Fifteen-year-old Radhika Singh studies in a government school in Delhi from where she used to collect a certain number of sanitary napkins every month for free before the nationwide lockdown. She used to keep a few of them for her mother Meenu Singh (36) who works as a domestic help in a south Delhi house.
But now that the schools are closed since the beginning of March, Radhika is not getting her packet of sanitary napkins from school. Most of the time they are not allowed to step out of their colony because of lockdown; moreover, her school is located in the red zone. One day she managed to sneak out and reach her school in the hope of getting free sanitary napkins, but she came back empty-handed.
With all the schools across the country shut for months, schoolgirls cannot avail the facility of free sanitary pads. Radhika says, “One should understand that because of the pandemic, we don’t stop bleeding and the prices of sanitary napkins are so high. We are feeling the pinch all the more because my mother is now the only bread earner. My father who used to work as a labourer has lost his job."
The high price of sanitary napkins has long been a concern for the menstrual health of women who live in poverty. Now the few avenues they had in order to access the essential product have been blocked by a pandemic.
"We live in a servant quarter, so shelter is taken care of and most of my mother’s salary is used in purchasing food. I have two younger brothers too. My mother sometimes asks her employee for extra money to buy sanitary napkins, but how much can she also do? Most of the time I am using cloth, but we are running short of materials to make sanitary napkins at home," Radhika says.
Radhika's struggle tells a much bigger story of Indian women. According to a report by BBC, only 35 per cent of roughly 355 million menstruating women in India have access to sanitary napkins.
The situation in Chennai is also not good. Kavya Menon, Menstrual Educator, Coach and Therapist, says, “There is 100 per cent scarcity [of sanitary napkins] in some areas in Chennai near urban slums that we are operating out of. We are also hearing similar issues from different parts of Tamil Nadu. Similar scarcity is seen in different parts of Kerala too, however, the intensity is much lesser.”
When the lockdown was imposed across the nation to contain the coronavirus spread, the government had exempted movement of essential goods. However, there was confusion regarding sanitary napkin falling under essential goods as the same was not mentioned explicitly. Later, after availability of napkins became precarious due to the supply chain issue, the government had to clarify that the item was essential.
Union minister Smriti Irani on March 29 tweeted, “Taking note of growing concern regarding availability of sanitary napkins, Home Secretary to Government of India has issued clarification to chief secretaries of all the states regarding sanitary pads being an essential commodity.”
Taking note of growing concern regarding availability of Sanitary Napkins, Home Secretary to Government of India has issued clarification to Chief Secretaries of all the states regarding Sanitary Pads being an essential commodity. pic.twitter.com/V2mj4fHjW3— Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) March 29, 2020
Delhi Cabinet Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam on Tuesday asked the Department of Women and Child Development to explore ways to provide sanitary napkins to women amid the lockdown, news agency PTI reported.
After various stakeholders raised the issue that sanitary pads were not available to girls due to closure of government schools and Anganwadi centres in Rajasthan, the State Child Rights Commission has finally initiated an inquiry into the matter.
Menon says, “I am running a collective called ‘Sustainable Menstruation Tamil Nadu’ that focusses on providing menstrual education and connects manufacturers and sponsors to enable distribution of reusable menstrual products for free or at discounted rates among the needy menstruators.”
Menon mentions that during the lockdown, the reusables industry too has had to cut down production of menstrual hygiene products, and hence there is a scarcity along with difficulty in transportation.
Moreover, the upfront cost per product is very high for the reusables when compared to a single piece rate of disposables. This is a huge deterrent for potential sponsors to support them. While it is a higher initial rate, people are missing out on the big picture -- reusables is a one-time expense that lasts for two to five years depending on the product, whereas at least 240 disposable pads are needed for a menstruator annually. A lot of people are spending the extra money to buy pads as they are experiencing a cultural shift to disposable products and others are unhappily using clothes without proper awareness. This lack of awareness and hence improper use of cloth can cause health issues.
Richa Singh of Niine Movement says, “There has been a significant disruption of supply chain and several pockets where retail has not opened up, our sales team has worked throughout the lockdown. They are making an increasing number of trips and ferrying stock in their own bikes and cycles”
“In certain areas they have provided free stocks and in some states like up Maharashtra and Punjab government is also procuring from companies including ours - to distribute to the needy,” she says.
Singh further adds, “It is unfortunate that school girls would be without their free supply of pads - it’s difficult to reach out to them directly - it would be a mammoth task - of number of people needed to reach out to them spread all over India.”
As the lockdown’s goal was to keep everyone safe and healthy, disruption in manufacture and distribution of sanitary pads and procurement of raw material will defeat the purpose. There’s also lockdown in industrial areas and hence, napkin manufacturing units are also closed. This situation has led to the scarcity of sanitary napkins.
Actor-activist Sadaf Jafar, states, “In any kind of natural calamity or manmade calamity, I have realised that women and children are the worst sufferers. And hence women hygiene was there on our mind right from the beginning and hence we did a tie-up with Niine and we decided to go ahead with the distribution among the poorest of the poor communities who are living in slums. As we distribute the sanitary napkins, we also tell them about how they can take care of themselves during the pandemic.”
Ravindra Bhausaheb Supekar who runs Stree Swabhiman Sanitary Napkins Manufacturing Unit located at Wavi village of Nashik District in Maharashtra, took a brief survey through some tribal and remote villages to know the status of women health regarding menstrual hygiene during the lockdown and came to know that there are tremendous problems for women due to unavailability of sanitary napkins. He says, “In some places sanitary packets were available but they charge high cost so that village women could not afford these rates as there is no source of earning. So, we decided to follow social distance and continue manufacturing sanitary napkins with the permission of local authorities.”
In pandemic, the situation everyone focusing on the distribution of masks and sanitizers. But the basic health care need of women is getting neglected. Supekar says, “We distribute sanitary napkins in remote and tribal villages and we are also encouraging women to use bio-degradable napkins.”
Supekar says the Stree Swabhiman organisation has an app, which women in and around Nashik can install in their mobile phones and place online orders. Talking about how it operates, he adds, “We receive confirmation of their order on our admin panel and our supply team delivers the sanitary napkins to their homes.”
Pratibha Pandey, Health Specialist at ChildFund India says the organisation implements its programs through its field staff, local grassroots-level partner NGOs’ staff, and the community-level structures like adolescent girl’s group and women’s group who have been actively supporting in carrying out services even during this pandemic while following the health and hygiene guidelines to prevent COVID-19. ChildFund also closely works with the local administration and government frontlines workers to carry out its operations, to ensure government services reach the community members.
She says, “During this pandemic, ChildFund’s field staff/ peer educators are working with the ASHA workers/ AWWs and doing home visits; providing freely available sanitary napkins to the girls and women on regular basis and also providing the much-needed counselling. The adolescent girls' groups are preparing sanitary napkins locally using cotton clothes and providing these sanitary napkins to adolescent girls in their community.”
However, beyond NGOs and social workers, steps need to be taken by the government for providing free sanitary napkins because scarcity can lead to overuse of one sanitary napkin by young girls for a longer period than it is advisable, experts say. Bad menstrual health can lead to infection in the vaginal area and because of COVID-19, they will not be able to visit hospitals too because of the fear of catching coronavirus.