On the 24th of March the government of India declared a Nation-wide lockdown to combat the spread of coronavirus in the country. The pandemic brought an unforeseeable man-made crisis which can be credited to the handling of the pandemic itself. The lockdown created uncertainty and urgency among the people to which the Modi government responded by announcing an essential item list so as to prevent hoarding and panic. The list included items like edible oil and seeds, vanaspati, pulses, rice, sugarcane, and its products; petroleum and petroleum products and so on.
However, in this very expansive list crucial items like sanitary pads, tissue paper, diapers and soap found no mention. This created confusion regarding the production and retail of sanitary napkins and a severe shortage of sanitary napkins, which resulted in several implications impacting both the producers as well as the consumers.
Shortage of Sanitary Napkins and Other Related Implications
The exclusion of sanitary napkins from the essential items list led to instant closure of manufacturing units and suspension of their transport. Shopkeepers informed having limited stock of sanitary napkins thus making menstrual hygiene more inaccessible than usual.
Although they were added to the list soon after, the delay had already made its impact in a country with a 355 million menstruating population. However, it is crucial to remember that this damage was not experienced by everyone equally. For privileged households, the problem was solved by hoarding and stocking up; a luxury available only to a small percentage of the menstruating population.
According to a BBC report, a huge population of school girls in India faced heightened difficulties in accessing menstrual hygiene due to closed schools which act as a critical supplier of sanitary napkins. The report mentioned, “In remote villages, where pads are not available in the local store, people have to go to the nearest town or district centre which could be 10-40kms away. Also at present, there is limited mobility because of social distancing and a lack of public transport.“
The report also talked about the stigma in rural households which makes the menstruating experience difficult. “In slums, when all the men are at home because of the lockdown, girls and women may find it difficult to use toilet facilities as frequently as they like and in villages, getting additional water to wash pads and put them out in the sun to dry could be difficult,” the report stated.
Often sanitary napkins are seen as ‘faltu kharcha’ or unnecessary expenditure by people in rural areas who prefer cloth made sanitary pads instead. According to Aishwarya Amit, resident of a remote village in Bihar, only 2 percent women there used sanitary pads. “A few newly wed bahus (daughter-in-laws) and new age girls use it [sanitary napkins], other women who also are female farmers who know about it through tv ads or lesser aged women don’t find it investing in pads of need,” she informed us.
For people residing in urban areas, the difficulties were different. Many had the luxury of ordering necessities such as sanitary napkins or tampons online. However, some were even more privileged as they had stocks of sanitary products in their homes. Many urban residing menstruators use tampons or menstrual cups and thus did not face the sanitary napkin shortage at all. However, for those menstruators who work as migrant workers, the situation was completely different.
Due to the sudden imposition of the lockdown in the nation, many were forced to walk for miles towards their homes. In such situations, if a menstruator began menstruating, it was nothing short of a nightmare for them. With shops being closed, there was a lack of sanitary napkins. Many menstruators were forced to continue their menstrual cycles without any sanitary napkin or were forced to use old clothes or socks as a replacement for sanitary napkins.
In such critical times, NGOs and their volunteers have been working tirelessly to ensure that the lockdown does not further affect the menstruating population. Not only NGOs, but individuals have also stepped in to ensure that this silent crisis of limited access to sanitary products can be solved. Their work truly inspires us to work for a better tomorrow: a tomorrow in which everyone has access to equal opportunities and rights.
The Coronavirus pandemic and the resultant restrictions on mobility due to the imposition of lockdown has a severe impact on the menstruating population in India. As per the Indian Constitution, certain fundamental rights are guaranteed to Indian citizens. The Right to Equality (which is one of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution), states that “no person shall be discriminated based on caste, sex, religion, place of birth, race, gender.” According to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, “No person shall be deprived of his/her life or personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law.”
However, these laws which have been enacted to ensure that Indian citizens are not denied any of these, have failed in its primary aim. These two laws can never be realised until and unless the needs of menstruators are prioritised.
Recently, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Arden, made menstrual products free for all girls going to school. To achieve this level of acceptance towards menstruation. India has to walk miles on the road that leads to the ultimate destination, making menstruation a taboo-free issue and pain-free experience for all menstruators all over India. The first step towards reaching this destination is to enact a menstrual leave law. We also need to ensure that in future putting aside menstrual health and hygiene does not happen at all.
Disclaimer: The authors of this article acknowledge the fact that apart from women, trans men and non-binary people also menstruate. Hence, in this article the term ‘menstruator’ has been used. The article focuses exclusively on the sanitary napkin crisis in India, though alternatives to sanitary napkins such as menstrual cups, cloth pads and tampons are also there, but this article does not focus on those aspects.
Featured Image Source: CNN