The Silent Crisis: The Shortage of Sanitary Napkins in India During the Pandemic
Srijani Roy - Associate, Gender Equality Program
Picture Credit: Press Trust of India
“There is no chance of the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is not possible for a bird to fly on one wing.”- Swami Vivekananda
On March 24th 2020, India went under a nationwide lockdown to combat the spread of Coronavirus in India. The lockdown was sudden and unplanned and thus gave rise to a lot of unforeseen troubles for the people of India. Migrant laborers were left stranded, offices and businesses were suddenly closed down bringing everything to a standstill. The rich and the poor, the literate and illiterate, the minister and his employees in fact people from all stratas of society were forced to remain indoors. Only essential items were allowed to be kept open during this lockdown.
However, it came as a shock to the people of India, especially women and girls that the Indian Government had failed to include sanitary napkins as an essential commodity in the list of essential items. Menstruation refers to the periodic shedding of the lining of a woman’s uterus. It is a natural bodily function, beginning at puberty and ending at menopause. Menstruation is a phenomena unique to women. Leaving out sanitary napkins as an essential item led to the immediate closure of factories manufacturing sanitary napkins. As a result, a severe man-made crisis of sanitary pads has been created in India.
According to a 2016 study on menstrual hygiene management among adolescent girls in India, only 12% of the menstruating population have access to sanitary napkins out of the 355 million total menstruating women and girls. According to the National Family Health Survey, the number of menstruating women in India who use disposable sanitary napkins is approximately 57.6%. In rural areas usage of sanitary napkins is approximately only 48.5%, while in the urban areas the number only rises by 77.5%.
The crisis had begun to have devastating effects on the women of India. According to a recent survey conducted by the Menstrual Health Alliance India (MAHI), 84% of women have said that there is either no menstrual health products or severely restricted access to menstrual health products, particularly sanitary napkins during the lockdown. In the survey, 22% of women have responded by saying that they have no access to menstrual health products.
How Health based Inequalities have increased more during the pandemic as a result of the “Sanitary Napkin Crisis?”
Gender discrimination and preferential treatment of one sex over the other, is an evil that plagues each and every society, worldwide. In India, a girl is discriminated against from the time she is born.
Currently, India has a female population of 48.04% in comparison to 51.96% male population. The gender gap that exists is well reflected in the sex ratio. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020 ranks India 112th of 153 countries in offering equal opportunities to women and men. According to this Index, women often don’t have the same access to healthcare and education as their male counterparts. Women in India already suffer from a wide gender gap in employment, wages and education but the lockdown has added to the set back of women even further. Women and girls have been singled out for the mere fact that they menstruate. The decision to close sanitary pad manufacturing units does not affect the men at all whereas it affects all sections of women severely.
As already stated above, only 57.6% women in India use sanitary napkins. Others use cloth, leaves, and ash during their menstruation. This leaves them vulnerable to diseases and infections which at times may become life threatening. It is a known fact that not all girls and women all over India can afford to buy sanitary napkins or have access to safe healthcare services.
Women belonging to upper- and middle-class families including those who are financially independent do have access to sanitary products and can even use safe alternatives to sanitary napkins such as tampons and menstrual cups. However, the percentage of such women is very less when compared to the total menstruating population of India. (A pack of good quality sanitary napkins roughly costs around 50-80 INR. A pack of sanitary napkins contain usually 5-6 sanitary pads or more. Hence for many women, buying sanitary napkins, over other alternatives such as tampons and menstrual cups is much more of an economic decision. Not only is it an economical decision but it is also easily accessible. In India, the use of menstrual cups and tampons is a fairly new concept, and people remain unaware about the new alternatives).
Women and girls residing in semi urban and rural areas have been using alternatives such as leaves and old cloth during menstruation for a long time. However, with increasing awareness about the plight of underprivileged girls and women, the government of India in collaboration with several government schools have been providing free sanitary pads to girls attending schools. This means that girls can bring sanitary napkins not only for themselves but also their mother and sisters. The main aim of this government scheme was to ensure that girls and women have a healthy menstrual cycle.
According to Menstrual Health Alliance India (MAHI) government schools were a part of the supply chain in ensuring that women have a safe menstrual cycle. With government schools being shut down, girls and women had no access to sanitary napkins. Most of them are usually unable to afford sanitary napkins. For girls and women belonging to lower income families the choice is obvious during the lockdown: hunger over menstrual health- for them buying food is more important than buying sanitary pads.
In rural India the issue of access to sanitary napkins is a major concern for the girls and women. With limited access to sanitary napkins, girls and women in rural areas consider using sanitary napkins a luxury and hence use other means such as clothes and leaves during their menstruation. Few families residing in rural India might be able to afford sanitary napkins but the stigma associated with menstruation prevents them from asking or going out to buy sanitary pads for themselves. The presence of too many men, especially too many elderly men in a family further aggravates the situation. Elderly people insist on following the traditional customs and traditions according to which menstruating women should be segregated (a practice that continues till today). In such scenarios talking about menstrual health requirements such as procurement of sanitary pads is considered to be a sin.
With the lockdown being implemented with full force all over the country, girls and women residing in rural areas access to sanitary napkins has become even more limited The government schools ensured that without being discriminated or stigmatized, young girls have access to sanitary napkins. The young girls were able to carry sanitary napkins in their school bags and were able to bring sanitary napkins home without attracting any unwanted attention.
