Women and especially schoolgirls in India face the daunting task of maintaining their sanitary health during the ongoing pandemic. In 2018, the Indian Government launched its ‘Ujjwala Sanitary Napkin’ initiative under which women were to get access to low-cost sanitary pads. To provide school-going girls with free sanitary pads, vending machines were installed in government schools. However, due to the continued closure of such schools in the nationwide lockdown, a critical part of the supply chain of these pads has been compromised causing a sudden deprivation of sanitary pads. This exposes economically weak women to a high risk of sanitation-related diseases and complications.
What is more disturbing is that the production of sanitary napkins has been constrained to a very large extent due to the lockdown and movement restrictions still operational in states like Jharkhand and Maharashtra. The availability of menstrual hygiene products, which also includes disposable and reusable sanitary pads, is highly unstable even in the most developed cities and almost negligible in rural areas located far from prime supply centres. Women who could afford the pads at their normal prices still fail to get hold of them due to the lack of public transport and mobility restrictions under the lockdown as well as the inflated prices caused by stocking and black marketing.
Menstrual hygiene education is a taboo in India. Women find it difficult to openly ask for sanitary products from a male family member (who generally fetch goods from the market). Women, especially in rural areas, are confined to their homes and depend on male or elderly female household members for procuring sanitary products.
Due to the lack of clean, private, safe water and sanitation facilities, women are unable to practice personal sanitary hygiene like changing the menstrual pads, washing cloth pads, and drying them in sunlight for proper disinfection. Due to the scarcity of pads, girls limit their food and water intake to minimise their use of the toilet so that they don’t have to change pads as regularly. These practices could lead to severe health issues in the longer run.
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the social divide that exists in India even today. Even after all these years, the Indian society still carries the patriarchal mind-set as a result of which there is a disparity between the status of a man and a woman. On one hand, men are considered independent and bread earners of the family, on the other hand women are seen as dependents whose primary duty is to look after the household. As a result of this, women fail to achieve economic independence, which make them rely on men for procuring sanitary products, which have become even more expensive owing to the shortage in their supply. This economic subduing coupled with the absence of gender equality which lets the male assume the dominating role in family, making women needs completely dependent of men.
The discrimination does not end here as economic status has a major role to play as well. The gender inequality is a major concern, but so is the economic divide that exists between women. While on one hand, the elite class women have the ease of getting their sanitary products delivered to their doorsteps, while on the other hand the poor and down trodden still struggle to make their ends meet when it comes to basic sanitation products. The gender and economic divide has led to subduing of women, especially those from marginalized or rural communities, that they lack access to education and in absence of awareness programmes maintaining sanitation for them becomes a luxury.
The failure of the government to broadcast sanitation awareness programmes or to include sanitary products as essentials in the first place reflects the continuous neglect of women and their basic sanitary needs in India. Though, the government included sanitary pads as essentials, nothing was done to balance demand and supply disruptions. Further, no efforts were made to open centres for providing sanitary pads to replace schools as distributors. Such a discriminatory approach towards women and their requirements need to be brought to an immediate halt.
The present crisis has laid the cornerstone for an even greater problems in the future. Due to quintessentially negligible support from the government, many sanitary pad manufacturing centres have moved on to produce PPE kits, masks, etc. in order to ensure a steady income. The reduction in dedicated units will likely mean that production will not return to normal and a shortage will persist even after the lockdown is ended.
The UN General Assembly adopted two resolutions, one in 2010 and the other in 2015, which recognised human rights to sanitation and clean water. The 2015 resolution especially pressed on sanitation and called upon states to ensure women’s proportionate participation in decision making related to sanitation management and practices.
The menstrual health of millions of girls and women in India are disastrously impacted by the Pandemic and the future looks grim. Thus, the government should make menstrual health a priority, make it an integral part of disaster relief policies, recognise it as a fundamental right guaranteed under the Indian Constitution and hence, should push for its efficient implementation as “Periods don’t stop for the #COVID19 Pandemic.”
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.