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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 25, New Delhi, June 5, 2021

As Pandemic Surges, Indian Women Crippled with Limited Access to Menstrual Products | Ananya Pathak

Friday 4 June 2021


by Ananya Pathak *

It is estimated that 1.8 billion women across the world menstruate every month, but ironically millions of women continue to be denied access to facilities to ensure a dignified period. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, gender inequality, social taboos, stigma and discrimination accompanied by poverty continue to deny women access to basic menstrual products and health services. NFHS Data from 2015-16 suggests that out of an estimated 336 million women in the menstruating age bracket only 121 million or 36% use sanitary products both locally and commercially produced. In urban areas 21% women use home-made and often unsafe products and in rural areas over 50% use similar products. The survey findings indicate that access to safe sanitary products depends on family income and an increase/decline in family wealth impacts access to commercially produced sanitary products. The COVID-19 pandemic has decreased women’s access to safe period products and increased usage of home-made products responsible for causing reproductive problems and leading to infectious due to unhygienic usage, according to UNICEF.

Dignified Menstruation: A Multi-Dimensional Problem Erected by the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that menstrual hygiene is a multi-dimensional problem in the country and the challenges associated with it have become even more complex in the last couple of months with a large section of Indian women having lack of access to sanitary products. It is ironic that while May 28 is globally celebrated as Menstrual Hygiene Day with the mission of generating awareness about the importance of menstrual health, millions of Indian women don’t have access to basic period products let alone mechanisms to ensure a dignified and hygienic period each month.

The pandemic has made things worse especially owing to a countywide lockdown that first began in March 2020 where ample reports from across the country made it clear that the lack of menstrual products had now turned into some sort of crisis and this problem had accentuated as sanitary pads were left out from the government’s notified list of “essential products.”

With pharmacies and medical stores running out of stocks, women across the country reported major issues in accessing sanitary products until they were finally included in the list of essential products.

But even today as we experience the second wave of the pandemic, several challenges associated with women’s access to sanitary products prevail.

Leaving Out a Whole Generation of Young Girls

The prolonged closure of schools has been high up on the list of problems accentuating the problem of access to sanitary products, as schools were responsible for distributing pads to enrolled young girls thereby making it immensely difficult for girls especially in rural-remote areas to stock up on pads. With declined family incomes, it has become a more difficult prospect for women to prioritise the purchase of menstrual products or travel to nearby towns and cities to access them due to restrictions both within the family as well as those associated to government regulated curbs on movement.
In the absence of proper menstrual products a large section of women have had to go back to homemade menstrual products such as cloth rags easily available within the domestic unit but often not the best possible alternative to designated menstrual hygiene products.

Moreover, limited family incomes accompanied by large scale unemployment have compelled families to prioritise food and medication over menstrual products which are often seen as ‘luxury products’. Young girls stepping into puberty and experiencing their first period are at a greater loss as schools which acted as agents of communication on reproductive health, menstrual hygiene etc have shut their doors and thereby impacted access to critical education/awareness for an entire generation of Indian women in these critical times.

It becomes clear that along with access to menstrual products, we as a country also face challenges such as those around its affordability and availability and access to knowledge and information regarding the importance of menstrual hygiene and reproductive health.

It is also very important that misinformation regarding menstruation on social media is restricted and all users of sanitary products are sensitised on methods of proper disposal and techniques of minimising its adverse implications on local environments.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has erected a series of menstruation related challenges in front of us, it has also given us an opportunity to rethink and reinvent our approach to sanitary health in a more holistic way so as to account for and incorporate not just the question of access but even factors like generation and dissemination of information on menstrual health and hygiene and disposal of sanitary products.

In a patriarchal society like India where period taboos and stigma often bring about social and cultural disadvantages for women, there is a lot that still needs to be done in terms of sensitising women against unsafe practices and superstitions/taboos/stigma associated with menstruation. The pandemic has also highlighted the urgency and immediate need of a long-term effective plan to democratise access to sanitary products and information on menstrual health not just because in its absence women’s health is adversely impacted but also because it impacts their access to a life of dignity and welfare and their presence in the public sphere.

(Author: Ananya Pathak is a journalist working on grassroot movements and women’s rights)

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