The upcoming national budget must earmark funds for free sanitary napkins for women prisoners, as mandated by the law.
The menstrual health movement, an integral part of reproductive rights, requires urgent and continuous examination of the complexities and challenges that influence the autonomy and agency of those attempting to access menstrual health products (MHPs).
This article is based on Pad2Go’s (A menstrual health-focused social enterprise, established in 2018) pilot project, part of the #PeriodInPrison campaign, at Kaski women’s prison in Gandaki Province. The pilot project commenced with the installation of a Pad2Go sanitary napkin vending machine, which facilitated the provision of 800 Nepal-manufactured sanitary pads through fundraising efforts.
In addition, stakeholder interviews and focused group discussions were conducted to draw attention to the urgent need for better implementation of laws and policies on women’s access to sanitary pads in prisons. The lack of access to MHPs evidences a detrimental impact on women’s health and reproductive autonomy, more so within the confines of overcrowded prison cells in Nepal.
The Prison Act of, 2079, which amended the 2019 (BS) (1962 A.D) law governing prisons in Nepal, was introduced last year. This new law seeks to address issues related to the reproductive rights of prisoners, as per international standards outlined in The Bangkok Rules (The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders with their Commentary).
Section 19(3) of the Prison Act, 2079 states that the prison administration is required to provide sanitary pads and other necessary reproductive health materials to women prisoners free of charge. Despite the law aligning itself with international standards, there appears to be limited awareness about this provision among various stakeholders, including women prisoners, prison administrative staff, and government officials at the Department of Prison.
This, along with the lack of budgetary allocation for the targeted needs of menstruating people in prisons and the overcrowding of prison facilities, continues to harm women’s access to menstrual health products and their right to reproductive autonomy.
Data received from The Department of Prisons indicates that there are 1,489 women currently incarcerated in Nepal’s prisons, all of whom lack access to free sanitary pads. This lack of access has significant implications for women’s health in Nepal’s prisons, as they are forced to either rely on family members to bring pads during visits, purchase an entire packet of pads with the limited monetary allowance provided to them in prison, or resort to cloth-based pads that require frequent washing and drying, which itself continues to be a challenge in overcrowded prison facilities.
In a recent interview, by Pad2Go, with representatives from the Department of Prison, it was revealed that budgetary constraints prevent the Government of Nepal (GON) from providing free sanitary pads to prisoners, despite it being mandated in Section 19(3) of the Prison Act, 2079.
The representatives indicated that they have yet not received clear guidance on how to implement this provision; while noting that the allocation of funds would depend on the government’s priorities, and whether they consider access to sanitary pads in prisons as a key priority among other pressing needs of prisoners.
The #PeriodInPrison campaign has shed light on the dire situation faced by incarcerated women and serves as a reminder of the importance of menstrual health as a fundamental human right. The Prison Act of 2079 is a step in the right direction, but its provisions must be fully and effectively implemented to ensure that women in prison have access to the menstrual health products they need.
The GON must prioritize the allocation of funds to meet the targeted needs of menstruating individuals in prisons while simultaneously addressing the overcrowding of prison facilities in the upcoming national budget.
Previously in 2020, the GON prepared policies to provide free sanitary pads to girls in public schools. However, despite such well-intended policies and programs, this endeavor did not yield the expected results due to poor planning and distribution. Specifically, the local governments responsible for procuring and distributing the pads did not receive the necessary funds to carry out their duties from the federal government.
Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic presented unparalleled obstacles where school-going girls were unable to obtain sanitary pads while attending virtual classes from home, highlighting the urgent necessity for the GON to remove the 13% VAT on pads, to facilitate affordable and equitable access to sanitary products outside the school premise.
Given these past challenges in implementing free sanitary pad programs, it is imperative that the federal government works in collaboration with provincial and local-level governments, as well as civil society organizations to develop comprehensive policies, allocate sufficient funds, and ensure the effective implementation of free sanitary pad initiatives for schools and incarcerated women in Nepal, as mandated by the law.
Concludingly, the government should also consider removing the VAT on sanitary pads to make them more accessible and affordable for all. The lack of access to menstrual health products in Nepal’s prisons highlights the urgent need for better implementation of laws and policies on women’s reproductive rights.
Access to menstrual health products is a necessity and should not be treated like a luxury; Nepal must safeguard women prisoners’ constitutionally-affirmed fundamental right to reproductive health.