Eugenics in Peru

Indigenous Peruvian woman carrying her child on her back with mountains in the background
Quechua Woman and Child. Source: Quinet, Creative Commons

Many people don’t know what the eugenics movement is. Others know what it was, but think it was restricted to Germany’s sterilization—or making people unable to reproduce—of millions of people they saw as unfit: Jews, people with mental and physical disabilities, and the LGBTQ community, among others. However, Germany was not the first or the last to sterilize certain citizens in an attempt to “better the gene pool”; the United States’ policies actually inspired Hitler’s eugenic goals. After WWII, the United States publicly condemned sterilization and eugenics, but the last forced legal sterilization in the country wasn’t until 1981.

Eugenics has operated as a science of improving humans, whereby the procreation of the people deemed fit is promoted and procreation of those deemed unfit is limited. Proponents of eugenics believe nature wins in the nature vs nurture fight; if you’re born into poverty, it’s because you have a gene that’s keeping you there. Throughout history, the groups of people that were deemed unfit were those in low socioeconomic groups, minorities, and epileptics, most of which were women—basically, the people that didn’t fit the mold. They did this under the broad and vague diagnosis of “feebleminded”.

While the sterilization of poor and minority women in the United States is over, eugenics still goes on today. There are groups of people targeted by the modern eugenics movement—one of which is indigenous people. In Peru, almost 300,000 people—mostly poor, indigenous women living in rural areas—were sterilized between 1996 and 2000. Most of these sterilizations were forced or coerced, and some even led to death.

Then President Alberto Fujimori ran on a campaign of expanding health care and lowering poverty rates. However, instead of providing contraceptives to indigenous women, doctors forced sterilizations on them. Fujimori claims that doctors that forcibly sterilized women were not following the strict regulations that were put in place to prevent these occurrences. However, many of the doctors who performed these sterilizations have revealed they were given quotas to fulfill: “Dr. Hernando Cevallos… received an order to sterilize 250 women in 4 days in 1997.”

There were many ways doctors reached their quotas. Some sent public health officials to the homes of women with large families and pressured them to be sterilized even if they wanted more kids. For example, officials visited Gloria Basilio multiple times until she finally agreed. When she changed her mind in the operating room, they restrained and blindfolded her so they could continue with the surgery. Some of these women are illiterate or don’t speak Spanish at all, so the officials took advantage of that and got them to sign the consent forms without them understanding the procedure. Other officials never tried to get informed consent. Women have been pressured to be sterilized moments after giving birth.

These women have been affected in a far greater way than just being unable to have children. One woman had serious medical complications, which were written off by the doctors. She died less than two weeks later at home. She is not the only woman to have sterilization disable or kill her.

Aside from medical complications, they also experience social and mental complications as a result. In the indigenous culture, women are expected to have many children, and women who have been sterilized can no longer serve that purpose. These women can lose a sense of purpose in themselves and also lose the people close to them who were counting on them to have children. Maria Elena Carbajal, a woman who was pressured into a sterilization after giving birth at the hospital, lost her husband because he thought she had willingly been sterilized so that she could be unfaithful without consequences. She found another partner, but he also left her because she could not provide kids. Additionally, these women have to face the fact that they will never have more children—while some will have none at all. Florentina Loayza was only 19 years old when she was forcibly sterilized. She hadn’t had kids, but she wanted some, and she often felt “a deep sadness” whenever she saw a baby.

Another profound impact this has on many women is their connection with religion. Some religions, Catholicism included, believe that sterilization is a sin and that those who have been sterilized, voluntarily or not, have sinned. Justina Rimachi was told by nuns that she could no longer come to church because she had been sterilized. The stigma felt within the walls of a place that felt like home were only relieved by the forgiveness from the priest. He did not tell her it was not her fault, but he did not tell her to leave, so she was grateful.

