“Periods don’t stop for pandemic but access to period products do”.
While this may sound clichéd, this is a reality for millions of girls and women in India. Unfortunately, the worst hit are the ones living in underserved last mile rural communities. A report from a rapid survey by Menstrual Health Alliance India which was shared on May 21 highlighted that 84% of the NGOs indicated that there is either no or very poor access to period products in communities that they work in, especially sanitary pads.
The concerns regarding the availability of period products were raised in the first phase of lockdown when they were not in the list of essential items. Within a week, period products were included to be essential, but for the factories that make them limited stock of raw materials, migration of workers from cities to their villages and not being able to work at full capacity created a huge imbalance between demand and supply. This shortage of supply became acute in remote rural communities because of interruption of regular transportation services combined with restrained mobility.
Government, organizations and corporates have swung into action to distribute sanitary pads and as India has entered into lockdown 5.0 (or Unlock 1.0) with careful relaxations, it might have been predicted that the supply will improve. However, the situation is grim in many rural communities. Raman*, a grassroots health worker, said, “I am tired of saying this again and again - girls and women in these hard to reach villages still don’t have access to sanitary pads. We need more supplies immediately”.
The need of the hour is concrete steps that account for the lived realities of those in marginalized communities. To that end, the following ideas should be adopted to ensure quick availability of period products that can help the most girls and women in need as well as their communities.
Free supply of period products
In the pre-covid era, girls attending schools were given a monthly supply of pads for free. This has been stopped due to closure of schools. With meagre income and at a time livelihood had almost halted, buying sanitary pads is an added expense when feeding the family becomes a priority. As such, the government should supply period products with the help of community health workers for free not only to school going girls but to all girls and women who don’t have access and are forced to resort to unhygienic ways to manage their period.
Offer a range of products along with a complete hygiene kit
While it is heartening to see individuals, civil societies and corporations coming forward to donate sanitary pads in some of these underserved communities, we need to understand that all girls and women don’t use a single kind of product. For example, many in rural areas don’t wear underwear, so for them sticking on sanitary pads or cloth pads which get attached to underwear will not work. Either we need to provide the ones with belts or underwear along with the products. Ideally, some of the relief kits should have cloth pads and some disposable sanitary pads and the distributing teams can offer these choices to the girls and women. In addition, the kit should also include soap, underwear as well as newspapers for disposals, especially for the women migrant workers who are travelling long distances to return home or are at the quarantine centres.
Decentralized production- Local production to meet local demand
Governments should procure locally made pads instead of buying the pads from factories. Self Help Groups and local Civil society organizations should be deployed for this task which will meet local demands as well as create employment in these times of limited livelihood opportunities. A good example to follow is the Women and Child Development Department, Government of Madhya Pradesh, who have contracted Self Help Groups in all districts to produce sanitary pads for quick availability in the communities. It should also be expected from the government authorities to provide necessary support to these Self Help Groups in accessing capital and raw materials.
Fair Incentives for distribution
The next step is to activate the already existing networks of community health workers (ASHA and Anganwdi workers) for distribution but this time with fair incentives. They receive a meagre Rs 1 per packet of sanitary pad sold. In this time of Covid-19, when the community health workers are putting their lives at risk and reaching out to every household in rural communities, State Governments must offer a decent incentive for each packet distributed. This will not only be a right step to recognize her efforts but will ensure distribution even in remote hamlets and villages.
Along with timely distribution of pads, efforts on provision of clean water, clean toilets and awareness on menstrual health should be actively pursued. Covid 19 has changed realities and approaches- Television and community radio programs, message through phone calls and small videos (for people who have access to smartphones) should be effectively used to highlight the discomfort and stigmas girls and women are facing in using, disposing and washing period products. Constant and positive messaging might pave the way in de-stigmatizing period and promote healthy conversation and support from families and community members.
The menstrual health of millions of girls and women from marginalized communities are disastrously impacted from this global pandemic. This will have severe health consequences. It should be a wake-up call for the government, foundations and other stakeholders to make menstrual health a priority, make this an integral part of disaster relief policies and recognize this a matter of human right to push for efficient actions.
The author is a medical researcher and the head of Women Wellness Initiative and Enriche health at the Barefoot College working with women and girls in rural India.