On the evening of April 25, 2018, Amal (a pseudonym) (26 years old) was accompanied by two of her colleagues in Abdel Khaleq Tharwat Street, specifically in front of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, urging them to return home early as she was tired because of the pain of the first days in the menstrual period.
On her return, she was surprised by three people wearing security clothes, asking the three comrades about their “national ID cards” (the legal identity) and the contents of their back-bags. In Amal’s bag, there was a camera and a laptop, due to her work as a journalist, in addition to sanitary pads, but those with civilian clothes decided to take her to the Qasr al-Nil police station to check on their national ID cards.
Amal and her friends obeyed the three men, and as soon as they get in “Suzuki” vehicle, the officer hit Amal on her head and blindfolded her, and after hours she found herself in State Security.
Amal recalls the memories of this day while telling “Daraj”: “I am standing in a cold room, seeing nothing because of the blindfold on my face feeling that the lower part of my body is frozen, except for my vagina, which was bleeding. I thought that my feeling was mere doubts and apprehension until I asked the officer about the possibility of going to the bathroom and changing the sanitary pad because I was in the days of the menstrual period. He replied saying “I know and notice, so my doubts were confirmed”
“I stood bleeding in front of almost five officers and so many soldiers, enjoying the scene of a bleeding girl. As for the officer, he refused to give me pads for two days and let me swim in my blood until I was brought to be admitted to prosecution. I stayed two days soaked in my blood in the detention room, I was afraid to sit down not to stain my clothes more or my blood fell on the floor.
On April 27, 2018, Amal showed up to the State Security Prosecution, in Elabbasia, that was the first day that they removed the blindfold, as well as the hook, to see that her pants had become red due to the abundance of blood from her menstrual cycle flowing, so the prosecutor asked her.
Did anyone hurt you?
She replied: No, but I’m on my period.
As Amal told “Daraj”, The prosecutor ordered someone to buy pads for her and letting her change her clothes so that he could investigate her because the smell was disturbing, Amal was imprisoned in case no 441 and charged with joining a terrorist group and spreading false news.
She started a new phase with the menstrual cycle in Egyptian prisons, specifically Elqanater Prison for Women, where she was forced to buy sanitary pads at double prices or to borrow pads from her friends in case the visit of her family was delayed. She sometimes wore diapers because they were the only available ones. In other times, she used old pieces of cloth or bleeding onto her clothes on other days, when she had no other choice.
According to ten interviews conducted by “Darj” with former prisoners (five of them criminal prisoners and other five political) in three different prisons, in addition to 50 other testimonies that Darj obtained through a questionnaire, Amal is not the only one but an unknown number of Egyptian prisoners are forced to use of the options mentioned above because of the absence of legal legislation stating the need of women to use sanitary pads during detention or imprisonment.
Egyptian female prisoners are distributed in 9 public prisons out of 53 public prisons in Egypt, but there is no official census of the number of female prisoners in the country.
The Law for Menstruation
On March 8, 2019, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (an unofficial civil society organization) issued a research paper entitled “The menstrual cycle in prisons,” in which it confirmed that the menstrual period is a healthy and natural part of women’s bodies is completely neglected in the law. It isn’t mentioned among its articles or even in the internal regulations for organizing prisons, or ministerial decisions related to them.
The law did not recognize the special needs of women’s bodies until the third month of pregnancy, in terms of giving special meals for pregnant women, per Interior Minister Decision No. 468 of 2017 amending Resolution No. 361 of 1998.
However, Article 83 of the Prisons Organization Law No. 396 of 1956, amended on January 24, 2015, No. 106 of 2015, affirms the necessity of fulfilling hygiene, health, and security conditions inside the prison which are verified by inspectors who submit their reports to the Assistant Minister of Interior for the prison sector.
The Prisons Authority shall have inspectors inspect prisons to verify that hygiene, health, and security conditions are fulfilled inside the prison and that all systems established for the prison are implemented, and they submit their reports in this regard to the Assistant Minister for the Prison Authority sector.
Prisons Regulation Law No. 396 of 1956
Despite this, sanitary pads are not distributed to women during the menstrual cycle, the human rights lawyer and head of the Women’s Center for Guidance and Legal Awareness, Reda Al-Danbouki, said to “Daraj”, “Sanitary napkins are seen as a luxury, despite their importance and necessity, especially in the inhuman and degrading conditions of detention.
Al-Danbouki asserts that in cases of enforced disappearance as “Aml,” the prison administration prevents the sanitary napkins with “some” cases to humiliate the prisoners and harass them, so they do not criticize the state again.
Ilham Aidarous, a researcher, feminist activist, and agent of the founders of the Live and Freedom Party, agree with what said by Danbouqi, adding to “Daraj” that “most of the forcibly disappeared women are blindfolded and only disbanded during interrogations. They are allowed to enter the bathroom only once or twice a day and they are deprived of most basic needs, such as sanitary pads.
