Rags in her pelvis

Female inmates are tucking dirty blankets in a degrading search for menstrual health props, our contributor TITUS LINZE writes.

Prison life is difficult, but even tougher for menstruating women.

The monthly discharge makes it tough for women behind bars to maintain their well-being and dignity. 

Poor female inmates are forced to tuck ragged clothes and blankets into their pelvis to keep menses in check.

Each menstrual episode is a struggle, an emotional experience at least 20 female inmates at the maximum security Zomba Central Prison have to bear.

First Lady Gertrude Mutharika cheers women at Chichiri Prison

“My arrest occurred in a marketplace. I had no spare clothes, no pads and no extra underwear. I spent months at Ntcheu Prison before being transferred to Zomba,” says a woman who was jailed for murder in 2016.

She and her fellow inmates have learnt to treasure every rag they lay their hands on. They have no choice.

 “I learnt to use pieces of cloths and blankets when I was locked up last year. It was hard and unbelievable enduring this discomfort. Menses constitute an extra punishment for us,” added another.

One sunny afternoon, journalists ventured into the section which hosts 58 inmates. Some were seen cleaning their rooms, others plaiting their hair and yet others just chatting.

When asked about their menstrual health, they decried the risk of contracting vaginal infections from the discomforting “re-usable rags” drying in their cells.

“Using worn-out blankets to stop menstruation periods is the worst experience. We have to wash the same rag and wait for it to dry. It’s not an easy wait,” said a woman seen plaiting a fellow inmate’s hair to pass hours away.

Such lamentations are common among over 200 female prisoners in Malawi’s congested prisons. They endure both physical and emotional pain as sanitary pads are beyond their reach.

Annie Kitalo Hara, clinical officer at Chichiri Prison in Blantyre, says the continued use of the rags exposes the inmates to fungal and bacterial infections.  

“A woman’s private parts are so soft that they absorb any little thing that comes closer to them. The unhygienic rags women use may carry bacteria and fungi, widening the breeding space for germs likely to affect the women at the end,” she says.

Gynaecologist Priscilla Phiri-Mwanza says “poor menstrual hygiene exposes the women to infections of the lower reproductive tract, including candidiasis, bacterial vaginosis and trichomonas”.

The sexual and reproductive health expert says bacterial vaginosis, an inflammation of the pelvis, causes chronic pain and infertility.

“Menstrual cups would be an ideal solution for maintaining menstrual hygiene among inmates as they are cheaper in the long-term, re-usable and reduce landfills,” she says.

According to human rights law specialist Chikondi Chijozi, lack of menstrual props in prisons violates Section 42 of the Constitution. The law obligates the State to hold every detained person in conditions consistent with human dignity.   

The deputy executive director of the Centre for Human Rights Education, Advice and Assistance-(Chreaa) says the lack of sanitary pads in prison is fuelled by underfunding.  

“The prison department receives hardly enough funding to prioritise such facilities. Although they are a basic need for any woman, sanitary pads are mostly not included in prison budget. Weighed against basics, a sanitary pad is considered an excess,” she says.

Chreaa is campaigning for the inclusion of sanitary pads as an essential package for women in confinement.

Chijozi wants members of Parliament to “put themselves in the women’s shoes” and increase financial allocations for Malawi Prison Services for improved menstrual services.

She said Chreaa has already brought the issue to the attention of women in Parliament.

Lonnie Phiri, chairperson of the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus says: “The issue is not new to us. It is a great insult one may endure. We pushed for the same and were told that the department will have some allocations for the purpose.

“My committee will take necessary means to see to it that all female inmates are enjoying their birthright to good health just like any other person.”

A woman needs a single packet of the disposable sanitary pads a month, meaning she needs 12 packets worth K9 000 a year.

According to prison authorities, there are about 280 women in the country’s overcrowded prisons, meaning they need 3 360 packets a year. Therefore, the prison service needs about K2.5 million to tackle the unmet need for sanitary pads.

And Nelson Mandela, who rose from a political prisoner to become South Africa’s first black president, warned: “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.

“A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” 

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