Lack of personal hygiene products: Violation of human rights for incarcerated women

Oregon’s recent legislative mandate to provide free of charge a variety of sanitary products, including tampons, to incarcerated women and girls is both a victory and a shame.

It is a victory because now more incarcerated women and girls will have access to a basic necessity that supports personal hygiene and confidentiality.

It is a shame because a woman’s basic need for sanitary products has to be legislated and dependent upon the sympathetic nature of those with decision-making power. This is particularly disturbing given that the growth in the number of incarcerated women has outpaced the growth of incarcerated men in the United States.

The United States is known as one of the world’s leading incarcerator of women housing approximately, 219,000 women in some type of correctional facility whether federal prison, state prison or local jail.

Projected to cost $100,000 each year, the Oregon mandate applies to all correctional facilities in the state. Still, Oregon’s legislation will not benefit the entire body of eligible incarcerated women and girls across segments of the country without such a mandate. Other states that do not have such a mandate fail to recognize sanitary products just as essential as soap and toothpaste.

As nurses who have cared for women in hospitals and community settings, we know the consequences of poor hygiene — especially for menstruating women who are also subject to embarrassment when lacking the necessary hygienic protections during their menstrual cycles.

Women who defer to make-shift materials during this time are also at an increased risk for malodorous disorders along with a number of infectious conditions, including toxic shock syndrome, a potentially deadly condition resulting for an overgrowth of bacteria due to prolonged wearing of heavily soiled tampons.

The true cost of shame and humiliation associated with not having the proper supply of sanitary supplies in our correctional facilities is immeasurable for this population of women. It needs to be considered a violation of human rights.

Human rights allow people everywhere to live with dignity, freedom, equality, justice and peace. Every person has this right simply because they are human beings. There are minimum standards that are applicable to all humans, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic status, culture, language and political opinion.

Yet time and time again, we see that human rights are denied to certain populations. For example, inmates in Arizona State Prison claim that basic hygiene supplies like toilet paper are lacking, and many of the correctional officers are indifferent in their response to addressing this basic need. Efforts to rectify this in Arizona are still underway.

Oregon has joined a small number of other states that are providing free access to certain personal hygiene products through legislation. In Maryland where similar legislation was enacted in October 2018, women are still paying as much as $5.69 for a box of tampons. Even this cost is prohibitive for incarcerated women who earn very low wages while incarcerated or do not receive financial support from families or loved ones while incarcerated.

In 2017 the Federal Bureau of Prisons instituted a policy mandating that federal prisons provide menstrual hygiene products to incarcerated women in the federal prisons. While an important first step, this policy does not cover the needs of women who are mostly housed in state and local prisons. While some states are beginning to take action, more needs to be done

Human rights have to be guaranteed for populations in all prisons and in communities. Basic needs have to be met. If we expect people to rehabilitate themselves, we need to treat them like human beings.

Similarly in health care, as nurses we often see that access to basic needs is not considered a human right, but rather is influenced by zip code or income. Individuals from low income, underserved or marginalized communities face poor health outcomes, in part due to discrimination and other forms of impartial treatment.

We are not alone in our efforts to champion this issue as a human rights concern for women. The United Nations is working to eliminate the ongoing discrimination women face during menstruation. Globally, issues of stigma and shame as well as barriers such as cost and inaccessibility to sanitary products has serious implications for preserving a woman’s dignity and human rights.

The United Nations has issued a clarion call to view this issue as a human rights issue in need of a cultural change and deliberate action to eliminate the discrimination, shame, and stigma associated with mensuration. Providing access to the needed sanitary products in our correctional systems is a critical first step to eliminating discrimination and violation of human rights.

The right to have access to sanitary products should not be limited to incarcerated women, women in shelters or those confined to institutions. Homeless women need to have free or affordable access to these products.

From a national perspective, federal legislation is needed that requires all prisons and jails to provide free access to sanitary products for incarcerated women. The decision to supply such a basic need should not be left to the discretion of local municipalities, states or leaders who oversee operations in jails or prisons.

Anything less has the potential to rob incarcerated women of their dignity, personal well-being and human right to have their basic needs met.

Janice Phillips, RN, is an associate professor at Rush University College of Nursing and the director of Nursing Research and Health Equity at the Rush University Medical Center, and a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project.

Aney Abraham, DNP, is an associate vice president of nursing operations at Rush University Medical Center and an assistant professor at Rush University College of Nursing. Abraham is also president of the Indian Nurses Association of Illinois and Public Voices fellow with the OpEd Project at Rush University College of Nursing.

Tags incarcerated women menstrual hygiene products tampons

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