The pandemic has caused 'period poverty'
Today is World Menstrual Hygiene Day.
Adv. Pravin Nikam
Every year since 2013, Menstrual Hygiene Day is celebrated on May 28, and it marks the promotion of a global campaign surrounding good menstrual health and hygiene for women. Irrespective of the challenges faced on the access to water and sanitation front, it has been over a year that the world is witnessing the after-effects of a pandemic no one saw coming. Everything came to a standstill, and access to menstrual health and hygiene was no different. Maintaining proper menstrual hygiene was already a matter of concern in a country like India. The pandemic transformed the situation from bad to worse, resulting in both; direct and indirect effects on public health.
Women, girls, transmen and non-binary people are menstruating, and COVID-19 has challenged their access to sanitation. The pandemic has done a great deal to expose the lack of policies and legal instruments needed to resolve the new and pre-existing challenges concerning the right to live with dignity. The landmark judgement of the Hon. The Supreme Court of India in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 597, broadened the meaning of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution and stated that the right to life includes the right to live with dignity. Moreover, discrimination and untouchability experienced by menstruators leads to violation of Articles 15 and 17 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits gender discrimination and untouchability, respectively. This necessitates that the policymakers take up the holistic and comprehensive approach focusing on access to menstrual health, hygiene and sanitation for all.
Periods and Pandemic
Menstruation has never been prioritised or given consideration during health emergencies like the current one. This is, even though millions of women menstruate and end up facing extreme challenges like the lack of access to menstrual hygiene, even in the absence of a global pandemic. The lack of importance given to menstruation has made it difficult for millions of women in the affected areas to handle menstruation privately and safely while they struggle to overcome the taboo and stigma associated with it. Protecting the human rights, health and dignity of these women must always be considered essential. A study named ‘Spot On’, published before the occurrence of COVID-19 by civil society organisation Dasra, highlighted key challenges and solutions to access to menstrual health and hygiene infrastructure. It is essential that with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, issues faced by women and girls falling in the ambit of menstrual hygiene management are represented, and the critical nature of it is understood. A prominent global response will help promote equity and social inclusion.
Access to Safe Menstrual Health and Hygiene during COVID -19
In March 2020, the Indian government declared the first 21-day nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19 and continued the supply of rice, medication, and other vital goods. The Essential Commodities Act of 1955 was enforced to allow for essential commodities to be readily available. Unfortunately, sanitary napkins and a variety of other hygiene items were not specifically classified as essential commodities, resulting in shortages of the same throughout the nation. This demonstrated a lack of disregard for the basic sanitary needs of women among the policymakers. The lack of sanitary napkins as essential commodities led to a lack of clarity on whether they are important items or not and if it was not deemed necessary to produce and distribute sanitary napkins during the COVID-19 lockdown. Pharmacies, supermarkets and online shopping websites selling sanitary napkins were all out of stock.
It was only after realising that there is a lack of supplies of sanitary pads that the then-home ministry secretary issued a clarification and amended the guidelines of the lockdown on March 24 last year. The new guidelines then included sanitary napkins as an essential product, and all legal barriers to their production and distribution were lifted. Despite that, nothing was done to offset the demand and supply disruptions. Prior to COVID-19, teenage girls benefited from the monthly free sanitary pads supply schemes, but since the schools were closed due to lockdowns, it only added to the challenges faced by the menstruating girls.
No attempt was made to create sanitary pad distribution centres to replace schools as distributors. This only forced girls who were dependent on these sanitary supplies to resort to old unhygienic substitutes such as a piece of cloth and rags, increasing the risk of reproductive tract infection.
Challenges of Access to Safe Menstrual Health and Hygiene Practices
One of the significant challenges girls face during COVID -19 is the lack of access to information about menstrual health and hygiene. COVID-19 imposed lockdowns around the world, which had a significant impact on social and economic activities, along with access to credible knowledge and support about menstrual health and hygiene. The schools were all shut in the country, and millions of students were forced to stay at home, resulting in a lack of direct connections between adolescent's girls and their teachers, friends, healthcare providers, which contributed to girls having little information about their first period and menstrual hygiene management. Furthermore, in areas where there is no access to the internet, the problem of lack of information is undoubtedly serious. Secondly, one cannot imagine the dilemma of differently able individuals worldwide that include women too. The access of differently-abled women to assistance when it comes to hygiene management was disrupted due to social distancing constraints and fear of COVID-19 transmission. Thirdly, access to clean water to maintain good menstrual hygiene is critical during menstruation, but this may have become more acute during COVID-19 as people were already experiencing difficulties with a reliable supply of water with restricted travel.
One of the significant challenges girls face during COVID -19 is the lack of access to information about menstrual health and hygiene.
The effects of COVID-19 intensified the difficulties related to menstruation, as critical WASH services were diverted to counter the pandemic; this further gave rise to an increase in the discrimination against women, girls and others who menstruate. Mental health alongside social and economic progress was also impacted, with the menstrual hygiene needs not being appropriately addressed. Misinformation, such as the incorrect belief that menstruation is linked to a higher risk of COVID-19, can lead to prejudice against menstruating people. As a result, due to COVID-19, nations worldwide have not been successful in coming up with a policy framework that can facilitate access to healthy menstrual hygiene management methods in a pandemic without hurdles. Hence this necessitates a transformative approach focused on water, sanitation and hygiene.
Incorporation of Menstrual Hygiene Health and Hygiene in COVID-19 Relief Response
Menstrual hygiene management procedures should be made a central component of the pandemic response and ensure that sanitary products and other reproductive health services are available to those who need them. It is also crucial to ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic does not hamper local supply chains, so prioritising menstrual supplies is critical. Menstruators may be exposed to sexual violence, harming their physical and mental health and limiting their economic prospects due to a lack of care and support from the government and the redirection of funds to other pandemic-related issues. Therefore, menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) needs must be incorporated into the COVID-19 emergency response policies as it will strengthen the gender equality movement and help eradicate the insecurity and stigma that menstruators face throughout pandemics. Furthermore, access to safe menstrual health and hygiene is connected to broader structural factors such as well-being, gender equality, education, justice, empowerment, and rights. Moreover, it is essentially a matter of human rights, as it is intimately linked to the successful enjoyment of various rights such as health, education, employment, and access to clean water and sanitation. As a result, during a COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that menstrual health and hygiene management must be prioritized, and government policies should focus on long-term public health measures to address core gendered inequalities, resulting in an equal post-COVID-19 world for persons who menstruate.
Adv. Pravin Nikam is a lawyer and Human Rights activist, currently pursuing his post-graduation at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).