Menstrual hygiene in Indian prisons | Explained

What are the various policies and schemes introduced by the Indian government with respect to menstrual hygiene management? What did a study in a Maharashtra prison reveal about women prisoners and their access to water and sanitation facilities?

Updated - May 28, 2024 10:56 am IST

Published - May 27, 2024 10:56 pm IST

For representative purposes.

For representative purposes. | Photo Credit: iStockphoto

The story so far: India has witnessed a promising shift in the landscape of menstrual hygiene management over the years. The fifth round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS 2019-2020) revealed that about eight out of 10 young women aged 15-24 years are now using safe menstrual hygiene products. While urban areas and certain demographics have seen improved usage of menstrual hygiene products, the plight of one of the most marginalised populations — women in Indian prisons — remains overlooked. In a society where prisoners are deemed unworthy of fundamental rights, female prisoners face an even greater injustice. Society clings to an unrealistic standard of female purity, refusing to accept that women, too, can commit crimes. This bias has led to a systemic oversight and neglect of female prisoner’s basic needs, including menstrual hygiene.

Also Read: Close to 12% of young girls think menstruation is a curse from God or caused by disease: study

What is the status of menstrual hygiene in prisons?

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, there are 23,772 women in Indian prisons. Of them, 77% are in the reproductive age group (18-50 years) and are likely to be regular menstruators. However, the availability of sanitary napkins has been inconsistent across different prisons in the country. The quality of sanitary napkins has also been unsatisfactory. Despite recommendations outlined in the 2016 Model Prison Manual, many States have not implemented provisions like supplying adequate water and washroom facilities for female prisoners. Overcrowding and poor socio-economic conditions further exacerbate the struggle of incarcerated women to secure basic necessities such as water, sanitary napkins, detergent, and soap during menstruation.

Also Read: Women in red: On an optimum menstrual hygiene policy

A study conducted by one of the authors (Himani Gupta) in a prison in Maharashtra in June 2023 revealed that water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities failed to meet the demands of women imprisoned there. This presents significant challenges for women, who need more water to maintain personal hygiene during menstruation. The lack of continuous water supply also forced women to store water, taking up valuable space in the limited number of toilets available. About 50 women were forced to share just two toilets for all their daily activities, including excreting, changing napkins, and washing clothes and utensils. Women also reported feeling discouraged from using the filthy washrooms for frequent urination, which led to a greater incidence of urinary infections.

The study also found that prison authorities depended on sanitary napkins donated by non-governmental organisations. Decisions about the type, quality, and quantity of menstrual absorbents were left to these organisations, often resulting in the supply of substandard products. Many women reported that the quantity of sanitary napkins provided was insufficient, and that the quality was poor (subpar absorption, causing discomfort, skin rashes, and infections).In one instance, the prison received a donation of ‘reusable’ sanitary napkins. Each woman was given only one pair to manage her entire menstrual cycle. With severely limited access to water and detergent, washing these reusable napkins after each use became impractical.

What have been policy interventions?

India has been making consistent efforts to improve access to menstrual hygiene products, especially among young women through the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme which includes the distribution of free or subsidised sanitary napkins. To make sanitary napkins more affordable for underprivileged women, the Suraksha Suvidha Napkins are also being sold at Jan Aushadhi Kendras for ₹1 per napkin.

In 2023, India took an important stride forward by formulating the ‘National Menstrual Hygiene Policy’, to recognise menstruation as a natural process that demands more meaningful attention. At its heart lies a crucial principle: ensuring equity in the safe and dignified management of menstrual hygiene. The draft policy states: “Prioritise equity to enable all menstruating individuals, regardless of their socioeconomic status and geographical location, to have equal opportunities to access and manage their menstruation in a safe and hygienic way. Address disparities and barriers that prevent certain groups from accessing required menstrual hygiene products, resources and information.”

Remarkably, the policy identifies prisoners as a target population with a compromised access to menstrual hygiene facilities. This inclusion reflects a positive step forward. However, the policy falls short of providing a concrete action plan to enhance menstrual hygiene management in prisons. It also overlooks the Ministry of Home Affairs as a critical stakeholder that influences menstrual hygiene management in prisons.

What needs to be done?

The Indian government must ensure that basic standards of menstrual hygiene for women in captivity are met. The uneven implementation of the Model Prison Manual 2016 across States demands urgent attention as well. As a first step, the government must ensure every State adheres to the recommendations outlined in the manual. The experience of menstruation within prisons presents unique challenges that demand attention through a public health lens, particularly as part of the fight against ‘period poverty’. The next step is to encourage collaboration between public health authorities and prison administrators to develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure access to adequate menstrual hygiene products and facilities while prioritising the health and dignity of women behind bars. Third, there is a dearth of empirical evidence. Therefore, there is an urgent need to conduct research to understand the current state of menstrual hygiene within prison walls.

Himani Gupta is pursuing her masters at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. M. Sivakami is professor at TISS.

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