The crimes against these women were atrocious, and luckily, they are starting to receive attention. In November of 2000, Fujimori stepped down after ten years of presidency. It wasn’t until 2009 that he was arrested and sentenced for some of his crimes, but none of them were for the sterilizations that occurred under his regime.

Some women and their families have received settlements and the Peruvian state promised in 2003 to conduct investigations. However, the Peruvian state continues to deny that the government had a part in the forced sterilizations. They blame instead the public health officials and medical practitioners. To this day, the Peruvian government, which is no longer under the control of the Fujimori regime, has not issued apologies or reparations to the survivors and their families.

While the government continues to deny its role in the sterilization of indigenous people, activists and human rights organizations are trying to call global attention to these injustices. One group, The Quipu Project, has used a free telephone service to collect the stories of over 150 people who have been sterilized, and the number continues to grow. You can hear these stories on their website in Spanish and in English. Not only is this campaign used to bring international awareness to this issue, but these stories are also being used by people fighting for justice within Peru.

Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger with Rebecca Traister

Book cover - Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women's Anger
Source: Yahoo Images

On Tuesday, March 10th the Institute for Human Rights alongside the UAB Department of English and the UAB Department of Political Science and Public Administration welcomed Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York magazine, to present a lecture entitled, “Good and Mad: The Political Consequences of Women’s Anger.” The lecture is a part of the UAB Department of English Alumni Lecture series, a series that invites prominent writers and scholars twice a year to discuss ideas and issues related to the study of English. In this lecture, Traister discussed her inspiration for writing and how she became a writer, women’s anger throughout history, the validity of women’s anger, and how women’s anger can make change in the modern era.

The lecture focused on the consequences of women’s anger, a topic that Traister has extensively written about in her book “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,” published in 2018. Traister has also written books entitled “All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation,” published in 2016, and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” published in 2010, that focus on similar topics. Alongside her books, Traister has been a feminist journalist for 15 years and describes anger to be a significant part of her work. This anger, Traister says, is a reaction to the many inequalities and injustices in the world. Without anger, it would be impossible to be in the line of work she is in. However, Traister describes being unable to be openly angry. She found that expressing her personal rage would undermine the messages she has been so committed to sharing.

Rebecca Traister speaking.
Rebecca Traister speaking. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

This changed in 2016 with the election that ultimately resulted in Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States. Traister had covered the Hillary Clinton campaign as a journalist and describes being unsurprised that Clinton had lost but at the same time “shocked to the point of paralysis” that Trump won. She also describes feeling a sense of responsibility for being a part of the demographic that voted for Donald Trump (white, middle aged women) and expresses being unable to think clearly because of her anger. Her husband encouraged her to actively pursue her anger and write about it. In a way, this encouragement permitted her to think about anger very intentionally, prompting her to write her 2018 book.

Traister moved from her personal journey to discuss the historical implications of women’s anger and how history classes often remove this narrative. Traister encouraged the audience to think about what we learned about Rosa Parks from grade school: a stoic, exhausted seamstress who practiced an act of quiet resistance. Traister expands on this well-established narrative of Rosa Parks by reminding the audience of Parks’ other accomplishments as a member of the NAACP and encouraging us to remember Rosa Parks as a woman who participated in conscience political action based in fury. In another example, Abigail Adams is known for saying, “remember the ladies,” in a letter she wrote to her husband John Adams. Traister reminds the audience that in the same letter Adams wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could” and warned her husband that if the founding fathers did not take women into consideration, “women are determined to ferment a rebellion.” Traister also includes Elizabeth Freeman, or Mum Bett, into the example, a slave who sued for her freedom and was successful, concluding in a landmark case that was influential in the emancipation of slaves in Massachusetts. Not many people in the audience had heard Elizabeth Freeman’s name before. It is relatively common to find furious women at the start of many movements in this country, Traister says. The deliberate depiction of women as quiet and merely supplemental or in the right place at the right time removes the purposeful, furious action that women have partaken in throughout history.

