By Stevie Chauluka:
Fellow inmates and prison warders at Chichiri Prison celebrate her with the name “Availeti” (Violet) which might not be her real name.
She was sent to prison in 2017 to serve an 84-month jail term over land disputes with her brother in her home district of Mulanje.
Availeti, 44, is also visually impaired, a condition that developed while in prison when she fell sick and was admitted to Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital for 21 days. She also has cancer.
“I was told at the hospital that my heart was not able to pump blood to one side. While I was nursing that problem, I was also diagnosed with tuberculosis and, later, I was also diagnosed with cancer. This meant that I was taking a lot of medication and I succumbed to blindness followed me,” she said.
Availeti is not sure of the type of cancer she is suffering from. However, at this facility there is also another female prisoner afflicted by cervical cancer. We will simply identify her as Abiti.
Abiti, 38, who comes from Mwanza District, was arrested for the offence of defilement and she is serving a five-year jail term.
“I am suffering from cervical cancer and it is a big problem especially because I am also in prison where we are subjected to tough conditions like congestion and lack basic needs such as adequate food and other packages that we need as women,” she said.
Despite that they have cancer, Availeti and Abiti are just two of the 52 women we found at the prison’s female section who are denied their medicinal right when it comes to access to menstrual packages.
While menstruation is a basic biological fact for most women and girls; for those in prisons, it is a big challenge.
Availeti said: “When they are arresting us, they don’t care that we are women and, at one point in a month, we will be having our monthly periods and we will need care including sanitary pads, enough pieces of clothes, soap and clean basins, among others.
“While we are in prison, we cannot access sanitary pads and none of us here is able to buy the pads; so imagine none of the 52 of us here has menstruation pads.”
Abiti on the other hand is more worried about her condition as a cervical cancer patient.
“While none of us here can access menstrual packages, my condition is worse. The wound in my cervix is not healing and when I am having my period, I bleed a lot. The challenge is that I don’t have any form of assistance; I don’t have sanitary pads,” she said.
Another prisoner said the development in prisons was worrisome, describing it as a health rights issue.
“Menstruation is biological, it happens to almost every woman and, for us in prison, we are forced to use pieces of cloth which we cannot even wash because we have no soap. Some of us are coming from far. I come from Nsanje; this means my relatives cannot be visiting me every month due to transport costs.
“This means they cannot bring me menstrual pads and I cannot buy them because I am in prison and we don’t have money or markets here,” she said.
One of the medical experts at Chichiri Prison, Anne Kitalo, has conceded that female inmates are psychologically affected during menstruation because they cannot access menstrual packages.
“They are going through difficult times and for the one with cervical cancer, it is a challenge indeed. For the patients with cancer, we take them to hospital whenever they have appointments with the doctors. However on supply of sanitary pads, we don’t help them in any way because of budget constraints,” Kitalo said.
Activist Grace Ghambi of Focus Action Results states that much as improving the prison budget for women and girls in prisons so that they are able to receive menstrual packages is a solution, prisons should also think of capacitating the prisoners on how to make reusable sanitation pads using locally available materials.
“I can imagine female prisoners in that condition where they cannot get sanitary pads. However, there are always conditions where you don’t have money to purchase such packages in shops; that is when you need to learn how to make these pads using locally found materials. I will be happy to train the inmates so that, together, we can remove the shame that comes when a woman is not caring for herself during menstruation,” she said.
Centre for Human Rights Education Advice and Assistance (Chreaa) says the problem is that prisons are underfunded in terms of their health budget such that there are no provisions for the supply of menstrual packages for female prisoners.
Chreaa Programmes Manager, Joyness Dziwani, agrees with the prisoners on the need for the inclusion of a budgetary allocation for the purchase of menstrual hygiene products in the Malawi Prison Service health budget.
“When a person is sent to prison, it becomes the responsibility of the government through the prison department to provide for their health needs. If that is not happening, then someone’s right is being violated. In this case, we are denying the female prisoners their right to health.
“We are, therefore, exposing them to danger. It is high time Parliament thought of it and made an allocation in the prison budget specifically for menstrual packages,” Dziwani said.
Section 42(1b) of the Constitution of Malawi provides that, at the expense of the State, every detained person must be held under conditions consistent with human dignity which shall include at least access to adequate nutrition and medical treatment.
But for Availeti and Abiti, such a right remains in the books. They continue to suffer within high walls of a facility where they were sent to be rehabilitated.
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