Menstruators in India have borne the brunt of the pandemic because of the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. The taboo around the topic of menstruation adds on to their plight as many were at home with their families getting their first period with no safe space to ask questions or have peer support.
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According to the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, 62% of women in India use cloth during their periods. This percentage is likely to have increased significantly during the pandemic when families have suffered income losses and unemployment. As the migrant crisis hit the country, the problems of migrant women walking large distances on their periods hardly came to the forefront. When it comes to choosing between a day’s food and menstrual products, women have shifted to using unhealthy and harmful ways of managing their periods like using rags, leaves, and ash.
The work of NGOs and government bodies in making menstrual health products available to underprivileged women took a stand-still during the lock-down. Sumati Joshi, co-founder of Mission SanScar that works to improve reproductive health and hygiene in India says, “Programs working towards improving menstrual health and hygiene have halted. This poses a grave danger because the progress we made in the last few years to bridge the gap in terms of access to menstrual products is at risk. It will be difficult to get funding for these projects and restart work. During the pandemic, many priorities have changed. Women’s reproductive health might not be at the top of the list of pressing issues for some time now”.
Sumati was a part of the first mobilization with BMC during the lockdown to provide menstrual products to the urban slums. She states that the slums rely on water tankers for the supply of water which had stopped during the lock-down. This meant that menstruators had a lack of access to water to wash their cloth used during periods. The containment of many areas restricted them from leaving the house and buying sanitary products if possible and the lack of privacy in limited spaces with the entire family home deprived them of having a safe space. Many were hesitant to put out the cloth to dry. The slums do not have separate bathrooms which made it difficult for the women to navigate spaces at home during their periods. She also worked with local entrepreneurs in Kashmir, helping women get sanitary pads. The problems of locating local entrepreneurs during a lock-down and the internet ban in Kashmir made it hard to locate local suppliers. A common question received in the safe spaces she organized for women to ask questions was around delayed periods. She says this could be because of the stress of the pandemic which emphasizes the relationship between mental health and menstrual health.
The Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakram implemented by the government aims to enhance menstrual health knowledge, improve hygiene practices, provide subsidized sanitary absorbents, and raise awareness of menstrual health at schools. The supply of these products to girls going to government schools has stopped as schools have been shut. This has disabled their access to menstrual products at subsidized rates and they have had to switch to cloth.
While menstruators struggle at home without any access to safe spaces, healthcare workers across India, a large part of which are menstruators, had to stay in PPE Kits for long hours, often free bleeding or taking pills to delay their periods. Another struggle was of women nearing or in menopause. Beena Joseph, a nurse working in Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan hospital which is a COVID-19 hospital in Delhi says that she had to stay in a PPE kit for long hours, wrapped up in protective gear as the hot flashes made her sweat excessively. The layering of clothes in the protective gear would make her feel excessively hot. Since she could not remove the PPE kit for long hours it became a hurdle in her work. This happened while being on rounds tending to patients.
Women’s reproductive health has taken a back-seat during the pandemic and this crisis is likely to create a lack of menstrual health knowledge among adolescent girls. Lack of access to safe abortions and contraceptives has presented another danger to women’s health.