Rebecca Traister event
Rebecca Traister event. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

Now why has this become the case? Traister argues that this pattern has occurred because angry women are powerful and powerful women are a danger to the patriarchal society. She proceeds to analyze the many ways that angry women have been portrayed in media and history. The stereotype of angry women is that they are infantile and not worthy of listening to. There are examples of describing high profile, powerful, and angry women as shrill, unhinged, ugly, unnatural and “a crazy aunt.” Traister explains that women’s anger is coded in our minds as unattractive, the opposite of how society perceives an angry white man. The best way to discredit women, Traister states, is to simply show them opening their mouths. However, Traister describes some of anger’s most important roles. It can bring people together by creating a movement around a shared fury. It can encourage people to become involved in politics, inciting political change. Black Lives Matter, Mom’s Demand Action, Black Lives Matter, Brett Kavanaugh protests, Time’s Up, #metoo, and many others were all started by women.

At the end of her lecture, Traister encourages us to think about anger differently, as fuel propelling us forward. She states that a movement is made up of many moments and the movement for full equality has been ongoing for two centuries. Each person must decide whether or not to change the world and should we decide to do so, our anger is what is going to keep us fighting. Traister ends the lecture by giving each audience member the same task: keep going, do not turn back, and stay angry for a long time.

The Movement Fighting Against Street Harassment Around the World

Source: @catcallsofnyc

I cannot pinpoint the exact time that I found out about @catcallsofnyc. Maybe their posts were recommended to me by an Instagram algorithm, maybe one of my friends liked their page, maybe a page I follow reposted one of their pictures.  I do remember my reaction to the content on @catcallsofnyc. The words written in bright, happy chalked colors contrasted with the vulgarity of the message. The Instagram account caught attention with their hashtag: #stopstreetharassment. For those who are unfamiliar, @catcallsofnyc is an Instagram page, now with over 174,000 followers. The activists behind the page receive direct messages from women who have experienced cat calling, a form of street harassment, and they document their stories on the streets of New York in chalk. Whether it be from New York’s seasonal drizzle or street cleaning, eventually the quotes are washed away but the impact the words leave on passerby is irrefutable. The movement has grown around the world and there are now @catcalls Instagram accounts around the world, from @catcallsofperu and @catcallsofparis to even a @catcallsofbhm. The entire movement stemmed from one woman: Sophie Sandberg of New York City.

In conversation with Sophie Sandberg, I got a first-hand account of what it is like to start and continue this movement. Sandberg, a New York native who graduated from NYU in May, describes her inspiration for the movement stemming from her own experiences with street harassment when she was 15 and manifesting from an assigned class project into what it is now. The class project, assigned to her during her freshman year at NYU, asked her to immerse herself in something and to document her experience on social media. From there, @catcallsofnyc was born. Sandberg took the opportunity to discuss the issues presented by catcalling and street harassment. She describes her personal experience with catcalling and street harassment when she was in high school as well as the response from adults in her life as her initial inspiration for the class project. “I was so confused because I didn’t think of my own body in that way, I guess in a sexual way, so it was super weird to start getting sexualized,” Sandberg says, “…I never felt like there was a good way to respond when I was harassed. I felt like the adults in my life didn’t think it was a big deal, you know, they told me to keep walking. My dad told me to dress differently at first, so I felt like there was no support that I was getting for this issue. And then it was continuing. I was getting older and it wasn’t going away. So, I decided to use this class project as an opportunity to address it in a creative way.”

