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Frontline Workers Explain What It’s Like To Bleed In Protective Gear During Covid 

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Aapko pata hai, mai itni besharam ban gayi hoon in dinon, maine ek male doctor se duty exchange kiya aur unko maine bol diya, ‘mera periods hai, mai nahi kar paungi, aap karlo, I will do yours. (You know, I’ve become so shameless these days, I exchanged my duty with a male doctor and told him, ‘I’m on my period, I won’t be able to do it, I’ll do your duty, you do mine)”, Dr Salma Khan, an anesthesiologist in medical Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Manipal Hospital in Jaipur, laughs as she narrates how she recently exchanged her duty with a male doctor on a particularly painful period day.

Dr Khan and her colleagues across India are some of the frontline workers on duty round-the-clock right now, acting as the barrier between a catastrophic infection and its community spread. On an average day, she is on her feet for 12 hours at a stretch. On the first day of her period, it means wearing a sanitary pad for that long, suffering pain, and not getting a break to change or rest. She takes it in her stride as something she’s learnt to adjust to in her demanding profession, but it’s a daunting challenge nonetheless.

“After six hours in heavy bleeding, how will you manage? In lockdown we also wear PPEs (Protective Personal Equipment) because we come in contact with patients who might be Corona positive,” she says.

Of course I have stained my gown. There’s nothing we can do. What is the option? So I exchanged my duty with a male doctor and told him that as medicos, we should be able to talk about this freely,” she says.

The Covid-19 pandemic has called into work millions of frontline workers who are labouring round the clock to provide essential services to those in need.

Many of these workers –  and there are hundreds and thousands of them right now  –  are also dealing with a deeply personal struggle, invisibilized by others as a non-challenge because of its routine recurrence — that of managing their menstruation.

No Bathroom Breaks: What wearing PPE and working for six hours in summer looks like

Dr Archana B. is a pulmonologist at the Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS), Bengaluru. She tests patients who come in with acute respiratory problems for Covid-19 everyday. On a regular day, she’s on her feet for six to eight hours.

The vivid picture she paints of the bodily discomfort women healthcare professionals go through during long and relentless Covid duties, is indicative of an unaddressed problem in the medical community.

The PPEs are costly — around Rs 2000 each,” Dr Archana says over a phone call from Bengaluru. Which essentially means that the PPEs cannot be mishandled. More importantly, they cannot be taken off during the shift so as not to contract infection, which in turn means the doctors cannot use washrooms in that time. They will be sweating inside the PPEs, bleeding heavily but unable to get out of it till their shifts are over. Add to that dehydration — doctors try to train their bodies by not drinking water prior to their shift to avoid going to the bathroom.

It’s very difficult during the periods. It’s not only the flow, there’s a lot of discomfort also. Some of the women suffer from stomach pains and back pains,” Dr Archana says. “Because you cannot use washrooms while on Covid duty wearing PPEs, you cannot change your pad.

What’s also worrying for her is that hospital administrators who make duty rosters don’t even give women an option to choose Covid duty days. If women menstruators who suffer from acute dysmenorrhea could select the dates of their Covid duty, then they’d work in some other non-isolation wards where PPE is not a requirement on those days, which would offer them at least some relief.

Dr Archana says it’s worrying that even women in decision making positions do not consider this a problem. The nursing staff face the same problem.

The menstrual discomfiture is increased many folds by dehydration, physical isolation, mental exhaustion, being in a PPE in sweltering heat, and genital rashes she says they are likely to get from wearing the same pad for long periods of time. The complete lack of acknowledgement of this when assigning duties, especially by men in charge, speak of a condition that is affecting hundreds of thousands of menstruators, but is not being mainstreamed into conversations.

When Duty Trumps All Else

In rural Madhya Pradesh, Anganwadi workers, paid a meagre Rs 10,000 a month, are walking in the peak of the May heat going door to door to reach ration, sanitary products, and other essentials to people, and to educate them about the risks of Covid 19.

Image credit 1: Directorate of Women & Child Development, Madhya Pradesh. Aaganwadi workers are distributing Ready to Eat #Nutritious Food & Take Home Ration, facilitating #Vaccination, doing door to door #COVID19 Health Survey & monitoring activities, etc. in Mandla District of #MadhyaPradesh.

