Breaking the bloody taboo: Relax! I am just menstruating

In his address to the nation on the occasion of 74th Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched on the topic of menstruation, which is still considered a taboo subject in the country.

During his address from the ramparts of the Red Fort, PM Modi spoke at length about women empowerment and women health. He underlined that his government has managed to provide affordable sanitary napkins to poor women through Jan Aushadhi centres for just one rupee each and claimed the distribution of 5 crore sanitary to these poor women from 6000 Janaushadhi Kendras.

When it comes to personal health & hygiene — women are facing the force of the lock down when compared to men. The impact of the COVID-19 lockdown has not been gender-neutral and is being felt disproportionately by women and adolescents. Gender equality will not be achieved unless menstrual health is addressed by all relevant sectors through appropriate policies, programming and funding. The SRHR (Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights ) community of practice should make menstrual health an integral part of SRHR across the spectrum of information sharing, awareness raising, behavior change, service delivery, , outreach, etc., and the Programs should be designed with and for young people who menstruate. In return, menstrual health can help strengthen and provide new insights for SRHR programming.

This article talks in length about the impact of COVID-19 that is borne by women in their grass-root community on their reproductive health rights.

NEEDS conducted a survey on menstrual practices among the 420 adolescent girls in 4 blocks of Deoghar district, Jharkhand, to analyze the situation of adolescents girls before and during the Covid-19 lockdown.

“We don’t have enough money for food. How can I ask to buy me sanitary napkins? So I started using old cloth again because of the lack of availability, even though the sanitary napkins are available in the market, the price is high. I am worried about my health but what can I do?” says Sindhu Kumari, a young girl from Rampur village. Sindhu isn’t alone, thousands of women and young girls in the rural areas of Jharkhand are in a similar situation and things may be worse than what they appear as such issues are not discussed openly.

During the initial phase of the lockdown, sanitary napkins were not included in the list of the essential items. This resulted in severe production and supply disruptions which led to a shortage at chemists, grocery stores and e-commerce websites as people began panic buying/ hoarding. This left many girls and women with no choice but to resort to the age-old, unhygienic practice of using old unclean clothes/rags to manage their periods. Its not that using cloth is unhygienic but the use of clean clothes and drying it properly is an important hygine practice but most of the women are too shy to dry it in open area.

Comparative Study

The majority of women & adolescent girls are from low-income families of the Deoghar district. When the adolescent girls were asked about the kind of materials they used before lockdown during their menstrual period, 65% answered sanitary pads but the number of use has reduced to 33% during the lockdown. 29% of adolescent girls have shifted from a sanitary pad to use clothes during the pandemic

With the lockdown, mandating everyone to stay at home, girls and women in these areas are left with little to no privacy in which to properly manage their period days. On asking about hygiene maintenance and proper disposals: 30% of adolescents girls answered that they don’t have a proper place to dry used clothes and 14% of adolescents girls don’t even have privacy to change their napkins regularly during the lockdown.

In our largely patriarchal society, men along with women perpetuate the stigma and taboo around periods. Menarche or the first occurrence of periods in an adolescent girl is a very personal experience, one that impacts her in a multitude of ways. On asking about the different taboos believed in the underdeveloped areas during the survey, 90% of girls said that before lockdown they could eat any food as per their choices during their period, but during the lockdown, this number has reduced to 76%.

On asking about the availability of Sanitary pads in the nearby shops during the lockdown: 59% of girls denied the facility. 39% of girls said they used to go to buy napkins herself from the local shops during the lockdown, but before lockdown, it was 75%. 82% of girls said that during the lockdown, they received any sanitary pad neither from Gov. institutions, like Schools, Anganwadi Centers, nor from Health workers, but before lockdown, this number was 58%. New normal needs time to be adopted but the are not available enough to make it easier.

Solutions through our interventions

93% of girls mentioned that they are facing the problem of privacy at the house because during lockdown all boys and men are in and around the house with myth and misconception related to periods are superimposed now making things worse.There is a great percentage of digital divide in rural community, and during this pandemic it was really becoming hard to make these young girls aware about the situation. NEEDS came up with this idea of online counselling, provided online counseling sessions in 14 interventional areas with adolescent girls. Good menstrual hygienic practice, the process of using reusable pads, the disposal process of sanitary napkins to protect from RTI (Reproductive Tract Infections) and how to reduce taboos related to the menstrual cycle, etc, were briefly discussed by the representatives through Skype conference call. Even in this situation, we saw it as an opportunity to push towards sustainable environmental friendly sanitary products. A learning video was also made about how to make a durable handmade sanitary napkin with available household materials and shared among the adolescent girls.

500 packets of reusable sanitary pads produced by NEEDS were distributed among vulnerable adolescent girls. 230 girls were identified who had no access to menstrual hygiene materials and were provided with a packet of sanitary napkins each. Further 330 girls belonging to daily labor wage families were identified and provided with the reusable pads.

A Girl Champion, Neelam Singh, took a lead to write a letter jointly with a group of girls to Honourable Chief Minister of Jharkhand regarding the issues and barriers related the sanitary napkins’ availability and ascertained their right to menstrual hygiene health during the critical time of Covid-19 lockdown.

India is at global crisis and it is important to pay attention on women and adolescent girls as most of them donot feel free to discuss about the problem they face regarding their monthly cycle or sexual health. The pandemic has worsend the situation. NEEDS is trying to address these issues all the way possible and bringing out solutions to bring down the difficulties at lower level.

EXIST TO IMPACT