By Ezelina Kamaliza
I never knew I would use a piece of blanket during my menses, without a source of income or anyone to bring us sanitary towels,” says a female inmate that we will call Mary, an inmate at Zomba Central Prison.
Clad in a blue-striped white prison uniform, Mary says, without sanitary towels, spare underwear and hygiene provisions such as soap, going through the monthly period in prison is very uncomfortable.
She says pieces of old blankets used have loose wool that gets stuck in private parts and it becomes uncomfortable.
“Some of us have even suffered from genital warts and chafing because the materials we use are not meant to be used by women during the menstrual periods because we lack the basics to be hygienic during these times,” Mary continues to tell her story.
Mary’s case is the same for 300 female inmates that Malawi has in its prisons.
According to Annie Kitalo, an official from Chichiri Prison, there has never been a budgetary allocation to Malawi Prison Service (MPS) to carter for sanitary towels or any hygiene care materials for female prisoners.
“Menstruation needs particular care; it is sad to see female inmates without all they need to be comfortable during their menses. Without funding, it is hard for us to support them with sanitary towels,” Kitalo says.
Kitalo says, apart from physical health challenges being faced due to lack of sanitary essentials, the female prisoners are also affected psychologically and they cannot interact with their colleagues in the confinements because they also have a bad odour at these times.
According to a report on women prisoners’ health and unique needs in sub- Saharan Africa (SSA) by BMC International Health and Human Rights released in 2018, women that are in prisons from this region are facing challenges to access services their unique health needs.
The report indicates that healthcare provision for women in prisons and detention centres falls short of the equivalence care standards mandated by human rights and international recommendations.
The BMC report also shows that there is lack of prison-based support for women’s needs around menstruation in most prisons in countries across SSA including Malawi coupled with unhygienic disposal of used sanitary pads due to lack of the disposal facilities in the prisons.
To address the challenges that women in the country’s prisons are facing in regards to menstrual health, Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa), with funding from Amplify Change, moved in to advocate allocation of funds for MPS to carter for the women’s needs.
Chreaa Deputy Executive Director and Litigation Manager Chikondi Chijozi says many of these prisoners cannot afford to buy sanitary pads not only because they are expensive but because the inmates have no source of income.
As such, they are forced to bleed through small pieces of cloth or old pieces of blankets.
“Management of these pieces of cloth are a health hazard. Worse still, during their menstruation cycles, most of these prisoners do not have soap, resulting in exposure to various health hazards,” Chijozi says.
She says Chreaa realised that the provision of menstrual hygiene packages to female prisoners is a health right.
However, maintaining the well-being and dignity of women and girls behind bars was a great challenge as menstrual hygiene packages were not included in the prison health budget due to underfunding, Chijozi says.
In July 2019, the organisation engaged Parliament through Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, Social and Community Affairs Committee of Parliament, Speaker and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Office of the Budget Director under Ministry of Finance and Malawi Prison Inspectorate to advocate the budgetary allocation towards buying sanitary kits for female prisoners.
The engagement led to Parliament’s approval of an increase in the MPS health budgetary allocation by K30 million, to specifically cater for the menstrual hygiene materials for females and girls in prisons in the 2019/2020 national budget.
Member of Parliament for Machinga East Constituency, representing Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, Esther Jolobala says it is a relief knowing that government has moved in to address the challenge and help in upholding the dignity of women.
“Once someone goes to prison, it does not mean that they lose their humanity, they go there to make amends on the mistakes they have made in their lives. As women, when we talk about the menstrual periods, it’s not even an issue that we can compromise on, it is proper for the menstrual pads to be readily available when the women are in their periods,” she says.
Jolobala calls on prison authorities to revise their measures of keeping the women locked up for long hours without access to washrooms during their time in prison.
“We also request the prison authorities to allow female prisoners to take care of themselves when they are having their menstrual periods. We are told they have no access to cleaning facilities once they are locked up at 3pm until the next morning. Long hours without a bath during menses put the women at risk of developing infections,” Jolobala says.
Chreaa Board Chairperson Alinane Khonje says prisons are reformatory centres and, therefore, good health and hygiene state of mind is an integral important factor that can facilitate the reformation of any person and, in this case, particularly women and adolescent girls.
Khonje said sanitary pads contribute to good health; therefore, provision of sanitary pads to female inmates should not be a once-off activity but a right to health, which is met every month.
“The need to provide the sanitary pads for our women in our prisons cannot be overemphasised. The use of pieces of blankets and old clothes can easily bring diseases such as urinary tract infection to the women in prisons, the argument, therefore, is the amount of money that would be used to treat urinary tract infection is much more than the amount spent on purchasing these sanitary pads,” Khonje says.
With the K30 million allocation towards procurement of sanitary kits and soap by MPS, Mary and other female prisoners can now afford a sigh of relief for the sanitary wear that will start coming their way once they are having menstrual periods.
Mary is excited about the budgetary allocation as she hopes that their menses will be de-incarcerated but pleads for transparency in the handling of the finances.
She says: “We look forward to receiving these sanitary pads on a monthly basis and we are truly appreciative to government for listening to our cries. We only hope that this will not be overburdened by the usual government bureaucracy that will make it difficult for us to enjoy our right to good health.