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The World may have Paused, but our PERIODS haven’t

(By: Navjot Kaur and Aqsa Nehad, M.A Social Work in Children and Families, TISS-Mumbai)

Menstruation or periods is a biological process of monthly discharge from the woman's body. However, it is just not that. Wars have been raged because of this process, and it has multiple cultural, societal, religious significance attached to it. The traditional values and practices of this phenomenon are not just attached to one girl or woman but to the entire sex. The practices that were started to help menstruating women and provide them rest turned into shackles, eventually restricting their movement. With current COVID-19 guidelines restricting mobility and pushing people to their houses, women find themselves in a tough spot.

The process of menstruation necessitates careful attention during the course of the cycle to maintain hygiene. Otherwise, it can cause health problems such as UTIs, stomach discomfort, fever, anemia, and in extreme cases, it can even be fatal. India shows one of the lowest levels of penetration of sanitary pad usage in the world, with only 20% of the female population using them. With a huge menstruating population using locally available resources, there is a barrier in the proper management of periods; however, we cannot totally ignore the traditional and indigenous knowledge of the area. Period management methods of high health standards are required but not at the cost of creating a dependence on commercialised sanitary napkins or other such methods. Here, adopting indigenous resources, reusable and eco-friendly methods should be developed and promoted.

In today’s COVID crisis, where questions are being raised on the essentiality of sanitary pads, it is important to know that female health comes after the basic necessities of Roti, Kapda and Makaan. The financial resources of families have drained to an extent where they cannot feed themselves two square meals a day. In such suffering, taking out money for sanitary pads every month may create a hole in the already burnt pocket. Hence, we need more passionate voices like 19-year-old Mausam Kumari, a young woman from Bihar’s Nawada district who started a microenterprise of sanitary pad banks four years ago and distributed free sanitary pads during the COVID period. The Assam government has included sanitary napkins to the list of relief goods to be provided to women and teenage girls impacted by floods and other environmental catastrophes, acknowledging the necessity of menstrual health management in times of crisis.

The story of period poverty in India involves not only the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products but also insufficient sanitation infrastructure such as private toilets and hand-washing facilities, along with inadequate menstrual hygiene education, dearth of water and other such issues. Period management methods are an essential item, and the debate around it should conclude at the earliest. This period-poverty affects one gender disproportionally more than the other, making it of utmost importance for this gender-based violence affecting women's agency, rights, health, privacy and dignity to stop at the earliest. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the existing barriers in period management.

The most disadvantaged have always been the poorest. Many individuals have lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown, and financially impoverished families are unwilling to splurge on sanitary pads that have forced several women and girls to revert to the old habits of using rags to manage their periods. In many households, purchasing sanitary napkins is becoming a non-essential item since lower-income families started relying on their savings and/or charity. Lack of proper sanitation in slums, poor personal hygiene norms, and the exceedingly cramped living conditions and taboos around menstruation makes it much harder for lakhs of vulnerable women and girls to effectively manage their menstrual cycle.

The consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown cannot be deemed gender-neutral, with menstruating persons bearing an unreasonable share of the burden. During any humanitarian crisis situations, menstrual hygiene and wellbeing are often overlooked, one of the examples being distribution of period management essentials being ignored during the Nepal earthquakes. During the current times when basic hygiene is more important than ever, the need for proper sanitation approaches for women to handle their menstruation is even more critical. The pandemic has significantly disrupted the procurement of menstrual hygiene supplies for Indian women. According to a research by the Menstrual Health Alliance of India (MHAI), 62% of those surveyed claimed that procuring menstrual hygiene products via conventional ways has become difficult, while 22% of the respondents had no availability of these products at all.

In the course of the first phase of the lockdown, sanitary napkins were not on the list of important commodities. As a result of the significant manufacturing and supply shortages, pharmacists, grocery shops, and e-commerce websites experienced a scarcity of menstrual hygiene products as consumers started hoarding these supplies in a fit of panic. Many girls and women were stuck with little alternative but to succumb to the age-old, unsanitary habit of managing their menstruation using old clothes or rags. The authorities subsequently addressed this after a massive public backlash. The pandemic has also hampered the manufacturing of feminine hygiene products by several small and medium-sized businesses that made these products suffer from lack of labour, lack of raw materials, and increasing operating capital as a result of the crisis. Numerous organisations that earlier provided support to these manufacturing facilities have now shifted to making face masks that showed a rising market. The distribution of sanitary napkins through educational institutions and community organisations have also been affected by the pandemic. The distribution of pads to menstruating girls and women to an extent ensured that these methods reached the target population. However, now that the schools closed, the menstruating girls are on their own to navigate their periods. Though it is also a reality that WASH conditions were not satisfactory for all schools in India, they still offered something that the pandemic took away. The pandemic hence affected not only the production and supply of sanitary napkins but also the procurement of soaps, water, clean washrooms, and disposing of methods.

Apart from the physical challenges in demand, supply and operational hindrances in period products and management, there is a need to discuss the effect of lack period management methods on the mental health of women. It is an ignored nevertheless important issue. The pandemic has had an indirect negative effect on mental health. A research conducted in the United Kingdom, found that 53% of the interviewed women showed premenstrual symptoms that deteriorated as a result of the pandemic. Even though a similar study in India is yet to be conducted, it is not without truth that the mental, physical, social and emotional health of menstruating girls and women has been affected by the pandemic.

Thus to confront the above mentioned challenges, organisations and governments should look at methods to disperse sanitary napkins with immediate effect at the mass level. Focus on hygiene awareness with a particular focus on sustainable, eco-friendly methods should be done. Better arrangements for WASH and personal hygiene should be made at all levels. In the 21st century, the progress of young girls and women should not be hampered by a mere monthly occurrence. Surely, the policy-makers and change-makers of the country can use some of the above mentioned recommendations in the policy making and action.




(Disclaimer - The views expressed in this articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Premanu Foundation)

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