End period poverty in prisons

by Jun 27, 2024Article, Women

You can join the fight and help end period poverty among incarcerated women by signing the Elam Empowerment petition

The stigma that is associated with menstruation deters society from having an open discussion about menstrual hygiene. This has resulted in a severe lack of awareness regarding menstrual health within our communities. This lack of awareness is increased exponentially in prisons where women face intersecting discriminatory practices because of their gender, incarceration and menstruation. 

Measures taken by the government

In South Africa, the government has introduced a number of interventions to ensure that impoverished women and girls are able to manage their menstrual cycle with dignity. Through the lobbying of civil society organisations, the Minister of Finance announced, in the medium-term budget policy statement (MTBPS) speech in October 2018, that sanitary pads would be zero-VAT rated from 01 April 2019. In the same MTBPS the Minister further announced that the government would provide free sanitary products to schoolgirls in non fee-paying schools. 

In the 2019/2020 budget, National Treasury made available R157 million to provide free sanitary pads in schools in the poorest areas across the provinces of the country. In January 2019, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) took a decision to allocate R275 per month to students for personal care. For many students this allowance is certainly used for personal hygiene, which includes menstrual hygiene. But none of these interventions are aimed at women in prisons. 

The challenge in prisons

According to the paper Incarceration, menstruation and COVID-19: a viewpoint of the exacerbated inequalities and health disparities in South African Correctional Facilities (2022):  

There is a resounding silence within the South African context in highlighting and prioritising menstrual health equity within incarcerated contexts. Despite the advances that have been made in prioritising gender, the menstrual hygiene management (MHM) within correctional facilities remains largely unexplored within the South Africa context.

November 2023 presented a unique opportunity for us at Elam Empowerment. After hearing about some of the atrocities faced by incarcerated women while on their periods in Nigerian prisons, our interest was piqued. Suddenly, a topic we had never even thought about was thrust into the forefront of our minds. We wanted to understand the experiences of South African incarcerated women regarding menstrual health. How were our prisons faring in terms of menstrual health and hygiene for female inmates?

Unfortunately, recent research on this topic in South African prisons is scarce, so the only way we could get answers was through making phone calls to a few prisons and speaking to the previously incarcerated women we had access to. 

To our surprise, it didn’t seem like there was a single, systematised way for the imprisoned women to receive menstrual products in the different prisons. Instead, different prisons had different processes. While some prisons had tendering systems set up for menstrual products for their female inmates, others, like Kgosi Mampuru II Prison, were struggling to keep up with their female inmates’ demand for menstrual products. 

The Women’s Pathways to Prison project, conducted by the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit, University of Cape Town (2012), was one of the first in-depth, ethnographic studies on incarcerated women in South Africa. One of its key findings was that one of the most common complaints amongst the women prisoners who took part in the study was that they were only issued with two sanitary pads for each day that they were menstruating. In addition, they revealed that prison nurses rarely supply them with painkillers for menstrual cramps when they request them. 

Helping to solve the problem

So, when we called Kgosi Mampuru II Prison, it was no surprise that we were met with a sigh of relief from the staff member we spoke to. It seemed the prison was running short on a laundry list of toiletries for the incarcerated women. What we deemed to be the most urgent items on the list were pads and baby diapers, and so, in two weeks, we were able to collect and deliver 132 diapers, 240 baby wipes, almost 90 packs of pads (approximately 800 pads), and a box of baby clothes. 

A number of people have come on board to help with this initiative in its different iterations. But we have also received just as much backlash for seeking to help women whose social standing apparently disqualifies them from receiving any and all forms of assistance. However, women have their periods monthly, irrespective of their guilt or innocence. When we bring guilt or innocence into talks of menstrual justice, I fear that we conflate matters that should not coincide. Rather than this being seen as a moral issue, it should be treated as a human issue, and in no way is our fight for menstrual justice absolving them of their crimes.

Although we are doing the best we can, temporary donations and drives cannot have a long-term impact on addressing the issue of period poverty in prisons. It is not enough, nor is it sustainable, for prisons to be reliant on civil society interventions. The menstrual health and menstrual hygiene management of incarcerated women remains relatively low on the agenda of public health interventions globally, widening the inequitable access of incarcerated women to safe and readily available menstrual health products. We need the government to take decisive action by prioritising menstrual health in prison budgets. This means ensuring a consistent and adequate supply of quality menstrual products for all incarcerated women in all South African prisons.

Demands from the government

Section 10 of the Constitution clearly states,Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”  Our call for the Minister of Correctional Services to prioritise the menstrual health of incarcerated women is simply a reminder to the government of incarcerated women’s constitutional right to dignity. 

We are calling on the Minister of Correctional Services to: 

  1. Ensure a standard policy across all female prisons for the provision of adequate menstrual products. 
  2.  Prioritise menstrual health in the correctional system budgeting process to ensure an adequate and consistent supply of menstrual hygiene products for all incarcerated women. 
  3. Conduct regular audits to assess the availability and quality of menstrual products in all female prisons.

You can join the fight and help us bring about this crucial change by signing our petition which has already been signed by over 5,000 supporters. Stand with us in demanding that the Minister of Correctional Services take immediate action to prioritise women’s menstrual health in prisons. Together, we can take steps towards ending period poverty for all women, including those who are incarcerated.

We are also running another pad drive for the women at Kgosi Mampuru II Prison. For all menstrual product donations, please contact us at .

Siphesihle Ndwandwe is the founder of Elam Empowerment and Nguvu Change Leader.

Noxolo Mfocwa is a partnerships specialist with Nguvu Collective.

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