Another noteworthy aspect is migrant women laborers and girls and their access to menstrual healthcare particularly access to sanitary napkins during the lockdown. Prior to the lockdown, these women migrant laborers and girls could go and buy sanitary napkins for themselves. Since the announcement of the nationwide lockdown, hundreds of migrant women and children and young girls have been walking on various National Highways and roads to reach their homes. With no food and water available and their tired feet begging them to rest, the only hope that these women and girls have is that they should not get their daily menstrual cycle before they reach their homes. What is worse is that there are no washrooms along the side of the highways and shops which had adjacent washrooms are closed due to the lockdown. For such women and girls, the only option left is to use clothes if they are on their menstrual cycle. With no access to proper washrooms women and girls who are on their daily menstrual cycle are forced to use ragged clothes and wear them for long hours, until and unless they find a proper washroom.
Generally, in India, women and girls, have conditioned in such a way that they refuse to talk about their own needs and always put the needs of the family first. For a migrant family, that is walking towards their home, the women or girls in the family will not speak about their need to buy sanitary napkins , instead they will be the ones who will insist that whatever money they have they buy food or try to engage in some sort of transport that will help them reach their homes safely.
Role played by Non -Governmental-Organizations in Battling this Crisis
During the lockdown, some organizations have taken upon themselves to solve the sanitary pad crisis. These NGOs and their volunteers have risked their lives, put aside their own needs and are acting as a “guiding light” for the needy.
Prita Sen of Mayank Foundation, social welfare organization in an interview mentioned how the shortage of sanitary napkins is felt across the country and how the problem is much more acute in semi-urban and rural areas. Her organization joined hands with the Ferozepur (in Punjab) police and civic authorities to distribute free sanitary napkins to girls and women in the slum areas in and around the areas of the town of Ferozepur ( in Punjab) during the lockdown.
Maya Vishwakarma, founder of Sukarma Foundation, a Bhopal based NGO that works on raising awareness about menstruation and hygiene in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh has also been playing a vital role in this lockdown. It has been distributing free sanitary pads to migrant workers walking along the Bhopal highway. They have also been providing them essentials such as food and water. Apart from this, it is also providing free sanitary napkins to the girls and women belonging to the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh.
Apne Aap International, an organization headed by Ruchira Gupta too has been doing laudable work during this lockdown. She along with the volunteers of Apne Aap Organization has distributed 50,000 sanitary napkins to victims of sex trafficking, Rohingya refugees and migrant women in Delhi, Kolkata, Lucknow, Jamshedpur, Patna, have also been provided with sanitary napkins during the lockdown by the organization.
Source : Apne Aap’s founder, Ruchira Gupta, distributing sanitary napkin packets to the needy.
Other NGOS, that are working tirelessly to ensure this sanitary napkin crisis can be solved include Niine Sanitary Napkins which is distributing sanitary napkins across Jharkhand, Bihar, Mumbai and affected areas of NCR. Spread Love and Peace (SLAP), an Assam based NGO, has been trying to reach out to people to collect funds to provide women and girls with sanitary napkins across India.
However, there are countless organizations and several individuals who are working around the clock to ensure that the sanitary napkin crisis can be minimized. These individuals and organizations are showing us that no matter what the situation is, help can always be provided to the needy.
“Human Rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are Human Rights.”- Hilary Clinton
The Indian Government’s failure to include sanitary napkins as an essential commodity in the list of essential items; has made a catastrophic impact on the girls and women of India during the lockdown. Women and girls in India have been denied a basic human right, the right to have access to sanitary napkins which is an essential part of who they are. This lockdown phase has been marked by an extremely disequalizing effect, on women and girls across India and poses a serious challenge to the attainment of gender equality which is a part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
On the 29th of March, 2020, the Government of India added sanitary napkins to the list of essential items along with soaps, diapers and detergents. The government took six days to declare that sanitary napkins are an essential item. Though the factories manufacturing sanitary napkins have now opened, supplies of sanitary napkins in existing stores continue to recede rapidly, while new stocks of sanitary napkins are yet to reach stores. Access to sanitary napkins continue to be limited ,especially for women and girls belonging to the underprivileged section of the society. The NGOs, working vigorously to ensure that the sanitary napkin crisis can be controlled, is indeed admirable.
However, the important question remains, how long will it take to change.the general mindset of people regarding menstruation and women rights in general . The resistance towards menstruation and women’s rights is not new, but the pandemic seems to have enforced it further. Womens’ needs have always been an afterthought and continue to be so in India. The subject of menstruation has always been shrouded in myths and taboos. The act of leaving out sanitary napkins as an essential commodity in the list of essential items should never be repeated by the Government in near future. The Ministry of Women and Child Development and the Ministry of Health should take precautionary measures to prevent such a crisis from happening. In future, the Government of India, as well as the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Women and Child Development should be meticulous enough to ensure that any sort of crisis related to women’s health and hygiene should not be excluded.It is not only, the responsibility of the Government or the different Ministries or the state governments to ensure that women’s health and hygiene is given the topmost priority in society, but it is also the responsibility of each and every individual to ensure the equivalent. We have still miles to walk, before the pandemic of discrimination can fade fully into the oblivion.
* All the three graphs have been made by the author.
Srijani Roy is currently pursuing her Masters in Sociology from Jadavpur University. She has graduated from the same university with a degree in sociology in 2019. She is an associate for the Gender Equality program at C.R.R.S.S. and also has a wide range of experiences in non-profit work with several organizations in different capacities.
Disclaimer: The author is fully aware that the article does not take into account the fact that apart from women and girls, transgenders and non- binary people also menstruate. This article has solely focused on girls and women, particularly those belonging to the underprivileged sections of society and women migrant laborers. This article has primarily focussed on the aspect of shortage of sanitary napkins in India during the lockdown. Further, points might be covered in the upcoming articles.