Taghreed (a pseudonym), was detained during the events of September 2019 for 22 days (11 days in the enforced disappearance and 11 days in Al-Qanater prison), told “Darj”, that “the detainees, in this case, were prevented from using soap, and buying from the canteen (store In prison) with all its contents, including sanitary pads and others.
Lamis (a pseudonym), a former political prisoner, who was arrested twice in 2018 and 2019, told “Daraj” that she was waiting for “pads” (sanitary pads) that her mother would bring her in her visits, and if the visit was delayed, she would have to borrow from her colleagues in The dungeon. Sometimes she was forced to use the same pad for two or three days, despite its blood saturation, which led to her infection with bacteria and pelvic infections.
If their friends had no pads, she was forced to buy from others or the canteen at double prices, in which one box would reach “bunts” for 50-70 pounds and sometimes 100 pounds (6.5 dollars) inside the prison, (or the equivalent of that from cigarettes, that’s why cigarettes are the official currency inside the prison)
This was not Lamees’ only problem, her menstrual cycle was always accompanied by severe and unbearable pain without having painkillers, so she would go to the prison hospital to ask for some, her request for painkillers is often a matter of mockery and sarcasm from the nurse and the prisoner. One day she went to get some medicine because of the fungi caused by the use of saturated pads, and the jailer answered her: “We all scratch” and prevented her from using any medicine.
In July 2019, packs of sanitary pads were distributed to prisoners in Prison Al-Qanater for women, among them Lamees, who believed that her suffering would finally end and the pads would be distributed periodically but she was shocked that this was because of the visit of the National Council for Women to the prison to check its cleanliness and the condition of female prisoners, so no pads were distributed after that to the prisoners.
Al-Danbouki says that those officials for meeting hygiene and health conditions inside prisons are from the Prisons Authority, as well as the National Council for Women, the National Council for Humanity, and others, but the part of the menstrual cycle is often absent from them, and also from the law, so pads are not distributed among the prisoners, even though the menstrual period is essential and periodic in women’s health.
Elham Aidarous believes that the reason for refusing the distribution of pads inside the prison for free is the economic burdens and the huge cost that the prison administration refuses to bear. This cost is often paid by the prisoners from their work inside the prison or their health in case they are unable to buy sanitary pads
Maha Ahmed, a feminist activist, and lawyer at the Egyptian Commission for Personal Rights (a civil society institution) told “Darj” that “providing sanitary pads to female prisoners is a basic human right, to preserve their dignity. Therefore, we need a law that compels the prison administration to provide 7-day sanitary pads for female prisoners (the average days of the menstrual period). It is an urgent and necessary matter, not a luxury, to achieve the principles approved by the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, which support a specific concept of basic needs such as food, nutrition, clean and potable water, and adequate sanitation and a healthy environment. (Paragraph 4 of the International Covenant, Commentary No. 14 on Article 12).
Bathrooms are Also Polluted
In every menstrual, Safaa (a pseudonym) faced three major problems in Al-Qanater prison, the lack of pads, contaminated water in the toilets, and no bathrooms in the ward. She was always waiting her turn to enter the bathroom in the morning, despite her need and her frequent request from the warden, who kept refusing. As a result, Safaa got infections of fungal infections and bacteria that stuck with her throughout the prison term.
Safaa, a political prisoner, was imprisoned in case 761 of 2016, for spending two years and three months in Al-Qanater Women Prison.
Safaa says that “the available water is often polluted, and the toilets are very few, as you are obliged to wait for your turn for hours. At night, you are not allowed to enter the bathroom, even if you tell the warden that you need the bathroom because you are having your menstruation, your request is often met with mockery and ridicule.”
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in its research paper “Menstruation in Prisons”, recommended the necessity of improving structural conditions inside prison toilets, starting with access to water, available clean bathrooms, and access to sunlight, because the lack of water availability led to limited access to bathrooms in addition to women adjusting the frequency of changing or shortening pads, according to prison conditions.
The initiative stressed that the insufficiency of sanitary pads, water, and clean bathrooms increases the risk of women catching vaginal infections and rashes, and former prisoners talked about the health conditions that are not taken seriously by the medical team working in prisons.
Lubna Darwish, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and responsible for the feminist file, and one of the researchers who worked on the research paper tells “Darwish”, that “Women in Egyptian prisons face economic risks when they are forced to buy pads and work for long hours to save money to be able to buy them, in addition to great health risks, especially when they are forced to use old clothes or using sanitary pads for a very long time, or even old napkins. Often the menstrual products available in the prison “canteen” are poor.
Darwish believes that the conditions of political prisoners may have relatively easier, compared to female criminal prisoners who are often not visited by anyone, or who are not financially able to purchase pads from prison. Darwish added that female criminal prisoners are often haunted by a societal cultural view that they are less than others because of the crimes for which they are imprisoned, noting that most of them are from poor social classes, and are unable to secure their pads.
