Health vulnerability of those barredWidespread gender discrimination and social stigma isolate female prisoners
Historically there have always been fewer female inmates in prisons than male inamtes and this has resulted in their unique reproductive, nutritional, psychosocial and sanitary needs being overlooked. Article 5 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, ‘no one shall be the subject to torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment’. Ignoring or not considering the rights of female prisoners is a gross violation of this principle.
According to 2017 World Health Organization Bulletein on imprisonment and women’s health, reproductive rights related to menstruation, menopause, pregnancy, and breastfeeding are the most disregarded by prison authorities.
This is true forNepal as well, where there is, for example, no clear information as to the amount or kinds of sanitary products that are made available to the female inmates. But going by the state of menstrual hygiene of women prisoners in most countries, it is unlikely to be very advanced or respectful of their rights.
The international scenario depicts a grim picture in that there has been a dramatic increase in the population of incarcerated females globally. Also, in recent years, the World Prison Brief report shows an increase of female Nepali inmates from 1.4 to 4.3 per 100,000 of the national population from 2006 to 2014—a 7.3 percent increase which is also the highest amongst all of the SAARC nations. This has done no favours for the overcrowded Nepali prison system whose current occupancy level is 178 percent.
However, the Prison Infrastructure Management Improvement Task Force has issued a list of 36 recommendations, including the transformation of several prisons into rehabilitation centers as per the Prison Act 2019 through the establishment of an open prison system, all of which are yet to be implemented in their entirety. In order to reduce the burden on prisons and curb overfilling, a 50% reduction in inmates has also been proposed by the means of speeding up court hearings and doing away with a judicial backlog in Nepal.
The substandard conditions of sanitation make the increasingly congested prisons in Nepal breeding grounds for diseases such as tuberculosis and vector-borne diseases. And the medical-staff-to-inmate rate remains at an extremely skewed ratio of 1:499.
However, there are still options that could make these systems beneficial for society at large. Women in developing countries tend not to seek medical help for reproductive issues if there is not outside pressure to do so. But, if women who have been incarcerated are made to undergo mandatory checkups, screenings, and are treated regularly, the vicious cycle of deprived need, poverty and disease transmission could stop.
Public health is defined as the science and art of preventing disease and improving the quality of life among human populations, and as prison reform tilts towards a similar path, it is also a public health issue.
On a different note, studies have shown that the impact on the family of a man going to jail is less severe than that of a woman being imprisoned since women manage the household as per Nepali socio-cultural norms. In contrast, the jailing of a woman can devastate the family, and furthermore as men tend to remarry, once released, the women have no home to return to, and they are likely to be shunned by society.
Widespread gender discrimination and social stigma isolate female prisoners. Further, since they disproportionally tend to be from poor and minority backgrounds, they are burdened even further.
In conclusion, the condition of female inmates in Nepal as a disproportionally vulnerable yet traditionally ignored population is a complex subject. In order to improve these dismal conditions, a number of measures ought to be considered. Aiding the prisoners to be self-sufficient by giving them the training and the supplies necessary to make products they need such as reusable sanitary pads could be one viable solution. The government could also subsidise the materials needed for the production of the pads, as well as any other products. There could also be a monitoring system independent from the prison authorities that could investigate human rights violations, and suggest changes.
The need for prison reform is immediate and will require accurate and up-to-date data. Studies focusing on women in prison and on personnel involved in prison management, if carried out will be among the first of their kind in Nepal. To this end, in order to pave the way for a better incarceration system in Nepal, investing in research will be the primary step.
- Maharjan is a programme officer of health unit and Samuel is an intern with Anweshan.