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Period Poverty: “Food Is More Important Than Pads”

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This post is a part of Kaksha Crisis, a campaign supported by Malala Fund to demand for dialogue around the provisions in the New Education Policy 2020. Click here to find out more.

We used to get free sanitary pads in school every month, but now because of the closure of schools, we don’t get it anymore, so we use cloth instead. We can’t afford sanitary napkins as they are very expensive. So, they have become a luxury for us,” says Brinda.

How can menstruation be a luxury for people? Isn’t it a human right to have access to basic menstrual hygiene? The reality is different.

sanitary pads in the market

Sanitary Pad Crisis

The pandemic has ushered in the “Sanitary Pad Crisis” for the poor girls from slums and low-income families. Reports reveal that only 36% of the 355 million menstruating women use napkins, the remaining use old cloth, rags, husk, or ash to manage their periods, and around 23 million girls drop out of school annually after they start their periods. These numbers have soared further in the pandemic. Shazia Ahmad, a Delhi-based social worker, says, “As few as only 15% of girls had access to sanitary pads during the lockdown.

Brinda, 16 and her sister Rashi, 14, live in a slum in Kalkaji, South Delhi, and study in Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya, Kalkaji. They live in a family of five, with their parents and a younger brother, in a one-room house. Their parents migrated here 12 years back in search of work from a remote village in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. While their father works as an auto-rickshaw driver, their mother is a domestic worker in a nearby colony.

These girls had suffered a lot to manage their menstruation in the pandemic. Due to the closure of schools, disruption in supply chains, and dwindling of family income, they couldn’t access sanitary napkins and clean, hygienic conditions.

Rags, Newspaper, Leaves

The cloth that we use is made by our mother using old handkerchiefs and used clothes. It feels very uncomfortable, causes rashes and itching, restricts free movement, and we always have to be conscious of it. Even washing and drying the cloth is cumbersome, as we have to constantly rub hard to remove the dark stains without privacy at home. Also, it leads to stains on her pants, so it becomes very humiliating while we go to the washroom, as men stare at us. Therefore, we wake up early to use washrooms during periods“, says Rashi.

However, many women are not even using old and rag clothes. Arunachalam Muruganantham, the activist on whom the biopic Padman was made, says, “Women using cloth in place of sanitary pads is the last of my worries. In my experience, if you go into the interiors of India, women are not even using rag cloth; they are using sawdust, dry tree leaves, ash, and old newspapers. In some parts of the North East, they are applying yellow sand on their private parts.” Therefore, it is tough to imagine that these women are living conditions that are not just bad but inhumane and brutal.

Lack Of Knowledge

I asked the sisters if they knew about menstruation when they had their first periods. “No, I didn’t. I used to think that it was a disease or a problem. But in school, I got to know that it is normal and happens to every girl,” said Brinda.

Not only her, but merely 48% of adolescent girls in India are aware of menstruation before getting their first period. They lack access to reliable and accurate information about their reproductive health and rights. The stigma around menstruation leads parents and teachers to be reluctant to talk about periods. Hence, the girls never get the right information about what is happening to their bodies and thus believe in superstitions and taboos.

Lack Of Clean Washrooms

Isn’t the availability of clean washrooms and enough water supply supposed to be a human right? However, these girls are ripped off this as well. “We have to use public toilets built nearby, and they are very unclean and stinky. I am forced to go there. Also, there is a water shortage, and it is very troublesome to manage during periods,” says Brinda.

Risk Of Infections

Undoubtedly, the unhygienic conditions cause various health hazards and infections in females in rural areas. Rashi says, “I knew that rag cloth, leaves, newspapers, etc., cause infections and diseases. I had learned in school that such methods are risky. But what should I do? I can’t question my parents; they can’t buy such expensive products for us; we have to comply.”

Dr Shanti Narayan, a gynaecologist at a private hospital in New Delhi, explains the health hazards caused by a lack of menstrual hygiene. “If a woman does not have access to menstrual hygiene products, it can increase her chances of contracting diseases like cervical cancer, reproductive tract infections, hepatitis B infection, various types of yeast infections, and urinary tract infections, to name a few,” she says.

She further explains that the lack of clean toilets during menstruation also causes similar health issues. “At least 70 % of all reproductive diseases in women were zeroed in on poor menstrual hygiene, leading to 40,000 cervical cancer deaths every year,” she adds.

Food Over Pads

Despite the impending danger caused by lack of menstrual hygiene, it is still considered unimportant than food. Rashi adds, “Earlier, our family used to buy cheap sanitary napkins, but since the lockdown, our family income has drastically dwindled. So, we prioritize food and grain over sanitary napkins, as that is more important for the survival of the family.

Thus, it is food over periods for the low-income families, even when sanitary napkins have been categorized as an essential product by the government. However, they eat food because they want to survive, but what if a lack of menstrual hygiene endangers their survival? Why is family’s survival more important than the girl’s need? Isn’t she an integral part of the family?

A person holding a pad.
For representation only.

Periods And Patriarchy

All these regressive mindsets germinate from taboos and stigma, which are rooted in patriarchy. It further nurtures the belief that periods are ‘impure’, ‘bad’, ‘unnatural’, and also the people who have them. “I dread my periods because I feel left out. I am not allowed to go to the kitchen, touch food items, do religious rituals, move out of the house, and interact with people“, says Brinda. Doesn’t it resemble the practice of untouchability?

Therefore, these girls have to fight two-fold battles, one with their bodies and the other with society. But the question is, Why is a natural phenomenon like menstruation considered bad? How are girls at fault in this? Why do only girls have to pay the price on behalf of their families?

Periods are very much healthy, pure, and normal. But, the thing that is ‘impure’ and ‘wrong’ is the thinking of the people who deem it to be otherwise.

Periods Should Be A Priority

Firstly, we must understand that periods don’t stop for anything, not even a pandemic. So, it should be equally prioritized as other basic items. The key stakeholders like the government, civil society, and the private sector should painstakingly work together to mitigate the effects of the pandemic and ensure increased accessibility and affordability to quality menstrual health products for all women and girls.

There must also be deliberation on this question: If there can be food and mask distribution drives in a pandemic, why can’t there be distribution drives for sanitary napkins?

Also, the government and the law must treat the ‘right to menstruation’ as a fundamental right because it is a prerequisite for women’s well-being and economic participation, thus affecting the country’s progress.

Thus, the entire narrative for approaching menstruation should change, and a pan India campaign must be introduced for educating girls and their families about menstruation. Also, there is a need to educate the male members of society on menstruation because only then it can be fully normalized and accepted. For this, we need to reach the interiors of the country and counsel people and replace their stereotypical thinking with rational and scientific information regarding menstruation.

Apart from this, there should be an investment in knowledge and education, and the right to education should be equally enforced for both girls and boys. After all, it is education only that can bring a revolution and a paradigm shift in the society, which will ensure an educated and open-minded future generation, who talks about periods like any other ‘normal’ issue, without an iota of shame.

The author is a Kaksha Correspondent as a part of writers’ training program under Kaksha Crisis.

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