As the world is going to observe the Menstrual Hygiene Day on Thursday, millions of women in India are being forced to search for alternatives, including unhygienic options, due to coronavirus lockdown.
With schools shut down, free supplies of "sanitary napkins" by the government have come to a halt, forcing teenage girls to use dirty pieces of cloth and rags.
Maya, a 16-year-old resident of southeast Delhi, has not been able to afford sanitary napkins and is using old t-shirts for her monthly cycle. Previously, she would receive a pack of 10 from her state-run school, but the supply stopped after its sudden shutdown due to COVID-19.
“A pack of eight pads 30 Indian rupees [40 cent]. My father works as a rickshaw puller and is barely earning any money. How can I ask him for money to spend on sanitary napkins? I have been using my brother’s old T-shirts or any rags that I can find at home,” she told Anadolu Agency.
On March 23, when the South Asian nation with 1.3 billion population announced the first phase of the nationwide lockdown, all factories and transportation had come to a standstill except essential services.
But what shocked many was that sanitary napkins, used for female hygiene, were not included in the "essential services". Many women’s groups, doctors and non-governmental organizations came forward highlighting that COVID-19 will not stop menstrual cycles.
“We have been distributing a few hundred packs of sanitary napkins to teenage girls and women in rural areas. But when the lockdown was announced, we failed to acquire napkins due to the shutdown of manufacturing units,” said Sandhya Saxena, the founder of the She-Bank program by Anaadih NGO.
“The shutdown and the strict restrictions on movement have caused a shortage of pads in the market," she added.
It was only after the government included the pads in the essential services 10 days later that Saxena and her team were able to order a few, but due to transportation restrictions, they failed to distribute any in April and May. She added that the napkins come with a full "goods and services tax", despite rising calls for a subsidy.
According to a 2016 study on menstrual hygiene management among adolescent girls in India, only 12% of women and girls have access to sanitary napkins out of the 355 million menstruating women and girls. The number of menstruating women in India who use disposable sanitary napkins stands at 121 million.
Pandemic stress-causing irregular periods
Apart from hygiene issues, many doctors have been receiving calls from young girls for the recent irregularity they are facing in their menstrual cycles. Some have developed infections while others are heavily bleeding. This has led to a further crisis when it comes to women's health-related issues. Some have even reported stitching pads for themselves at home using synthetic clothes.
“I have received several calls from young girls, in schools, telling me that they have recently observed painful and heavy periods. From my diagnosis, it is all a stress-related irregularity. Many girls now stress over their future and are uncertain of their livelihood. This has caused them to worry,” said Dr. Surbhi Singh, a gynecologist and the founder of the NGO Sachhi Saheli (True Friend), which provides free napkins to girls in government schools.
While speaking to Anadolu Agency, Singh also pointed out that as all men stay at home, women in marginalized communities are facing problems disposing of menstrual waste. Most women prefer to throw waste when men are not around to avoid the stigma around menstruation, "but this personal space is now encroached under lockdown,” added Singh.
This has also reduced their desire to use napkins during their monthly cycle.
Every year, India disposes of roughly 12 billion sanitary pads, with around eight pads used per cycle by 121 million women.
Along with the napkins, Singh’s NGO is now distributing a pack which includes sanitary napkins, a pair of briefs, paper soap, a paper bag to keep briefs/pads and a rough paper to throw away the soiled napkin. They have now distributed over 21,000 such packs.
Longer duration of use
Due to the poor availability and affordability of pads in markets, many young girls have also resorted to using the same napkin for longer durations than needed.
A store-bought sanitary napkin should be changed after every six hours to break the infection chain, but longer use is leading to genital tract-related diseases which may in turn develop into other infections.
“The majority of families from low-income groups do not even have access to clean water. The prolonged use of pads thus can lead to various genital issues and reproductive tract infections,” said Dr. Mani Mrinalini, the head of the obstetrics and gynecology department at a Delhi government-run hospital.
While Dr. Mrinalini pointed out that the positive fallout of the COVID-19 situation is that people are now more hygiene conscious, she also pressed upon the unavailability of resources. "So it is a constant effort by the hospital authorities to counsel women to keep themselves clean."