Our Bodies, Our Blog

Dirty Business: Lack of Menstrual Equity in Colombian Prisons

By Guest Contributor |
Woman handing menstrual supplies to Colombian prisoners

By Charlie Ruth Castro

Lee este post en español

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.

Woman handing menstrual supplies to Colombian prisonersWoman handing menstrual supplies to Colombian prisoners

Negocio Sucio: Falta de Equidad Menstrual en las Cárceles Colombianas

By Guest Contributor |

By Charlie Ruth Castro

Read this post in English

Vamos a hablar de menstruación, el proceso más natural y necesario para la buena salud reproductiva entre las mujeres, pero aquel que culturalmente nos han enseñado a aborrecer, ocultar o incluso a hacerle burla. Y por otro lado voy a hablar de un negocio sucio perpetrado por ciertos funcionarios del INPEC -la institución nacional a cargo de la política penitenciaria- en muchas de las cárceles de Colombia: el desvío de presupuestos para el suministro de toallas higiénicas … More

text: The fight to take back our genestext: The fight to take back our genes

Congress Wants to Give Companies the Right to Own Our Genes

By Guest Contributor |

by Lori Andrews

Six years ago, on June 13, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in AMP v. Myriad took a great step forward for women’s health by unanimously ruling that human genes could not be patented. Now a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives have released a bill that would allow companies to own our genes once again.

Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution provides that any patent system must “promote progress in science and the useful arts.” But patents on genes do not promote the … More

“Simone de Beauvoir alone would never have gotten me from intellect to action”

By Guest Contributor |

Note from OBOS co-founder Judy Norsigian: After publication of my reflections piece in the June 2019 issue of the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), I received this wonderful email from Kay Johnson. Her story reminds us all once again of how ONE life experience (reading a book/having a terrific teacher or mentor/participating in an eye-opening social justice action/etc.) can change the course of our lives and bring us into partnership with others also committed to racial, economic and social justice for all.

I am … More

Refusing to Be Silenced: Federal Gag Rule an Active Threat to All Who Care about HIV

By Guest Contributor |

by Anna Forbes

On April 23, Judge Michael McShane of Federal District Court in Oregon issued a preliminary injunction against a federal “gag rule” written to forbid health care providers from even talking about abortion to patients who have questions about it.

The two parallel suits before him were filed by the American Medical Association, Planned Parenthood of America, and a coalition of over 20 states (along with numerous other plaintiffs) that oppose this gag rule.

Scheduled to go into effect on for May 3, the rule … More

“A Female Body in this Specific Moment”: Our Bodies Ourselves Exhibition


As the 50th anniversary of the first edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” approaches, a New Haven museum has launched an exhibition featuring art inspired and informed by the book.

The exhibition, also titled Our Bodies Ourselves, features a variety of media created by more than 70 artists. The works are on display at the Ely Center of Contemporary Art through April 10.

A sack that hangs with the video from “Gestation” Photo: Lucy Gellman

The exhibit includes participatory installations like Megan Shaughnessy’s video work, which … More

three early teenage girls laughingthree early teenage girls laughing

Gender-Inclusive Puberty and Health Education is Life-Affirming for All

By Guest Contributor |

by Joel Baum and Kim Westheimer

A fifth-grade student walks into their first-ever puberty education class. They look around the room: maybe they feel like everyone else has already developed in ways they haven’t. Maybe they wonder why they already have characteristics a person of their gender isn’t “supposed” to have for a few more years. Or maybe they feel like they just can’t identify with lessons that should be giving them vital information about puberty and health.

Indeed, most puberty education classes omit foundational issues … More

Cervical Cancer Prevention posterCervical Cancer Prevention poster

Cervical Cancer Prevention: What You Can Do

By Guest Contributor |

by Gary A. Richwald, MD, MPH

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month. More specifically, January 21-27 is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and for good reason: nearly 13,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, and more than 4000 of them will die from it. Luckily, this form of cancer is now largely preventable. Women can take steps to reduce their chances of contracting human papillomavirus (HPV), a widespread virus that can cause pre-cancerous changes in the cervix.

How Does Cervical Cancer … More

headshot of Dr. Constance Chenheadshot of Dr. Constance Chen

Breast Reconstruction Options: What’s Best for You?


Some women decide to forego reconstruction and instead “go flat.” Read more->Women with breast cancer who undergo mastectomies often face difficult decisions about breast reconstruction. The first is whether or not to undergo reconstruction; the second, if reconstruction is chosen, is what kind of reconstruction to have?

Learn more about the risks of breast implants and the need for better research ->Breasts can be rebuilt using implants — either saline or silicone — or they can be rebuilt using autologous tissue, which means tissue … More

A Call for Women Who Experience Pain with Sex and for Health Care Providers Who Treat Them

By Guest Contributor |

by Marta Milkowska

My name is Marta Milkowska and I am a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. I am working on a project aimed to better understand the problem of pain during sex – something experienced by many women. This summer, with support from Our Bodies Ourselves and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Women in Public Policy Program, I am seeking interviews with individuals who fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Women ages 16 to 35 who experience pain during … More