By Subhanshi Negi*
It is somewhat ironic that even when we are amidst a major national health crisis, one of the paramount health issues of ‘menstrual hygiene,’ which is recognized as global public health and human right by the United Nations, is being thrust aside by the Government of India. Many organizations have pointed out that India is suffering from ‘period poverty.’
The estimates leave everyone dumbstruck. National Family Health Survey 2015-16 reveals that only about 36% of women in India have access to sanitary napkins — during their menstruation cycle. And the number happens to be more concentrated in urban areas. (no surprises there!). 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to a lack of proper menstrual hygiene.
The issue becomes all the more pressing considering the fact that India is one of the countries with the highest rates of cervical cancer, which majorly occur due to a lack of menstrual hygiene. Studies have claimed that every 8 minutes, an Indian woman dies due to it, making it the second most common cancer among Indian women.
These figures tend to deteriorate further with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic if proper intervention is not taken soon enough. When the unprecedented lockdown was announced in the country for the first time on March 24, 2020, a list of essential items was released by the Government of India, which did not mention sanitary napkins explicitly.
It was only on March 29 when the chemists, grocery stores, and online sites reported that they were running out of sanitary products, that the Women and Child Development Ministry presented an updated list of essential items that included sanitary products. This delay in decision making caused significant disruptions in the demand and supply of the product in the market.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that when the lockdown was announced, the demand for sanitary products spiked quickly. Privileged people from the well to do sections of society hoarded, leaving the unprivileged with little or no options. In some areas, the price hike was reported due to demand spurt and finite supply.
A working paper by researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of British Columbia covered a sample of 1392 individuals in slums and unauthorized colonies of Delhi and found that weekly income of nine out of ten people had fallen to zero.
Given the circumstances, how does one expect a woman to buy sanitary napkin instead of food with almost no money? Such incidents further highlight the issue of the unaffordability of sanitary napkins in the country by the majority.
The production and distribution process of the supply chain was also greatly hampered at all stages. The hold up caused nearly ten days of the production loss. Even now, all factories have not been functioning to their full capacity. India’s borders closing for imports added another hindrance to the supply problem.
Another significant source of distribution that has come to a standstill is schools. With all schools shut for months, across the country, schoolgirls cannot avail the facility of free sanitary pads, worsening the scope of accessibility.
This catastrophe has been an eye-opener to all. It has pushed the deprived communities into acute distress, making their agony visible to all. But is this event gender neutral? Experts say that it has hugely widened the already existing gender disparity all over the globe. This is a more concerning issue in developing countries like India, where the majority of the poor and migrants happen to be female.
The plight of migrant workers leaving cities and heading back home to their villages, often under inhumane conditions, is quite revealing; however, it’s just a trailer of the ground-breaking reality. Most media coverage shows men in the limelight, leaving aside women workers pushing them to the background, much like always.
None of the government interventions included sanitary napkins. Was the fact that periods don’t stop during national health crisis forgotten?
Migrant and poor women feature perhaps the lowest on the human ladder, and unfortunately, they are the most exposed and vulnerable at this moment. It has been more than two months of lockdown, and almost every woman would have experienced her menstrual cycle twice, at-least. Were they able to access sanitary pads during that time? Or even seek help from anyone?
These few questions can be answered with almost certainty- the majority of them would have bled silently or at most used some cloth or rug. However, come to think about it, it may not seem so appalling, given that the topic has almost always been brushed under the carpet-being considered as a stigma and taboo.
This is compounded by the cultural and social influence of the society where it is considered ‘dirty’ and ‘impure.’ The majority of the discussion about menstrual hygiene is restricted to one’s bedroom that too among the educated and privileged ones.
Considering all the facts and figures, the question remains: What has the Government done to tackle this vital issue? It did take few crucial steps to ensure the well being of the masses like allocation of additional ration from the PDS to the poor at a low price, distribute the ‘essential kit’ mainly comprising of food grains, oil, soap, detergent, mask to the migrants and needy.
What is striking is that none of these interventions included sanitary napkins in them. Was the fact that periods don’t stop even during a national health crisis, forgotten? Or sanitary napkins are not considered an essential commodity yet in this country? It may not be necessary for survival, but it is a prerequisite for healthy living, which makes it an essential product.
Other than government, many stepped up to offer help, especially to the communities that have felt the most significant hit. But only a few of us realized that along with hunger-there is another battle to be fought. There was a silver lining when individuals like Vikas Khanna and Akshay Kumar with the help of NGOs (Samarpan, Giggles, Shy & Smile) and companies like Niine, Paree and Whisper took the initiative to help in the production and distribution process.
“It’s a small effort to ensure menstrual hygiene for women already burdened by economic and physical woes,” said Bibhu Prasad Sahu, director, Youth for Social Development. In a few states like Punjab and Haryana, even the police department reached out. It’s incredible to see so many working day and night to endeavor regular supply of sanitary pads to donate or distribute them at the lowest price possible. With the efforts of many individuals, millions of women have received sanitary napkins during this distress.
They say, ‘every small milestone is a victory,’ but are these efforts enough to make a breakthrough? Is the Government doing enough for all these women? I am not sure. When just a few people and organizations with limited resources and reach can help so many women, imagine what the Government can do with all the available resources, reach and power it has.
Will the Government help to put together the health system around menses that’s been wildly missing through centuries? Can we save all the progress we started making around this ‘unsaid’ topic though movies like “Padman” and campaign like #yesbleeed, in the past few years?
*Student at South Asian University, pursuing post-graduation in development economics