Over the years, Sandberg’s @catcallsofnyc grew from a single Instagram account of maybe a hundred to multiple accounts representing different cities around the world, each with thousands of their own followers. In response to the spread of the movement, Sandberg reports, “In some senses, it grew really quickly. I was doing it for a few years before it spread at all. It got a lot of attention, it got picked up by the press, and that is how it spread around the world.” She attributes a big part of the spread of @catcallsof to how easy it is to act within her movement. “It is pretty easy to get chalk and to go write words, in some senses. You don’t need to be artistic necessarily and you don’t need a college degree… You need to be brave and you need to have the guts to do it, but I think a lot of people saw that it was something they were capable of.” She also attributes her movement’s success to young people and their enthusiasm for activism. “A lot of people who start [Instagram] accounts are really young. I think the fact that they can do this, run the Instagram account and write on the streets, is really empowering because maybe they feel like they don’t know how to join an organization, or they are not old enough. I think that the hands on, grassroots activism parts of it really appeals to a lot of people. They feel like they are able to do this.”

 

Source: @catcallsofnyc

In Sandberg’s words, the goal of the accounts and therefore the movement is to create a cultural change where anyone and everyone can walk down the street safely and comfortably, without worrying about being sexualized or objectified. The movement is condemning such behavior.  @catcallsofnyc is also a place where people can feel empowered simply by telling their stories and being validated. In Sandberg’s opinion, it is a human right to walk down the street safely. “Something like street harassment gets in the way of people having access to public space, going to work, and doing the most basic things to live a fulfilled life. Street harassment gets in the way of that. By fighting back and sharing our stories, we are fighting against that injustice.”

In addition to the Instagram accounts, Sandberg and her team have created Chalk Back events where they invite their followers in a city to come together and record many stories in one area. Sandberg wants to turn what is happening on Instagram into a real life experience, with people sharing their stories and supporting each other through interactions not contained to Instagram. There have been 3 chalk back events in New York, 2 in Ottawa, 2 in London, and 1 in Brighton. Sandberg has also expressed her involvement in 16 Days of Activism where she and her team with work with an organization to plan events in Cairo, Nairobi, and Kampala.

As the movement has grown across the world and gained momentum, Sandberg and her team have received considerable backlash, especially regarding the public nature of chalking on city streets. Sandberg herself is trying to be more public with her identity. She says that she initially wanted to remain anonymous. With time, as she has begun speaking at conferences and events, she has allowed her identity to become more public. Because of her increasing publicity, she has had to face personal harassment online and in person. One particular situation included a man cyberstalking her. The man created fake @catcallsof accounts, @catcallsofchicago and @catcallsofnottingham, while harassing Sandberg from his personal account. Soon, he began to harass her from the @catcallsofchicago account. Sandberg describes that, “It was difficult because he basically infiltrated the movement. I immediately trusted that anyone who wanted to create an account would be well intentioned.” As this situation was dealt with, Sandberg prefers to look at it as a learning experience. “It has been really hard to deal with,” she says, “but it has also made me set new boundaries. Now I ask anyone starting a new account to send in a quick video explaining why they want to start it. In general, it is a good thing for making the movement stronger.”

Writing the street harassment comments on the streets of New York is a very public action that yields both positive interactions and negative consequences. “I always tell people that I have been hit on while chalking,” Sandberg says, “I remember early on when I was chalking, I was writing out the comment, ‘hey beautiful,’ and then something else. A guy walks past me and is like, ‘oh yeah, damn beautiful.’ Yeah, so that was creepy. Some guy asked me for my number, another guy asked me out on a date. They see me doing this in a public space and they think of it as an opportunity to hit on me. It is telling about gender in public space.” As for more positive reactions, Sandberg says that she really appreciates the amount of support people have shown, especially in New York. The act of chalking on the street creates a space for productive conversations between Sandberg and passerby. Sometimes people stop to give her a hug or to give her a simple “thank you” for what she is doing.

 

Source: @catcallsofnyc

Sandberg is no longer the sole chalker for @catcallsofnyc. She has a team of twelve people backing her in New York and countless others around the world working for the myriad of other @catcallsof accounts. One of her team members was arrested outside of a New York City school because she was writing a comment that the school’s principal said to a student: “The bigger the hoop, the bigger the hoe.” The school’s safety officers called the police. The principal who said the comment has since left the school. Sandberg attributes the source of much of the outcry surrounding her movement to be that it would be possible for children to read the often crude and offensive words that are written. In response, Sandberg replies, “They are not thinking about all of the things children must overhear on the street. I think that people get really upset that we are actually writing these things without thinking about the background or the mission.”

