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Leaders of Mujeres Libres Colombia stand in front of the Senate of the Republic
Leaders of Mujeres Libres Colombia stand in front of the Senate of the Republic | Photo courtesy of Claudia Alejandra Cardona

Woman fights to protect female prisoners in Colombia, wins big with Law 2261

Living in prison, I commonly saw my peers being gassed, handcuffed, thrown onto the floor, kicked, denied food, and locked up... In that cold and hostile atmosphere, they herded us into overcrowded and poor conditions... Then came the denial of our sanitary and medical needs.

Interview Subject
Claudia Alejandra Cardona cofounded and directs Mujeres Libres Colombia, an organization made up of women who were deprived of liberty in the country. The organization demands guarantees for women who are inside and outside prisons in Colombia, who have suffered systematic human rights violations the structural violence which targets sex and gender. She and her colleagues fought for the creation of Law 2261 in 2022 which guarantees decent menstrual health care. They continue to fight for the well-being of women in prison throughout Latin America.
Background Information
The prison situation in Colombia is in an Unconstitutional State of Affairs due to systematic violence and human rights violations against inmates. In Colombia, there are no guarantees for dignified menstruation in prisons, provision of products necessary to cover menstruation needs, and access to drinking water. This forces women to experience menstruation in precarious conditions and puts them at risk of infections and diseases. Today these issues are on the verge of change thanks to the work of Mujeres Libres. The work of the organization has led to the establishment of a recently approved law that stipulates products and training related to menstrual health as mandatory in women’s detention centers in Colombia.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia – I spent nine years and three months on Colombian prison. I remember the pain and anguish I felt, leaving my young daughter behind. Memories of prison evoke feelings of suffering and helplessness. I felt like I slowly lost my ability to breathe. Prison feels like a world of shadows forged by the steel of social rejection.

The abuse and human rights violations I witnessed and suffered in prison in Colombia haunt me, so today, I fight for the women and mothers still detained. I co-founded and direct the organization Mujeres Libres Colombia. We work inside and outside the prison to create systemic change including for women’s menstrual health.

Women experience abuse and human rights violations

A woman in Colombian prison pays two or even three sentences when she goes to jail. She suffers the deprivation of liberty and the painful separation from her children and family. Often, an economic crisis ensues at home.

When I left my daughter at four years of age, I felt doomed. It changed me forever. I soon discovered my fellow female inmates grappled with the same feelings. We lived a common experience together – a shared “uprooting.”

Piled on top of that pain, I witnessed and deeply suffered abuse. Living in prison, I commonly saw my peers being gassed, handcuffed, thrown onto the floor, kicked, denied food, and locked up. At times, the guards poured water over some of the women and left them alone, unable to dry.

In that cold and hostile atmosphere, they herded us into overcrowded and poor conditions – from the structure itself to the furniture in the cells – and limited our access to water. Then came the denial of our sanitary and medical needs.

In prison, we received ten sanitary pads meant to last for three months of menstruation. I suffered from severe bleeding, so the pads were not enough, and the jail offered no adequate care to solve my situation. The professionals who came once a month could not serve everyone, and we rarely saw the results of our tests.

I made money through occupational activities in the prison and supplemental manual work I offered to fellow women. Eventually I had enough to buy towels, but with no support network outside prison, I had to ask my young daughter to purchase them for me.

Some women have no one, so they use pieces of foam, cloth, or cotton to make homemade tampons and sanitary pads. Their risk of infection skyrockets. In prison, this cycle of vulnerability repeats itself month after month.

Consequences from lack of medical care in prison motivates woman to take action

When I left prison, I finally gained access to specialized medical care for my bleeding and the ailments related to my menstrual cycle, but it was too late. The irreversible side effects on my reproductive system from years of medical neglect in prison meant I had to have a hysterectomy. They left me with one ovary.

The surgery changed my life, physically and emotionally. I went through menopausal symptoms at a very young age; and I carry the pain of having my rights violated in prison.

Considering the unending spiral of violence I experienced there, I decided to become a defender or human rights for incarcerated women and those who have been released. I knew little about my role when I began, but soon realized what I witnessed and suffered was considered unfair and inhumane.

I began speaking out individually and as part of a group on things like diet, the conditions of dining rooms, and the availability of tampons and sanitary pads. Acceptance finally came and we began seeing change.

After prison, the Humanas Corporation contacted me, and we began working together. I conducted interviews with women who had been released from prison. My understanding began to grow; the experiences of women in prison proved even more difficult than I realized.

As I sat with them in the interviews, they felt safe and listened to, and began to share their experiences freely. After prison, they faced unemployment and stigmatization due to their criminal records. Out of desperation, some returned to a life of crime and to illegal businesses. It felt good to offer them some relief and a space to speak.

Woman make headway in Colombia, create connections around the world

Through the work with Humanas Corporation and now with my organization Mujeres Libres, I had the opportunity to contribute to a major report to the Monitoring Commission on prison matters. Our research extended to international guidelines for the treatment of well-being of female populations in prison. I discovered that the Bangkok rules stipulate that menstrual health products have to be delivered promptly and free of charge in prison.

The former female inmates I came to know through the interview process were shocked to learn about these standards, so we decided to act. I brought together eight colleagues and in 2018, we founded Mujeres Libres. We spoked to formerly incarcerated women from other countries and in 2021 began a campaign on menstrual health and use of the menstrual cup. We began to see the problems persisted not just in Columbia, but around the world.

I’ll never forget when one colleague said, “It seems like they made a manual of what not to do, and then implemented it around the world.” Mujeres Libres decided to do more than just collect products and distribute them. We decided to take action to benefit all imprisoned women throughout Colombia.

We provided advice to a congressman and former representatives on a menstrual health bill, to dignify menstruation in prison and promote free and sufficient access to supplies and menstrual care. The project is now law. Our struggle paid off.

Now, women from other countries who saw our effort are beginning to organize. We have Free Women Chile, Free Women El Salvador, and several other Latin American organizations led by women released from prison and their families. Together, we make up a network that spans all the way to the United States, Canada, Spain, Asia, and five countries in Africa.

Changing the laws, giving incarcerated women a voice

The work now evolves. Mujeres Libres is working on a second bill in Colombia regarding criminal alternatives for female heads of household who committed minor crimes. We work together with other organizations convened by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Today, I feel happy. I am proud and moved by the work we have done. My message to women currently deprived of their liberty or suffering from the consequences of deprivation is this: you are not alone. I say that not as a social or governmental organization; not as an academic institution. Rather, I say it as a woman who suffered that same reality in prison. We fight to ensure your human rights are fulfilled in the prison system.

After nine years and three months in prison, I have hope. I can never deny that my incarceration changed my life, but I consider myself a resilient woman. A strong desire burns in me, to keep working and fighting for the rights of my friends, colleagues, and their families.

Women in all contexts and situations deserve respect and a life free of violence. Through our collective efforts, we are unstoppable. We will ensure the once silenced voices of women in our country will now be heard.

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Lieth Daelyn Carrillo Sánchez is a Colombian anthropologist and researcher who studies the dynamics of violence, conflict, and criminology in Latin American countries. She writes because she believes that words allow us to build and rebuild the world.