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How Did The Indian Media Cover Menstruation During The Pandemic?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Posted by Subhiksha Manoj with inputs from Pratyusha Varanasi and Bharti Kannan from Boondh

The media has a huge role to play in the way people perceive the world around them. It keeps us in a constant loop, informing us of the ever-evolving outlook and environment of our society. With the growing challenge of stepping out into the real world at this time, our collective dependency on the media only grows deeper.

This is why it is imperative to look into how the media has covered menstruation during the pandemic. What sort of landscape has it painted?

Female Frontline Warriors

One of the most widely reported perspectives under the subject of menstruation was the female frontline workers, doctors and nurses’s experiences of going through their periods while working with a PPE kit on.

Menstruation

The story above is an example of how the media gave women the platform to talk about their menstrual experience with its interconnections to the workplace and the exceptional practises that came with the pandemic. However, not all of these interconnections have completely received its due attention. The media has missed a golden opportunity to make use of the power of anecdotes to further explore and educate the readers about two glaring concerns.

  1. Lack of adopting a gendered approach to product designs
  2. Absence of menstrual policies in the workplace

This is why several articles released so far have explained to the reader why their cycle is irregular, however, have discussed very little about the effects of the same factors on menstruators living with disorders like PCOS, where irregular menstruation is a pre-existing characteristic; and others like PMS/PME where vulnerabilities are exacerbated due to change in lifestyle, stress, etc. 

Had there been no coronavirus pandemic, my female colleagues would have offered me sanitary napkins,...” the article stated above continues, “…my male colleagues would have told me to take it easy and take the day off. Because when you’re a doctor, surrounded by doctors, menstruation is not a taboo.

But what about menstruating persons who belong to other professions?

Evidently, it is not so easy for all to take a day off as a result of mutual understanding within the workspace, whether it may be pre-menstrual or during the bleeding phase. It is so important to explore these angles that show themselves so effortlessly in these personal narratives.

Irregularity In Periods

The second major bunch of articles on the subject were around reported irregular period concerns in a larger number of menstruating persons. It was also reported that “unexpected irregularities in periods” was one of the topmost queries that arise on teleconsultations platforms like Practo.

Menstruation

Articles like the one above, are supported by expert opinions and anecdotes that talk about the impacts that lifestyle changes, mental stress, mental and physical health and food habits have on menstrual cycles.

However, these factors were always dealt with in silos by the media, until very recently. This is why, several articles released so far have explained to the reader why their cycle is irregular, however, have discussed very little about the effects of the same factors on menstruators living with disorders like PCOS, where irregular menstruation is a pre-existing characteristic; and others like PMS/PME where vulnerabilities are exacerbated due to change in lifestyle, stress, etc.

Disposable Pad Crisis Triggered

The media coverage on the interrupted supply chain and the production of sanitary napkins has looked at the problem with reference to the lockdown. This was tied to the government’s delay in listing menstrual health and hygiene products on the essential commodities list.

Menstruation

Two female law students petitioned the court to include disposable pads in the Public Distribution System as an essential product. The court responded that it will positively consider this petition. However, the final decision was delayed by an affidavit stating that “the petitioners were making sweeping allegations about the government machinery not functioning properly during the lockdown.” This affidavit was submitted by MoHFW under-secretary Dilip Kumar Sahu.

A number of media outlets were making the connection between the supply cut to the implementation of various government schemes. One major scheme being the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescents Girls, by the Women and Child Development Ministry, which states that schools will be a key chain in the distribution of sanitary napkins and MHH – SRSH related knowledge to young girls, 11 to 18 years of age. Anganwadi Centers and ASHA Workers are also two other key components in the distribution channel from within the purview of the Health Departments/Ministry.

Also read: Menstruation Is Natural. Myths Around Menstruation Are Social Constructs.

It is interesting that we in fact have a decent distribution mechanism already in place to make disposable pads accessible (if not in emergencies like a pandemic or lockdown) to all. The drop in the production of disposable pads due to lockdown, triggered this crisis, right? But what if there is a way to circumvent these challenges, especially during emergencies? The question is also beyond a supply but establishing a well-oiled humanitarian supply chain that has a gender lens.

The drop in the production of disposable pads due to lockdown, triggered this crisis, right? But what if there is a way to circumvent these challenges, especially during emergencies? 

Very few articles have uncovered this aspect of the story. There is also a lack of focus on the plight in disaster/emergency zones and how disposable pads pollute/aggravate the litter. Sustainable alternatives like cloth pads, period panties are all truly most apt for emergencies provided enough IEC and WASH infrastructure is in place, as they can be used and reused for longer periods of time, not including menstrual cups. To be able to unpack this, one has to understand the history of menstrual products in India.

The Scroll’s article tracks the business incentive and the politics behind the success of disposable pads in the market. The product was used to highlight a shift in lifestyle that was desirable. The disposable pads would be advertised as a “modern and efficient” alternative to the “oppressive old ways”. Once one participates in this market, one is stuck in a recurring pattern—a cycle where the “need” was constructed and can be incentivised for decades.

Media

It is time to reevaluate the production and distribution of disposable pads and push for the introduction of sustainable products in government schemes, among a basket, where the focus is still on the informed choice and agency of the beneficiary/consumer.

If the government does not include sustainable products like cups and cloth pads, it means that it is reluctant to tackle the core of MHH and the taboo surrounding it. Think about it. If people use a cup/cloth pad, they need to touch their blood to wash and reuse. Why isn’t the government ready to use this as an opportunity to let people confront taboos around menstruation? We must get comfortable with our own bodies,” says Namrata, the Co-Founder and Director of Anahat Foundation for Change, Kolkata.

It is also said that “these products promise much for women in poorer regions of the world because they are a much cheaper and environmentally friendly alternative to disposable pads.” Again a problematic way to approach choice based product usage reiterating class-based approach to product uptake.

The best way to minimise the blow of uncertainty in terms of inaccessibility or unavailability of MHH products is equipping menstruators with the “information on making, using and maintaining homemade cloth pads safely.” Organisations like Jatan Sansthan provide detailed guidance on homemade cloth pads and their hygienic maintenance.

Further, the media is mostly oblivious to the aspect of the invisible every-month labour of not just bleeding but all the phases of the menstrual cycle, as preparatory labour that one chooses to exercise to procreate. With the invisibilisation of labour stems the invisibilisation of one’s fundamental and rightful access to knowledge, products and ancillary services. Media outlets that did raise the pertinent point of interrupted disposable pads, in tandem failed to point out the lack of WASH services or undergarments required to even use a disposable pad. The need to report beyond the silos of a crisis that has larger underpinnings to the landscape of experiences needs to come out more nuanced and elaborately. This could surely influence efforts in developing, designing and implementing programs on MHH itself.

Also read: ‘Period Leave’, Period. Unlearning The Bias Against Menstruation At Workplace

Disposable pads cannot be the band-aid holding together the multiple urgent aspects in the MHH sector. The mainstream media majorly smoothens the entire discussion around menstruation and MHH by plainly making it a black and white issue, by reporting on the issues that arise more easily. Filling in the grey areas is the only way we can rip the band-aid and start healing the wounds, like the taboo, which will invariably strengthen the whole discussion around the subject and most definitely result in policy change.

The article was first published here.

Boondh is a social enterprise working in the space of menstrual health, literacy, policy advocacy, and sustainable products. COVID X Menstruation is a series of articles that explores menstrual health and hygiene along multiple intersections like menstrual programming, product supply, government policies, civil society interventions, mental health, and more. You can follow them on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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