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Did COVID-19 Widen The Access Gap For Rural Menstruators?

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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.

By Upasana Behar

The lifting of the nationwide lockdown, albeit in phases, has come as a relief for the vulnerable groups. The lockdown, that had started with clapping and banging of utensils, the lighting of lamps to honour the work of frontline workers, soon turned into a sequence of unjust events that affected every human being belonging to the lowest strata.

During the lockdown, each day brought a new challenge for the marginalised communities. Migrant workers, daily wage labourers, domestic help, the homeless people were the ones to suffer the most. Videos revealing the plight of these affected communities shook the conscious of the citizens of this country. Many people, societies, and organisations came forward to help.

Representational image. Credit: Reuters

What remained invisible from the headlines were the other secondary impacts of the pandemic that majorly affected adolescent girls, women, and children. Cases of domestic violence and violence against children increased during the lockdown. The COVID-19 outbreak and the measures to control it also impacted the girls’ and women’s ability to manage their menstruation and their health.

In a country like ours, where menstrual hygiene is still considered to be a taboo by majority of the population including women themselves, the lockdown severely impacted the health of menstruators and their accessibility to menstrual hygiene products. The lockdown limited the reach and the impact hindered the efforts of the organisations working on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM), especially in rural areas.

In a survey conducted by the Menstrual Health Alliance India (MHAI), it was observed that menstruating girls and women had decreased accessibility to toilets and menstrual hygiene products due to increased presence of male and older family and community members around them.

The survey also highlighted the limited availability of products in the markets during the lockdown. “62% of respondents stated that in the communities they work with, access from regular channels for consumers has become challenging and 22% organizations report that there is no access to menstrual products.

Clearly, the two-month lockdown further weakened the menstrual hygiene management for the menstruating women and girls especially in the rural and remote regions of the country.

Representational image.

The picture was equally, if not more, grimmer before the lockdown. Indian women’s accessibility and availability to menstrual hygiene products have always been a concern. To save themselves from the ‘systematised’ embarrassment, they attend to not buy sanitary pads from the market and expose themselves to several reproductive health issues.

While many women use absolutely no absorbent material during periods, a large population uses cloth, wool, soil, bits of hay, and ash. According to a study conducted by Rutgers, an organisation working on sexual and reproductive health, 89% women in India used cloth, 2% used cotton wool, 7% sanitary pads and 2% ash for the absorption material during their menstrual periods. Only 60% of women who used cloth, admitted to changing it only once a day leading to menstrual infection.

The most common explanation given by young adolescent girls who follow such practice is that “they feel uncomfortable changing, washing and drying the cloth in front of male members of the family.”

Another report by Dasra, released in 2014, found that 71% of girls remain unaware about the process of menstruation till they attain puberty i.e. they had no idea about what was happening to them when they received their first period. One can only imagine the immense emotional pressure on this 71 % of girls who, out of fear and stigma, choose to remain silent.

And, it is not the story of just one state. As revealed by a 2014 UNICEF report, 79 % girls and women in Tamil Nadu, 66% girls in Uttar Pradesh, 56% in Rajasthan and 51% in West Bengal were reportedly unaware of menstrual hygiene practices.

Grim Situation In Rural Madhya Pradesh

The Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh fares the worst when it comes to menstrual hygiene management in its rural areas. According to the National Family and Health Survey – 4 (NHFS-4), only 26.4% of girls in the age group of 15-24 use absorbing material during their periods while in urban parts this percentage is 65.4.

Like the rest of the Indian states, women and girls in Madhya Pradesh consider themselves impure during their menstrual periods. In a study conducted by Amity Business School, Gwalior, many women said that they considered “menstruation as a curse of God.”

Representational image.

In villages, it is common for women to not discuss their menstrual cycle with anyone, not even with their mothers, sisters or husbands as they see it as a matter of impurity. The unawareness makes them believe that they’re ‘impure’ or ill during the time of their menstrual cycles.

As in other parts of India, during their cycles, women and girls are prohibited from entering the kitchen, having a bath, coming into contact with vessels containing drinking water, sleeping in the same room as others, and entering temples and unquestioningly, they accept these restrictions.

Addressing The Taboo Around Menstrual Hygiene Management

In 2014, the Germany-based NGO WASH United initiated a programme to highlight the importance of safe menstrual hygiene management and recognised May 28 as ‘Menstrual Hygiene Day’ (MH Day). Every year on MH Day, government and non-government agencies, the private sector, the media, and individuals come together to celebrate MH Day and advocate for the importance of good menstrual hygiene management (MHM) across the globe. Indian states also participate in the programme.

The state and central governments, over the years, have launched several initiatives aimed at addressing the root-causes of the issue. The Freeday Pad Scheme was launched by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in 2010. Since then, many states have started providing sanitary pads either completely free or at subsidised rates to menstruating girls and women.

The most recent and extensive actions have been launched under the Swachh Bharat Mission. According to a report published on NDTV’s website, “The Swachh Bharat (Gramin) guidelines explicitly state that funds allocated for information, education and communication (IEC) maybe spent on bettering awareness on menstrual hygiene in villages. Adequate knowledge of menstrual hygiene and development of local sanitary napkin manufacturing units is encouraged by Swachh Bharat Mission (rural) and self-help groups are to help in propagating such efforts.”

In Madhya Pradesh, an initiative like Udita Corner, that aims at disbursing low-cost sanitary pads to girls and counsel them on menstrual hygiene through Anganwadi Centres, have taken one step towards addressing the gaps. State’s capital Bhopal was the first railway station in the country to install sanitary napkin vending machine ‘Happy Nari’ with the help of a local NGO called ‘Arushi’.

The collaborative efforts of state and central government have undoubtedly made progress. Many non-profit organisations are also working extremely hard to reach out to menstruating girls and women in rural areas and create awareness among them. The ultimate goal is to make everyone aware and make menstrual hygiene management products available and accessible to them.

This pandemic has taught us an important lesson that periods do not stop for pandemics – which is also the theme for this year’s MH Day. This is the time that we intensify our efforts to ensure that periods are no more seen as a taboo topic and enable people to have safe and healthy periods.

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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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