In regard to the future, Sandberg views the movement as changing over time while staying true to the basic idea of letting people share their stories and then giving those stories power by putting them on the street.  She says, “In the long term, I hope that we get less submissions, because we get so many submissions right now. I could see changing it to fit what people need in the moment. To be honest, it sounds pessimistic, but I don’t see street harassment ending in the near future. I just see, hopefully, the way people react to it changing.”

For those interested in learning more about Sophie Sandberg’s fight against street harassment please visit the Chalk Back and Catcalls of New York websites. You can also find the original Instagram page @catcallsofnyc

Girls Too: The Me Too Movement for Youth

Two girls staring.
Women’s March 2019. Source: Roedar, Phil. Creative Commons.

The Me Too movement has given power back to hundreds, if not millions, of women and yet girls are being left out of the conversation. A rising movement entitled, “Girls Too,” created under the organization Girls Inc., aims to change that narrative. The Girls Too movement was created after the Me Too movement’s popularization, and it is important to recognize the impact of the Me Too movement when discussing the Girls Too movement. The Me Too movement was started by Tarana Burke and popularized by actress Alyssa Milano’s reaction to the Harvey Weinstein case. Burke cites a conversation she had with a 13 year old girl in 1997 regarding the girl’s experience with sexual harassment as the beginning of the movement. Ten years later, in 2006, Tarana Burke founded the nonprofit organization entitled, “Just Be Inc.,” as well as a movement named “Me Too.” The goal of the Just Be Inc. and Me Too is to help survivors of sexual violence find pathways to healing.

On October 15th, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano published this tweet: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” The response was overwhelming. Famous celebrities and household names retweeted and replied as well as thousands of everyday citizens. Milano’s goal was to create a space for candid conversations and representation after the Harvey Weinstein case. She more than achieved that. However, the thousands of responses in under 24 hours to Milano’s tweet overshadowed Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement that had been a decade in the making. In that decade, Burke did not receive the same resounding support from the white community as Milano did in under 24 hours. This instance is an example of a lack of intersectionality within social movements and a struggle that people of color have faced for years. Burke described her reaction to seeing Milano’s tweet as “panicked,” as she felt that her hard work would be erased. However, Milano claimed that she was unaware of Burke’s campaign and very quickly reached out to Burke after the #metoo tweet in hopes of a collaboration. She also publicly credited the Me Too movement to Tarana Burke on live TV. In 2017, Tarana Burke stated that she wanted the Me Too movement to focus on survivors, not on who owns the movement, and is continuing her work to help survivors of sexual violence.

The president and CEO of Girls Inc. is Judy Vredenburgh. The organization was created to provide a safe space for girls to be able to speak out. The organization also has a teaching program dedicated to education in communication, consent, and healthy relationships, to name a few topics. This education is vital as the American school system has a notoriously lacking sex education program, nationwide. Girls Inc. aims to help our society understand that for every woman who has experienced sexual violence, so has a young girl. Therefore, the perspectives of girls must be recognized and represented in the movement against sexual harassment. It is too often that the youth in our community are left out of conversations of importance. Vredenburgh reiterates the importance of youth in movements, citing the Parkland students who spoke out after the Parkland school shooting. However, Girls Inc. understands that in order to prove successful, a movement of young girls needs adult support to utilize the political power and community influence that is not accessible to those under the age of 18. The ultimate goal of the Girls Too organization and movement has been to provide a space for girls that they were unable to find within the Me Too movement.

Women’s March 2018. Source: Roedar, Phil. Creative Commons.

