Dirty Business: Lack of Menstrual Equity in Colombian Prisons

Woman handing menstrual supplies to Colombian prisoners The author hands menstrual supplies to women prisoners in Colombia / Charlie Ruth Castro entrega productos menstruales a mujeres con pena privativa de la libertada en Colombia

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Let’s talk about menstruation – a natural and necessary process among women, but one that we have been culturally taught to hate, hide or even make fun of.  Also, let me talk about a dirty business perpetrated by certain officers from INPEC, the Colombian national institution in charge of penitentiary policy. In many prisons, INPEC has routinely failed to supply adequate menstrual products for the female prison population.

Being deprived of ways to deal with bleeding is outrageous, and it attacks the confidence of any girl or woman, often making menstruation synonymous with stress, shame, and punishment.

Women prisoners mingling in a Colombia
Women prisoners in Colombia mingle in the prison yard

For several years, I worked as a teacher and coach in a medium security prison in Sogamoso, Colombia. I have seen many shocking things in my work: severe overcrowding, decomposed food served to prisoners, and deteriorated buildings where even water is sometimes scarce. Particularly upsetting is the paltry number of menstrual pads (about 25 per year) that women inmates receive. This means that a menstruating woman must manage her monthly bleeding with only two pads.

This is clearly not enough, as the average woman uses between two to four pads each day, typically for five to seven days each month. So how do you survive the menstrual period behind bars? The answer: with a lot of clothes that can be stained.

Many of my students arrived with blankets tied to the waist. In the absence of pads (not to mention the more expensive tampons or reusable menstrual cups), women use their panties, jeans and pajama pants. If all your clothes are already stained, the last resource is often a blanket, wrapped around like a skirt.

A group of people outside a prison delivering menstrual supplies
The author and a group of doctors deliver menstrual supplies

Additionally, during the day women have limited access to the toilet and clean water, both of which are capriciously controlled by the guards. During the night, from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. they must collect their physiological waste in plastic bags or bottles. As a result, they contract more vaginal infections due to the accumulation of bacteria. Complaining is useless. INPEC may assign a visit to the gynecologist, but my students have told me about how these visits may result in sexual violence or other abuses. In addition, perpetrators usually go unpunished. Inmates often prefer to dispense with the annual examination in order to avoid rape or other degrading treatment.

A menstrual pad at a supermarket in Colombia costs $630 Colombian pesos — the equivalent of about 19 cents in the United States. Within the prison, access to the same pad costs five times more. With no access to money within a prison, women must agree to provide sexual favors or accept other abuses of power by INPEC officers.

Menstrual products are luxuries that many women in the most underprivileged conditions cannot afford in developing countries like Colombia. The big obstacle for women in prisons, women in temporary shelters, women in rural and indigenous areas, and girls in public schools or orphanages is that menstruation is seen as a dirty and stigmatizing affair. State blindness to the menstrual hygiene of girls and women of lower incomes is a matter of public health that affects the lives of millions. Not talking about the right of every woman to access menstrual products is discriminatory and further distances us from the gender equality that we all deserve.

This physiological process must stop being seen as a taboo. To restore dignity to women, to create greater equity, and to enhance women’s health and well-being, we must talk about menstruation and educate both girls and boys and adults of all ages on this subject. We must guarantee access to menstrual products for all women, especially those with limited resources, those who have physical limitations, and those who live in remote locations. No woman – inside or outside prison – should face illness or feel humiliated because she cannot access pads, tampons or menstrual cups.

Charlie Ruth Castro is a Colombian innovator, lawyer and women’s rights activist. She has been the director of Mujeres Con Derechos since 2016 and is the founder of the company Powerful Menstrual Cup. She is also a member of the board of directors of Our Bodies Ourselves and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center of Harvard University. You can find out more about her work and support the distribution of menstrual supplies to women in need at the Mujeres Con Derechos website.