Criminal Prisoners … the Most Difficult Episode
When Safaa was treated for the infections caused by her menstruation in prison and polluted water, Umm Muhammad was suffering from her husband’s aversion to having sexual intercourse with her!
Umm Muhammad was among the former criminal prisoners met by “Daraj”. She confirms that until now most of them suffer from the lack of sanitary pads in prison, and explains the bad physical and psychological consequences of that.
Umm Muhammad was imprisoned twice because of signing checks without having money in her bank account, and she was involved in buying a medical device for her two daughters, the first time in 2002 and the second in 2015, and both times, no one of her family visited her during the period of detention.
She was forced to work inside the prison to earn her living, but the amount she was paid was not enough to buy food, so where did she get the sanitary pads? She kept borrowing old, worn clothes from other prisoners, cut them, used them as sanitary pads, then washed them and used them for the next menstruation.
Often the red spots of blood appeared on white prison clothes, because the criminal prisoners, especially the women in debt (whom no one visits), have only two pieces of (changing) clothes from the prison administration, and they do not even have underwear.
Umm Muhammad tells Daraj that she also suffered severe infections, but could not treat her after she was released from prison, which led to the darkening of the vaginal area, the appearance of large pimples on it, and a strange smell until her husband alienated her from having sexual intercourse with her and he kept talking about this strange odor.
Mustafa Qadri, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Qena, told “Daraj” that “using poor sanitary pads or not using sanitary pads and replacing them with pieces of cloth or otherwise, have health risks that may sometimes be simple and at other times they can cause cancer, sepsis, and death”
Dr. Kadri tells that some of the damages are darkening of the skin color, damage of the immune system, diabetes, hormonal imbalance, pelvic inflammation, and fungal infections of various kinds, including vaginal yeast infection, staphylococcal bacteria, or toxic shock, as well as hypo-tension and at other times it leads to death due to sepsis.
In the questionnaire conducted by “Daraj” on 50 former prisoners (criminal and political prisoners), 46% of women confirmed that they had to use the sanitary pads brought by their parents during their visits, 32% used pieces of cloth, and 6% bought pads from the canteen.
74 % of women were infected due to the lack of sanitary pads and the use of alternatives such as fabrics, and they suffered various infections.
Of Women Used Cloths (sample from 50 former prisoners)
Iman, who spent 10 years in Damanhour prison, told “Daraj”: “The deportations cars are not equipped, starting with the cold metal on which the women sit, to the absence of a bathroom: She remembers that she had menstruation while she was being deported to attend a court session, and the prison clothes turned red, and after many requests from the soldier, she was allowed to change her pad, but she could not find a bathroom so she had to go to the hospital with the solider to put her on.
Aziza al-Tawil, a human rights lawyer, told “Daraj”, “Women are forced to ask for pads during deportations from the soldiers which is often an uncomfortable issue, difficult to explain and embarrassing for the prisoners.”
Iman says that the big problem for the prisoner is during her return, as the prisoner may be asked to remove her pad to be checked or sometimes to be removed to make sure that nothing is smuggled inside.
Aziza al-Tawil, Human rights lawyer, asserts, “Many times sanitary pads are prevented from entering to criminal prisoners through her visits because the prison administration sees it as a means of smuggling drugs and cigarettes, and adding,“ Even if prison officials agree sometimes, they have stained from checking many times, due to being opened and inspected, may become unusable.”
The five political prisoners who “Daraj” spoke with agree that the situation is more difficult for the female criminals. Among them is Amal, who tells Daraj a situation that was dug in her memory, despite her release from prison years ago.
“One day I woke up at 2 a.m. because of the sound of an altercation between a criminal and the prisoner. The girl was crying. She wanted clean underwear or a pad to put on because she did not have money or clothes, she was bleeding for a week until her smell became stinky, and everyone in the cell refused to sit next to her.”.
Amal says” The girl, she was walking in the ward, spotting blood on the female criminal prisoners who slept on the ground. Can you imagine her blood is running on people’s heads in a place that is originally considered a bastion of diseases?”
The Demands of Civil Society:
Reda al-Danbouki, Aziza al-Tawil, Ilham Aidarous, Lubna Darwish, and Maha Ahmad agree that sanitary pads should be provided free of charge to women inside prisons.
Al-Danbouki says that gender must be taken into account and the share of women in health allocations must be determined within the state’s general budget, in addition to ensuring that the state provides the basic materials needed to achieve human dignity, including sanitary pads for prisoners and cleaning materials in sufficient quantities and free of charge in accordance with the responsibility entrusted to the state.
Maha Ahmed, a human rights defender, calls for the need to implement international conventions on the treatment of female prisoners in accordance with the rules of the United Nations General Assembly, including “Bangkok” the fifth rule, which stipulates that prisoners should be provided with the facilities and materials necessary to meet their own needs in terms of personal hygiene, including free sanitary pads and supply Water it regularly for personal care purposes.