Girls Too was created after an overwhelming number of teenage girls reported feeling as if their place within the discussion of Me Too would be difficult to distinguish. The high-profile and viral cases that popularized the Me Too movement, such as the Harvey Weinstein case, involved predominantly career-age women. Therefore, the conversations that have arisen from such cases, while including very important dialogue, have been dominated by a particular age category of women. The discussions have not been focused on the youth and the damages young children can incur when they are assaulted. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has reported that 1 in 4 girls are sexually assaulted by the age of 18 and 2 out of every 3 girls are harassed. Girls who have experienced sexual harassment before the age of 18 are considerably more likely to experience a variety of problems immediately after the event as well as into the future, including but not limited to depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, school absenteeism, and PTSD. Girls Inc and Girls Too aims to change the conversation and focus the discussion on helping girls who have experienced sexual harassment and the subsequent effects that may occur. The organization also aims to change the societal norm that allows girls to be viewed in a hyper-sexualized manner.

Despite the successes of these movements in giving women and girls platforms to have their voices heard, Burke also details the increasing, monumental backlash the movements have received as the years progress. She states that Me Too, and Girls Too as a consequence of Me Too, is becoming considered as a plot against men, a witch hunt of sorts. Burke sites Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings as an example of the new view of Me Too. High profile people have embraced and encouraged the negative perceptions. The President of the United States, Donald Trump, said that the Me Too movement represents, in the context of the Kavanaugh hearings, “a very scary time for young men in America.”

For young girls, it has been difficult to find their place in a movement that has been dominated by middle aged women. They have similar experiences with sexual harassment as the women who have been vocal with the Me Too movement, but do not have the political power or societal prestige that comes with being an adult. Girls in middle schools and high schools create lists among their friends of boys who have become notorious for treating women badly, just so they and their friends can avoid them. Word spreads among girls in colleges and universities about which fraternity parties should be avoided, which fraternities can be labeled as the “date rape frats,” because the use of date rape drugs become so prominent at those parties. Girls are given pepper spray, whistles, and alarms as graduation gifts to provide a semblance of security against the inevitable moment of fear that can occur when walking alone. It is important to remember the goals of the Me Too movement and the Girls Too movement as being safe spaces for women and girls to share their stories. The movements are also movements of empowerment, giving power back to women and girls who have had it stolen from them. We must continue to support Me Too and Girls Too by acknowledging and understanding their work and importance in order to further the progress the movements have initiated.

Gender Based Violence

by Grace Ndanu

A photo of a woman crying. Her face is bruised.
Source: UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Creative Commons

It is believed that Gender Based Violence existed from long time ago as a result of male dominance and power, meaning women were left inferior. Generally GBV stops girls from reaching their potential, where by there is a lot of working to transform attitudes towards girls and women that perpetuate violence against them. That is why women are trying to negotiate with the men that they can be equal, but men want to maintain their dominance, which causes an increase in GBV cases.

GBV occurs almost everywhere now, and the girls and women are the victims. Stating at home, children’s vulnerabilities to violence stem from the fact that they depend on their parents or caregivers for their development health and wellbeing. Girls and young women often experience violence at home, from physical punishment to sexual, emotional or psychological violence. Acceptance of violence as a private affair often prevents others from intervening and prohibits girls and young women from reporting in the name of keeping the family name clean.

In primary and high school the violence rate is low unlike in the college and universities. This is because there are strict rules and supervision, which is not the case in colleges and universities around the world. While in college a girl is considered to be an adult. Also, her parents are far away, so anyone she has the freedom to do whatever she wants, including engage in sexual relationships. In these relationships the boys often want to take charge of girl’s life. At this point most of the girls already know their rights and hence they will never accept to be dominated. Unfortunately, this makes them vulnerable to gender based violence because the boys will still fight to maintain the “man’s “position in a girl’s life.

In the work place the top positions are designed for men, including the managers, directors and supervisors, while women are secretaries and cleaners. Gender based violence is likely in situations where a qualified female is expected to perform sexual favors to management in order to get a promotion.

