As a woman detainee waited to learn her fate, another detainee arrived on her period.
“She had been disappeared for 3 days and didn’t have a personal bag or anything with her. So when she first arrived she was drenched in her blood. She was a total mess and her clothes completely covered in blood,” the former prisoner disappeared and detained at the Lazoughly National Security Agency offices in December 2015 recalls.
The account is part of a larger report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) called “Periods in Prison,” released earlier this month and timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, as part of a campaign under the same name.
For decades, prison authorities in Egypt have ignored the basic healthcare needs of women on their periods in detention. Female prisoners do not have access to sanitary pads or other basic sanitary products, leading to increased risks of vaginal disease and other ailments.
In the first campaign of its kind, Periods in Prison is calling on the Prison Authority to provide cotton-based sanitary pads to prisoners free of charge, and to establish proper health conditions in prison facilities. The campaign says that it is a step toward viewing women (as well as trans men and other gender nonconforming people with periods) and their bodies more fully.
Lobna Darwish, who heads the gender and women’s rights department at EIPR and is a researcher for Periods in Prison, says the campaign is seeking to lift the stigma on speaking about periods, both inside and outside of prison.
“Although the menstrual cycle is a normal part of women’s health, there are no preparations for this inside prison,” Darwish tells Mada Masr.
She explains that prison regulations define prisoners as men and do not include the rights of female prisoners unless they are pregnant. As one woman put it when asked about how she dealt with her period while she was imprisoned, “As a woman, your body is not seen by the law. Your body isn’t seen — that is, until you become pregnant.”
The campaign is advocating for changes in the law that would recognize the needs of women’s bodies, and calls on the Interior Ministry to “disburse female sanitary pads to last an average period length of seven days, on a monthly basis.”
It is also calling for amendments to the Interior Ministry Decree (No. 468 of 2017) that regulates the treatment and care of prisoners. The decree outlines food rations and necessary provisions for sick inmates and pregnant women from the third month onwards, without reference to other health needs of women.
The EIPR report coinciding with the campaign is based on interviews with five female former prisoners, a mix of criminal and political detainees, that help shed light on the impact of the law’s failure to recognize women’s needs in daily prison life, from both an economic and health perspective.
The economy of periods in prison
The campaign highlights the economic burden of these gender-blind prison regulations, and points to how socioeconomic disparity between prisoners affects their ability to deal with their menstrual cycle. Women detainees usually obtain sanitary pads from visiting relatives or they buy them from the prison canteen at prices more expensive than beyond the prison walls.
Doctor Magda Adly, director and member of the al-Nadeem Rehabilitation Centre for Victims of Violence and Torture, explains that female prisoners who are far away from home do not receive regular visitors in prison and therefore do not have access to sanitary pads except from the canteen at inflated prices.
“Many criminal prisoners who work informally in prison — for example by cleaning, washing laundry, or selling handmade items to other prisoners — can barely rely on this work to access food let alone buy sanitary pads,” a former inmate at Qanater Prison explained to EIPR.
She goes on to say that they became accustomed to other prisoners asking them for sanitary pads, which is itself “an unnecessarily demeaning and difficult thing to have to do.”
“It should be every woman’s right to have this integral thing that is essential to her bodily functioning without having to buy it at inflated canteen prices or to beg other prisoners for it,” she added.
An EIPR report released in 2018 “For Sale in the Prison Canteen” detailed the marketization of basic supplies in prison, which are sold at inflated canteen prices.
This inaccessibility of sanitary pads compels women to wear them for longer periods than they should.
The health risks of periods in prison
Adly, who campaigns for improved health conditions in prisons, tells Mada Masr that periods are a matter that require basic healthcare, just like pregnancy. Adly points to the importance of providing sanitary pads as preventative care. The lack of availability of sanitary products can lead to a number of vaginal diseases, she adds, with blood being a breeding ground for bacteria, especially with a lack of ventilation and clean water.
Adly says that according to testimonies recorded by the Al-Nadeem Center, female prisoners can be subjected to vaginal cavity searches to check for smuggled drugs. This is often done without changing gloves for each prisoner, which could transmit various diseases, including HIV, she says.
According to the Periods in Prison campaign, female prisoners who do not have enough sanitary pads are compelled to use the same pad for a long time and are vulnerable to diseases including rashes, urinary tract infections, and other vaginal infections.
“In Damanhour there were many people using just one bathroom, so the idea that you could just change a pad whenever… it’s not easy,” a former inmate at Damanhour Women’s Prison told EIPR. “So you would wear the same pad for a long time.”
The lack of proper sanitary conditions inside Egyptian prisons also exacerbates the other problems women face in detention, Darwish says.
As such, the campaign takes on a range of issues, including a lack of access to toilets, availability of clean water, clean bathrooms, exposure to sunlight, and proper medical care inside prison hospitals.
“Sanitary pads are just a part of improving overall prison conditions,” Darwish adds.
Magda Adly also stresses the importance of providing sanitary pads to prisoners as part of a wider push to address the extremely poor conditions inside Egyptian prisons. She stresses that dirty, overcrowded cells that inhibit personal hygiene lead to the transmission of infectious skin and chest diseases, adding that prison hospitals do not provide decent services to either male or female prisoners.
Adly refers to what is known as the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, a resolution issued by the UN in December 2015, which has been adopted by Egypt. The document includes principles for prisoners’ rights, including the right to basic personal hygiene and health care.
A May 2015 report issued by the National Human Rights Council states that detention sites are highly overcrowded, with prisons at 150 percent of capacity, and police stations at 300 percent capacity.
A previous EIPR report, released in March 2016, outlines the unprecedented deterioration in prison infrastructure and the lack of basic health care.
“Inmates lack even the most basic health and hygiene possibilities, while both they and their visitors are mistreated and not allowed to bring clothing, blankets, and food from outside the prison, even though they are not adequately provided by the prison. In some cases, the conditions are similar to those in the Middle Ages,” it states.
Will the campaign’s demands be adopted?
The campaign launched by EIPR is aiming to get relevant organizations like the National Council for Human Rights and the National Council for Women to adopt its demands in order to create pressure for legislative amendments that provide incarcerated women access to free sanitary products.
Ragia Omran, a member of the National Council for Human Rights, explained that the council succeeds in helping some prisoners with their health, but only when the Interior Ministry responds to this intervention. It does not respond in all cases, a fact which has been highlighted by the ministry’s recent lack of responses to the council’s requests.
“The campaign is important to frame the current situation in prisons, as there are prisons without water, which impacts health and living standards. However, in the end we have an advisory role and do not have authority, so there must be a response from the Prison Authority and other official entities,” she said.
Omran does not believe that the council will be inclined to adopt an initiative like this campaign if presented to them. Darwish told Mada Masr that the initiative would be officially presented to the Council for Human Rights.
Mada Masr contacted the National Council for Women, the official entity for women’s issues in Egypt, for comment on the Periods in Prison Campaign. Representatives for the council seemed to be unfamiliar with the topic.
“What I know about the prisons issue is that are working to pay off debts,” a council employee told Mada Masr, referencing women who are imprisoned for failing to pay a bill.
She then referred us to the director of the media office, who laughed upon hearing about the campaign and dismissed it offhandedly, seemingly not understanding the issue. She then asked Mada Masr to send an official email to the council with relevant questions, to which it has yet to reply.