It is widely acknowledged now that Covid-19 is not gender-neutral. Besides biological susceptibility and risk of exposure, the differences are also due to long-existing inequalities and social disparities within society.
Reports on rise of domestic abuse, increasing burden of unpaid care work, deteriorating mental health of women, higher vulnerability towards losing jobs (women were seven times more likely to lose work during the nationwide lockdown) – all point towards the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on women.
Further adding to this list is the issue of menstrual hygiene. Despite being a natural part of women’s reproductive cycle, menstruation is stigmatized and considered a taboo in many parts of the world, India being among countries where discrimination against menstruating women is acute and widespread. Misconceptions and prejudices abound – women are often considered to be contaminated and ‘napak’ (impure) during their cycles, they are often banished from entering the kitchen and temples, prohibited from performing any holy rituals, and believed to ‘ruin things’ by their touch.
It is owing to these menstrual superstitions that women are often hesitant in discussing about periods, as a result of which they remain ignorant of the hygienic health practices associated with it. Data from National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of women within the age group of 15 to 24 years, states that even today, we have not achieved 100 percent adoption of hygienic methods of protection during menstruation. Although the progress from NFHS-4 (2015-16) to NFHS-5 (2019-2020) is laudable (except for Mizoram which actually witnessed a fall in the percentage of women using hygienic menstrual methods), there is still a lot that needs to be done, especially in states such as Bihar which have the least percentage of women adopting safe menstrual practices.
Besides the differences within states, there are disparities across rural and urban areas too. More women in urban areas have adopted hygienic methods as compared to their rural counterparts. Among rural women, Goa leads with 97.6 percent women having adopted safe and hygienic methods during menstruation.
Very importantly, the latest NFHS survey has not covered the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, there existed a large number of women deprived of access to safe and hygienic methods, products, and practices during menstruation, and with the pandemic, the situation has only aggravated.
The Covid-19 crisis and the restrictions resulting from consequent lockdowns have led to fresh challenges for women. Restricted mobility/movement has forced many women, both rural and urban, to switch to homemade solutions. Economic woes and lack of funds have compelled many women and girls to prioritize other basic needs over safe menstrual products. Schools and colleges have been largely closed for over a year now; these places have been instrumental in providing information on menstruation and hygienic products to young girls, and their closure has augmented menstrual woes for many of them. The situation has been worse for women migrants who usually lack access to basic amenities, and who suffered greatly during their journey back home either on foot or in cramped trucks.
Menstruation hygiene rights are human rights, and they also play a crucial role in the achievement of several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Besides being of utmost importance for women’s health, menstrual hygiene also plays a crucial role in women’s education as there have been ample evidence pointing to reduced participation of girls in schools and increase in female school dropouts owing to lack of proper menstrual facilities.
The phenomenon cascades into workplaces too; lack of menstrual hygiene facilities in offices limits women’s ability to perform at their work, depicting an increase in their absenteeism and decrease in their productivity. This has direct implications not only on gender equality and women empowerment, but also the level of household income, and the overall economy.
In the last few years, the government, academia, non-profit organizations and development agencies have taken commendable efforts in propagating menstrual knowledge and ensuring menstrual health and hygiene in India. However, a lot still needs to be done especially during widespread crisis times, such as that of the Covid-19 pandemic; after all, ‘periods don’t stop for pandemics’.
Ensuring access to safe and hygienic menstruation products, soap and water, and other related facilities in public toilets and even in quarantine centres is vital. Going further, keeping up the efforts to educate girls and women on menstrual health and hygiene, and busting superstitions, stigma and taboos associated with menstruation continues to be the need of the hour. With women making up for half of the population, such measures will generate positive and healthy outcomes for the larger society.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.