Caught up somewhere in West Bengal between her project work and the pandemic, Mayuri Bhattacharjee is a gratified person today. Her gift boxes of “eco-friendly pads” to Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and Health Minister and the Assam State Disaster Management Authority have paid the dividends.
The Assam government has officially added sanitary napkins to the list of relief material to be distributed among women and adolescent girls affected by floods and other natural disasters.
“It was during my fieldwork in 2018, I noticed that not much is been done towards the menstrual health of women and adolescent girls in the flood relief camps of Assam. There were no separate toilets for women in the cramped and crowded relief camps. Menstrual hygiene was a real concern for the women who already were struggling with the disaster. In 2019, I raised the petition in “Change.org” about the lack of menstrual hygiene products/ sanitary pads at flood relief shelters,” Mayuri said.
Then chairperson of ASDMA, Bhabesh Kalita, responded well to the concerns and assured that the government would do its part to include women hygiene and sanitation in the flood relief package. “However, the need was for the change in the policy than the approach. In 2020, we got the opportunity to vie for it. We hit upon the idea of “Gift Boxes” which would have a message on it to the government,” added Mayuri.
Born in Tezpur town of Sonitpur district of Assam, Mayuri and her team were sending sanitary pads to State Health and Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma. A ‘gift box’ containing eco-friendly pads and hygiene kits. The objective was to catch the attention of Sarma and to urge him to include menstrual hygiene products in the list of essential relief materials provided by the government at flood shelters. Besides the pads, the box contains a hand sanitiser, bathing soap, detergent powder, bleaching powder, phenyl, a mosquito coil, a pair of underwear and a face mask as a part of a hygiene kit.
“As we were more connected with the Assam Disaster Management, we kept exchanging our ideas and views with the department. The gift boxes were sent to the department too and the Commissioner and Secretary to the department M S Manivannan had shown keen interest in the concept and the cause. The eco-friendly pads were produced by an Eco Hub of Bokakhat in the Golaghat district of Assam. Last, the department called me up and informed me that ASDMA shall be including a sanitary pad in the relief item list. They also said that the department has called for an e-tender for pad vending machines at flood relief camps. I couldn’t hide the smile on my face and whispered to myself …Yes,” says Mayuri.
The order was recently issued by the Revenue and Disaster Management Department Commissioner and Secretary, M S Manivannan.
Drawing the attention of all district deputy commissioners and sub-divisional officers (civil), it said menstrual management during emergencies faced by women and adolescent girls living in flood-prone areas have till now remained unattended as a relief measure.
“It also brings out various cultural, logistical and health issues faced by women and adolescent girls in taking care of their menstrual hygiene needs during floods,” the order stated.
Considering the maintenance of the dignity of women and adolescent girls during flood etc., the DCs and SDOs have been asked to include sanitary napkins in the list of relief items from GR (Gratuitous Relief) Fund, it added.
Mayuri’s petition requests the State government to build 50 women-friendly flood relief shelter in the 10 most flood-prone districts in the State for the safety and dignity of our women. The flood shelters shall have special provisions for lactating mothers and pregnant women. As the perennial floods in Assam are predictable and affect vastly specific areas hence the provision of relief structures to provide basic hygiene and safety for women is achievable.
The Assam Disaster Management Manual 2015 has guidelines for a gender-sensitive approach, but Annual Joint Needs Assessment reports reveal a lack of concrete action on the ground.
A report published in the Indian Journal of Gender Studies by Mayuri Bhattacharjee on May 22, 2019, says that existing research highlights that during humanitarian crises, women under stress pay little attention to how frequently sanitary pads/cloths should be changed in a day, appropriate disposal and washing of clothes as well as the heightened necessity of cleaning their genitalia. According to a Joint Needs Assessment Report of 2017 Assam Floods, prepared by the Inter-Agency Group Assam, in the absence of adequate transitional toilets and public health promotion awareness, 84 per cent of the people in villages were found to be defecating in the open. Though sanitary napkins were distributed in the Dibrugarh district during the 2015 floods, there was very little done to raise awareness about the use and disposal of sanitary napkins.
A recent survey conducted by Caritas India in the flood-affected areas of Assam (Hailakandi and Karimganj) revealed that 67 per cent of the flood-affected population defecated in the open, due to lack of sanitation facilities and damages to existing sanitation structures in these areas after the flood. Of the existing latrines in the villages, there were no hand-washing facilities available nearby, and therefore only 50 per cent of the surveyed population washed their hands after defecation. Investigators also observed that the latrines were not suitable for the elderly, people with disabilities and children.
As of October 2020, the floods affected over five million people, claiming the lives of 123 people, with an additional 26 deaths due to landslides, 5,474 villages were affected and over 150,000 people found refuge in relief camps.
The belief and culture of the Ambubasi
The Ambubasi festival celebrated in the revered shrine of Kamakhya at Guwahati in June every year is believed that the presiding goddess of the temple, Devi Kamakhya, the Mother Shakti, goes through her annual cycle of menstruation during this time. It is also believed that it is during the monsoon rains, the creative and nurturing power of the menses of Mother Earth happens. The Ambubasi Mela held on the occasion is one of the largest congregation of devotees in eastern India.