There are an estimated 336 million women who menstruate in India, according to the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16. When the nationwide lockdown was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, millions of women were, and still are, affected by the severe restrictions imposed by the government.
84% of women said that their access to sanitary products was limited in a study con-ducted in mid-April by Menstrual Health Alliance of India (MHAI) and WaterAid India. Of the 84% women, 62% women experienced challenges while 22% women had zero access to menstrual products. It is clear that lockdown had exacerbated the already existing problems in the realm of menstrual health in India:
- Lack of access to sanitary products.
- Lack of affordability of sanitary products.
- Lack of awareness about sanitary products.
Of the 366 million women who menstruate, only 121 million (36%) use sanitary products that are locally or commercially produced.
Even though sanitary products are listed as ‘essential commodities’ under The Disaster Management Act (2005), the lockdown impacted access to them:
- In rural regions, the break in the supply chain and lack of money meant that many women could not obtain sanitary products.
- In semi-urban and urban regions, the phenomenon of panic buying led to shortages of sanitary products. Also, the avenue of online shopping was temporarily closed as well.
In the same study conducted by MHAI, it was revealed that local production of sanitary napkins during lockdown was also impacted. 58% of small and medium scale manufacturing units were not operating and 37% units were completely non-operational due to lack of raw material or labor.
Due to the sudden unemployment and resulting financial crisis triggered by the lock-down, many disadvantaged and poor families' prioritized food and water rather than sanitary napkins.
As the government stopped all transport facilities, millions of migrant families and their children were forced to walk back home to their villages. The mass exodus, un-precedented in recent times, prompted governments and concerned citizens to donate and aid the migrants with food, drinking water, sanitation, special bus and train tickets, etc. Many women would have been forced to utilize unsafe materials such as cloth rags or plastic bags to manage their period, which can cause health problems like reproductive tract infections and cancers.
The culture of stigma combined with the lack of proper education about menstrual health is one of the main reasons for poor hygiene/sanitation facilities for women. It is a vicious cycle that continues the cycle of stigma.
Mental and Physical Stress
According to studies, many women experience painful symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, such as headaches, cramping, spotting and body pains during difficult or stressful times in one’s life. A healthy diet and routine can solve such issues but, it is a luxury that poor women can ill afford.
What can we do to help?
- Sensitizing the Indian citizenry about problems and health issues faced by poor women.
- Donate to or aid rehabilitation and relief programmers for displaced families.
- Stocking free sanitary pads or installing vending machines in strategic areas such as bus stops and train stations.
- Spread awareness and knowledge about alternative eco-friendly methods of manag-ing periods like reusable cloth pads, menstrual cups, etc.
- Prioritizing health of women and children by providing free medical assistance.
As the world adjusts to the ‘new normal’ and beyond, we should work together to fight the challenges of lockdown and uplift the downtrodden. The largely invisible menstrual issues of poor women should be brought to light and highlighted in the na-tional discourse. That is the first step in handing women the dignity they deserve and a sense of self-esteem.