Gender based virulence is also a rising issue in online spaces with girls and young women reporting harassment and abuse. For many girls, there is a pressure to leave online platforms. I am opposed to this because these are the places where most girls and young women get to know their capabilities and strengths through interaction with different types of people. But girls need to be careful in these spaces.

Gender based violence occurs in all parts of the world, but the risk is higher where violence is normalized and where rigid concepts of gender exist. In many cultures, especially the developing countries, violence towards girls and young women is accepted as a social norm. Here comes a saying of an African woman who is strongly tied to culture “a husband who does not beat his wife does not love her”. And the woman herself will ask her husband to beat her. This must be challenged as a matter of urgency, the blame, shame and stigma faced by victims must be eliminated.

Violence should never be a private matter and everyone should be aware of this starting from the youngest to the oldest. So that it can be challenged. Ending GBV will involve action at all levels; strengthening legislation and criminalizing the violence, challenging social norms that condone violence and prosecuting the perpetrators.

Children should learn about gender equality at school, just as it is important to promote integrational dialogue on violence against children. Community dialogue can challenge dominance that brings about gender based violence.

Everybody has a responsibility to promote and strengthen values that support nonviolent, respectful, positive gender equitable relationships for all children and adolescents, including the most vulnerable and excluded.

Young girls and women are encouraged to speak up about the issues they face which embolden them to speak up for change. On the other side young men are encouraged to identity and challenge harmful and negative masculinities that perpetuate discrimination and violence.

Incarceration and Menstrual Hygiene

Menstrual Hygiene products displayed on a flat surface.
Zubehör für weibliche Hygiene wie Slipenlagen und Tampons auf rosarotem Hintergrund. Source: Marco Verch, Creative Commons

Menstruation is one of many topics that can be difficult and uncomfortable to talk about but is absolutely necessary, as many people do not have the resources they need to manage menstruation within reach.  The WHO-UNICEF Joint Monitoring System defines menstrual hygiene management as being when people who experience periods “are able to use sanitary materials to absorb menstrual blood, change and dispose of these materials in privacy as needed, and have access to soap and water to keep clean.”  The struggle for accessible menstrual hygiene management can be found in all parts of the world and is even true of some places you would not necessarily expect.  One such place is in prisons, where women often have severely insufficient access to products like sanitary pads and tampons.  This problem needs to be addressed, as menstrual hygiene products are a necessity.  They are not merely items of luxury and should never be treated as a privilege. 

However, things are slowly but surely improving.  The First Step Act that was enacted in December of 2018 requires the Federal Bureau of Prisons to provide pads and tampons at no cost to the prisoners.  While this is a good step forward, it only applies to federal facilities and does not help in state or local ones.  Further change continues to be imperative. 

Examples of the Problem 

Betty Ann Whaley, who was released from the Rose M. Singer Center on Rikers Island in June of 2016, told the New York Times that pads were available “seven out of ten times,” and tampons were even less accessible.  It is important to remember that even a nine out of ten times availability would be a serious problem, given the impact it can have on one’s health when menstruating without the means to deal with it.  

Even when pads are available, they are often very thin, requiring them to be changed frequently.  This leads menstruation to still be difficult to manage, as women in prison often only have access to a small number of pads each month.  Chandra Bozelkowho spent some time at York Correctional Institute in Niantic, Connecticut, wrote about her experience with menstrual hygiene management for the Guardian in 2015.  Each two-person cell was given five pads each week, giving each woman about ten pads per month.  If a woman’s period lasts for five days, she would only have two pads for each of those days.  This would not be enough, even if the pads were of high quality. 

Topeka K. Sam developed blood clots while she was in prison, meaning she needed sanitary pads that were more absorbent than those available in the commissary.  In order to get the menstrual hygiene materials that she needed, she was forced to prove that they were a necessity. She put one of her used pads into a bag and a male staff member determined that she truly needed different pads.  Five months had passed by the time she had access to resource she needed. 