Babita Bhargava, one such Anganwadi worker in Vidisha, a city about 60 kms from the capital city of Bhopal, cannot imagine taking a day off for acute stomach cramps.

Kya karein, duty toh karna hai na? (what to do, duty calls), Bhargava says. “We have to go into villages, it’s about six to seven hours of work, we keep spare pads in our bags. Thankfully, toilets are available at the Anganwadi centre,” she says. But some days stomach cramps, summer heat, and the work takes a toll. “I was out with a friend from Anganwadi who I could see could not even walk because of stomach cramps,” Bhargava, who surveys about 60-70 houses a day, says.

Image credit 2: Directorate of Women & Child Development, Madhya Pradesh. Field workers of WCDMP are spreading awareness on COVID19 via Wall Writing in Rural areas of Dindori District in #MadhyaPradesh.

Anamika Devi Kurmi, an Anganwadi worker who has been on the job for 13 years, says supervisors will not even entertain the idea of period leave.

Leave is only for extreme illnesses — like if you are running a high fever. Periods come every month. It will be difficult explaining a period leave to supervisors,” she says.

When Using A Toilet Is Out Of Question

Things are tough for journalists too.

On the road is Neelam Pandey, a journalist with The Print, who has been travelling across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar to chronicle stories of Covid.

When we had started off from Lucknow to Bihar, I got down. There were no washrooms available (because restaurants were also shut), so how do you go? It was quite painful for me. I had to use the toilets that were at the petrol pumps. One of them that I managed to get hold of, was quite dirty,” Pandey describes her ordeal. Not all petrol pumps opened their toilets.

There were no dustbins to even dispose of (the pad). I was carrying tissues, I wrapped it up, put it in a polythene, and carried it with me till I could find a bin,” she says. Even at these petrol pumps, she found only a single toilet open which was for men and women both. Pandey says she worried that on top of travelling in pain, she would stain her kurta too from long pad usage due to lack of a place where she could change.

Her travel took her to villages. “You can’t just go to someone’s house and say you want to use the loo. And at one time I even had to do that. There was no option,” she says. She kept encountering open urinals that were suited for men. She speaks of women colleagues in similar situations who have had to relieve themselves in the middle of an open field because of lack of open toilets on the road during this time. Pandey raises the risk that poses to the personal safety of women.

Hindustan Times journalist Prachi Bari, based in Pune, has been going out during the lockdown to report. “I have been either going to the loo before I step out or I hold it in till I make it back home. It’s very hot right now and the more you drink water, the more you want to go to the bathroom so I try to finish a story as soon as possible,” Bari says.

I would not think of using a toilet outside during Covid. Sometimes in an emergency, we request the Pune Union of Working Journalists office to open the ladies toilet, but there are not many on the field,” Bari says.

Manasi Saxena, a relief worker in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, has been working long hours to reach essentials to those hit by riots in North East Delhi during the NRC and CAA protests. When the lockdown was enforced, her work automatically shifted to providing relief to migrants and daily wagers. Her campaign Asha has already raised ₹10,00000.

With the general stress, she says her period stress has also gone up, a common enough problem around the world during times of disruption and trauma. Saxena, who runs an organisation called Encompassion, that works on strengthening communities through Nonviolent Communication (NVC), says her periods came earlier than they usually do, for the first time.  She’s never had an issue with her cycle. “I think the stress has got to me this time.

The lack of toilets is a glaring example of how city infrastructure doesn’t keep menstruators in mind. “If you see the images (in news), it’s mostly men who are outside. (And) it hasn’t really occurred to make facilities for women,” Pandey points out.

The lack of public facilities as menstruators step out to perform essential tasks during this lockdown, or migrant workers take the journey home on foot with girls and children in tow, and callous lack of thought that goes into assigning work for women who are afraid to ask for a period leave fearing rebuke, makes it obvious that women’s reproductive health isn’t a priority in the struggle to keep them in the workforce.

Featured image courtesy of Shambhavi Saxena.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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