'Pad'ding Up During Crisis

'Pad'ding Up During Crisis

“In the remote areas of Sunderbans, where the women are struggling for two square meals a day, something like a sanitary napkin is a luxury item. Due to the lockdown there was no soap available in these villages, forget sanitary napkins.”

Nazrul Islam of Indranarayanpur Nazrul Smriti Sangha (INSS), a long time partner of Oxfam India based in South 24 Parganas, brought this up during the needs assessment discussion prior to our response  in the Sunderbans during the lockdown. But this is what we have always heard and seen during any humanitarian crisis. During Assam floods, menstruating women at the relief centres were forced to use old rags to manage menstrual bleeding.

It is true that disasters do not discriminate, but the differential impact it has on men and women is manifested by the existing deep rooted gender inequalities. It is also true that the menstrual hygiene needs of the adolescent girls are often overlooked either by communities or by the government response mechanism.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been unprecedented and so have the challenges for the community. In Gorakhpur, 28-year-old Anita, a mother of two, is married to a daily wage worker; unable to get work or wages due to the lockdown, they soon ran out of money. So much so that Anita even contemplated selling her jewellery to buy sanitary pads during her periods. But with shops closed, the only recourse left with her was to use parts of an old bed sheet.

And this is where we step in — Oxfam India has always gone the extra mile to reduce the vulnerability of women and girls and manage the risks associated with it. They are usually called ‘dignity kits’ which among other things include soap, sanitary napkins, and inner wear. In the ongoing COVID-19 response, we were cognisant of how important sanitary napkins were going to be because during the lockdown while everything else can stop, menstruation won’t. So as part of the safety kit provided to the community, we also ensured sanitary napkins were included.

In the last over two months of our response, we have provided hygiene kits to 300 women like Anita in Gorakhpur. The kit consisted of six bathing soap, six washing soap, nail cutter, comb, towel, three face masks & two sanitary pad packets. And across the country, we have been able to provide sanitary napkins to more than 10,000 women, including migrant women workers walking back home.

Menstruation is a natural, and essential, part of the reproductive cycle; roughly half the human population has or will experience it, but too often, menstruation is shrouded in mystery, leading to exclusion, neglect and discrimination.  In India alone 23 million girls drop out of school every year due to lack of proper menstrual hygiene management!

This neglect is just exacerbated during a humanitarian crisis.

This is akin to violation of basic human rights — the rights every person has as virtue of his or her human dignity. Menstruation is intrinsically related to human dignity – when people cannot access safe bathing facilities and safe and effective means of managing their menstrual hygiene, they are not able to manage their menstruation with dignity. Menstruation-related teasing, exclusion and shame also undermine the principle of human dignity*.  

It is extremely important that humanitarian and government responses integrate menstrual hygiene management not just for the immediate response but for the intermediate recovery and the long term phase. In fact, drawing on my experience, all responses should integrate something similar to Oxfam India’s five-pronged approach of managing periods during disaster, creating awareness regarding menstrual hygiene, providing sanitary products in a post-disaster situation, breaking taboos related to periods, and strengthening women led organisations to prepare and procure menstrual hygiene products.

While the first four points help normalise Periods, the last point is crucial as it also provides SHGs with employment opportunity. Once the initial response is over, in the early recovery and rehabilitation phase  Oxfam India trains women to make sanitary napkins. They in the long run become the producers and suppliers of biodegradable napkins. They come with biodegradable bags for disposal, as well!

To ensure that once things go back to normal, girls do not drop out due to lack of proper facilities in school, Oxfam India has installed gender-segregated toilets with proper water facility at various locations, repaired toilets in schools so that girls do not miss out schools, and installed incinerators with low emission in school and community.

While there is much that humanitarian agencies can do to fill in the gaps around menstrual hygiene management, there are certain concrete steps that need to be taken by the government. It is important to understand the broader impact of menstruation on health, wellbeing, gender equality, education, equity, and rights, and inculcate them in policies.

For instance, the government should collect gender and sex specific data and statistics on impact of disasters, and carry out gender-sensitive vulnerability, so that there is data to use for planning for specific needs of communities, especially women and girls. It could also think in lines of a Minimum Initial Service Package for women and girls in post-disaster/humanitarian crisis situation, and provide a holistic solutions for Menstrual Hygiene Management including access to products, knowledge and sanitation facilities at the family, community and institutional level.  As a society, we need to engage with men and boys to discuss menstrual health and break the taboo around it.

A few simple steps could do wonders in restoring this very basic human rights of half the population of the world!



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