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Periods don’t Stop in a Pandemic: Access to Sanitary Products during COVID-19

Menstruation is an integral part of the women’s life; every woman goes through menstruation cycles from their puberty to their menopause, every month. Today, there are various period products that are available in the market, but Sanitary Napkins are the most popular among women as they are convenient to use. They are also known as Sanitary Towels or Sanitary Pads. 

Looking at the numbers, roughly 336 million girls and women menstruate in India and around 121 million girls and women use sanitary napkins; however, time and again this essential commodity goes out of their reach due to various factors. This article elucidates how the COVID-19 pandemic fostered the inaccessibility to sanitary napkins which hampered the sanitary health of women at large. 

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and called for international cooperation to halt the spread of the virus. Though it is the first time that the world has seen a huge global lockdown, this isn’t the first global health crisis that we are dealing with. Thus, learning from our previous faults is essential to make sure that failures are not repeated. The Ebola and Zika epidemics are reminiscent of the present COVID-19 crisis. In the past decade, they demonstrated how health emergencies expose fragile health systems and take a heavy toll on the health. During the Ebola epidemic, the governments managed the epidemic by diverting resources away from the necessity of women and girls by vehemently ignoring the heightened risks that they would be exposed to. As many Ebola-affected countries were developing and poor economies, the national responses took a short-sighted approach and failed to prioritize sanitary health. As a result, the policies and programs which were rolled out did not sufficiently adapt to the aftereffect of the outbreak. A similar approach can be witnessed in India’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic which can have negative consequences for the country.

Women, especially schoolgirls, in India are facing a daunting task of maintaining their sanitary health during the ongoing pandemic. The sudden deprivation of sanitary pads has been a result of the prolonged closure of schools owing to the ongoing nationwide lockdown of educational institutions. The Indian Government, in 2018 launched its ‘Ujjwala Sanitary Napkin Scheme’ under which women were to get access to low-cost sanitary pads and vending machines in government schools that provide school-going girls with free sanitary pads. However, due to the continued closure of such schools, a critical part of the sanitary pad supply chain has been compromised. The severe lack of sanitary pads has rendered economically weak women exposed to a high risk of sanitation-related diseases and complications. What has added to the menace is the movement restrictions during the lockdown and, which are still operational in few states. production of sanitary napkins has been constrained to a very large extent. In terms of availability of menstrual hygiene products, including disposable and reusable sanitary pads, it was found to be highly unstable even in the most developed cities. The supply was negligible in rural areas which are located far from prime supply centers. Women who could afford the pads at the normal prices failed to buy pads due to the lack of public transport and mobility restrictions under the lockdown. Additionally, there was an inflation in the prices due to stocking and black marketing. 

Menstrual hygiene education is not a socially discussed focus area in India. Hence, women find it difficult to openly ask sanitary products from a male member of the family, and, generally, women have to procure the pads themselves. As per the statistics of the Menstrual Hygiene Awareness campaign survey, it was found out that almost 82 percent of organizations responsible for distribution had either no access or severely restricted access to sanitary pads due to non-operational production units. Further, the survey found that around 58 percent of the small and medium scale manufacturers were not able to operate for production whereas 37 percent were not operational at all.

This shortage in production was catalyzed by the government’s failure to classify sanitary products as ‘essential goods’, which severely affected their production as well as distribution. Also, as the markets are driven solely by demand, and in absence of a permit to manufacture sanitary products, the production units turned to mass production of face masks which were not only in huge demand but were also classified as essentials. This means that even after the lockdown and its restrictions are lifted, production won’t be back on its tracks again.

Due to the lack of clean and safe water and sanitation facilities, women in India are unable to practice personal sanitary hygiene like changing the menstrual pads, washing cloth pads, and drying them in sunlight for proper disinfection. Due to the scarcity of pads, girls limit their food and water intake to minimize their use of the toilet. All these practices can lead to severe health issues which can cause serious health problems in the longer run. The UN General Assembly adopted two resolutions, one in 2010 and the other in 2015, which recognized human’s right to sanitation and clean water. The 2015 resolution emphasized on sanitation and called upon the states to promote women’s leadership and ensure their proportionate participation in decision making related to sanitation management and practices. India has been a firm supporter of the UN resolutions. However, it’s time that the government takes the necessary steps to ensure proper sanitation to women in India as ‘periods don’t stop in a pandemic’.

Rameez is a student of Bachelor of Law at Integral University, India; he is also the Columnist for Centre for New Economic Studies, JGU. He has a deeply vested interest in Human Rights Law, Indian Constitutional Law, and Gender Studies. He can be contacted through LinkedIn.

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