“Aise time pe kaun en ladkiyon ke baare mein sochega? Kapda istemaal karne se infection hone lage hain…” (Who is going to think about these girls in this situation? They have started getting infections from using cloth.)
In the lockdown-hit Thob village of Rajasthan, Renu Gaur had to travel 30 km on her Scooty to collect sanitary napkins for menstruators in her community. She and her community are amongst the millions across India, whose right to bleed with dignity was compromised, as COVID-19 brought upon an unexpected nationwide lockdown.
While most of us are at home, locked down, with our lives on hold, there are many who don’t have a place to call home and are the most vulnerable to the infection and disease. Women, girls and children are the ones most affected by the virus outbreak as in the case of any humanitarian crisis.
Lockdown has brought nations around the world to a standstill. We run the risk of losing the gains made for millions to the pandemic. The road to rebuild lives will be harder, unless we prioritise those on the margins, who are pushed further behind.
Another group, however, is waiting in the shadows, with urgent and unique problems that don’t capture the media’s imagination. With a deadly airborne virus claiming lives, menstruation needs of young women are further pushed from consideration. This is apparent in the fact that when the government first announced the list of essential goods that would remain available during lockdown, menstrual products didn’t feature. It took protests and a tweet (dated March 29) from Smriti Irani for sanitary products to qualify.
A taboo and heavily silenced subject, awareness about menstrual hygiene and sexual and reproductive healthcare among adolescents is already poor in India, with over 23 million adolescent girls dropping out of school upon attaining menarche. The lockdown only made matters worse.
And yet, despite the risks and challenges, there are stories of hope and inspiration to be found in girls like Renu Gaur.
When the supply chain of sanitary pads in her village near Jodhpur halted due to lockdown, and even Anganwadis and government health centres had minimal to no supply, Renu decided to take matters into her own hands.
She wrote a letter demanding distribution of sanitary napkins to local authorities, which went unheard initially. Undaunted, she approached Dr Vivek at the Government Hospital, Osian, which is located 30 km from her village—Thob. Upon hearing that she would be able to procure sanitary pads from him, Renu travelled in her Scooty all the way to the hospital and back, just to ensure that the girls in her village had their hygiene requirements fulfilled.
In another part of the country, Nitu Kumari from Bihar also led by example to ensure women in her community could bleed with dignity. The community she lives in is based far from the main market, and the menstruators in the community found it hard to afford sanitary napkins, which were being sold at high prices in the few shops nearby.
Determined to ensure that the girls in her community didn’t resort to unhygienic methods of managing their periods, Nitu began using locally-sourced materials like old saris and leftover fabric from tailor shops to make sustainable, reusable and safe-to-use sanitary napkins.
Home-made, affordable and environment friendly, Nitu’s cloth pads served as a wonderful initiative for the girls there, who didn’t have to travel far for thier sanitary needs amid the lockdown.
In a place where young girls don’t even speak about periods, Nitu also began teaching other girls in her community how to make and use these pads safely. Her swift action has helped menstruators in her community become self-reliant during the lockdown and is also bringing a change in their hygiene practices in the long run.
She proudly reveals, “My mother says she is proud of me for leading the change in the community, I am happy we are able to survive,” while hoping to be an example for other girls in villages like hers.
Clearly, as a society we’re still a long way from completely eradicating period stigma, and the pandemic has revealed just how deep the issue runs for many girls in the country.
Yet, hope persists in she-roes like Nitu and Renu, who have come forward to help their communities maintain dignified and healthy lives.
As we prepare to exit Lockdown 4.0, what is your message of solidarity and hope for girls like Nitu and Renu? What solutions would you suggest to help them overcome such challenges? Publish your story on YKA with #EveryOneCounts, and stand a chance to get published in a book!
#EveryOneCounts is a joint initiative between United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Save the Children and Youth Ki Awaaz to create conversations around how in the fight against the coronavirus, everyone counts, and every voice, every action can make a difference.
Note: This post was written by Namita Gupta, with inputs, research and stories from Save the Children India.