poor menstrual hygiene also affects fertility, and can lead to complications during pregnancy.
Invisible among the invisible…
According to CHRI, there were only 214 transgender persons in Indian prisons between May 2018 to April 2019. This number is grossly understated and depicts the lack of recognition afforded to menstruators who aren’t women.
Transgenders and non-binary menstruators are then at a greater disadvantage. In addition to rampant discrimination, mistreatment, and abuse in prisons, there is the worrying issue of lack of access to period products.
I am reminded of transgender activist Cass Clemer’s words in ‘Toni the Tampon’, which painfully highlight the plight of being a queer menstruator.
“Most people deal with blood and tissue, and yet my body forces me to surrender, ‘cause every time I get my cycle, is another day I shed my gender.”
Reforms, changes, and a new mindset
There is an urgent need to provide thorough training to prison staff about national and international guidelines relating to menstrual hygiene. This can be done through workshops, courses and awareness drives. Sensitisation can only come when menstruation as a concept is humanised for non-menstruators and menstruators alike.
Infrastructural changes are an immediate requirement. Prison administrations must ensure facilities for proper MHM. As recognised by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, holt/ cold/ lukewarm water assists inmates in managing period pain. Basic WASH (water and sanitation) facilities must be guaranteed to inmates, especially menstruators.
To reduce overcrowding, more exclusive female prisons need to be constructed, to ensure the inmates’ safety and well-being. Lastly, attention needs to be drawn to the disregarded issue of period stains. Access to quality period products and clean clothing is quintessential. It all comes down to allowing and facilitating menstruators to go through menstruation with dignity, which is their human right.
This Night Owl Original has been authored by Shiuli Sural. She is a second-year history student who spends her time reading and writing. She is passionate about Greek mythology and menstrual equity. Her favorite Greek goddess is Athena. Shiuli is the founder of A Sniatary Gift initiative, aimed at menstrual equity.