In some cases, there are even monetary barriers that prevent women from being able to properly manage their menstrual hygiene.  Prior to the establishment of the First Step Act, federal prison commissaries charged $5.55 for two tampons and $1.35 for two panty-liners.  This is a far greater amount of money than either of these products are worth.  For example, you can buy an 18-count box of tampons for $9.19 at Walmart.   

Menstrual Hygiene Management in Prisons Is an International Concern 

Menstrual hygiene materials are also often difficult to access outside of the United States.  In the Bom Pastor women’s prison in Recife, Brazil, Human Rights Watch (HRW) found a few different factors that make proper menstrual hygiene and healthcare difficult.  As of March of 2017, tampons had not been distributed to the women since 2015.  Water was only available three times each day, which is a barrier to strong menstrual health.  There is a risk of infection if there is a lack in adequate soap and water for keeping clean.  The prison system of Brazil also only employed 37 gynecologists in 2017, which means there is less than one for every 900 women in the system.  HRW also found that 630 women had been placed in a cell that was only built to hold 270.  This absence in any privacy and presence of practically no space makes even the act of replacing sanitary products difficult. 

According to one study, prisons in Zambia leave inmates responsible for many of their basic- necessities such as menstrual hygiene products and soap.  One woman living in a Zambian prison stated, “If others don’t bring them for us, we have nothing.  There are lots of people with no relatives here.  They have nothing.”  The water that is available is often unclean, so they have inadequate ability to keep clean as well.  These prisons also have the same overcrowding problem as the Bom Pastor prison, being more than 300% over capacity. 

A slightly open jail cell door.
Untitled. Source: Neil Conway, Creative Commons

Impacting Health 

Ignoring menstruation is not an option.  Not only would that be extremely uncomfortable, but it is also a health and safety issue.  Lacking access to necessary menstrual hygiene management materials can have an impact on both the mental and physical health of women living in prisons.  In terms of physical health, women who are trying to deal with menstruation while incarcerated might develop health problems such as bacterial infections from trying to use other materials in place of regular menstrual hygiene products.   

In terms of mental health, being denied the things one needs to deal with menstruation is a dehumanizing experience.  At this point in time, talking about menstrual hygiene feels awkward and uncomfortable for many people.  This fact does not change among incarcerated populations.  When you add experiences like that of Topeka K. Sam, having to prove that she needed the resources she was asking for, the situation becomes even more difficult. 

Why Does It Matter? 

Truly accessible menstrual hygiene management resources are undoubtedly a human rights issue.  According to Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), all people have the right to a standard of living that sufficiently supports their well-being and health.  The harm that can be done to one’s physical and mental health when they lack the menstrual hygiene products they need gets in the way of this right. 

Potential Solutions 

How do we improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons?   

The people who are most aware and likely care the most about this issue are people who have been disenfranchised, as only two states allow people convicted of felonies to keep their voting rights, and only 15 states automatically restore their voting rights after they have served their sentence.  Additionally, many people would not have the resources they would need to advocate for change, no matter how strong their drive or greatness of their ideas.  It would be helpful in trying to solve the problem if we could figure out a way to empower people who have direct experiences with it. 

Prisons could potentially switch from providing disposable menstrual hygiene products to reusable ones, like Thinx or Lunapads.  While the initial change would be relatively expensive, it would save them more money in the long run, as they would not have to constantly buy more sanitary pads and tampons.  This option could significantly improve menstrual hygiene management in prisons, and, as bonus, it would also be much better for the environment. 

Improving this issue is an important step in ensuring that people who have been incarcerated are still treated with dignity and respect as human beings.  People are people, no matter what they have done in the past.  There is no reason to treat anyone as less than human or prevent them from having access to their fundamental human rights. 

If you have an interest in learning more about the need for improved access to hygiene management, check out this post on MHM!