Lock-down has eroded hard-won progress on menstrual hygiene

Activists fear years of steady gains to improve access to sanitary products and fight “period poverty” – achieved through raising awareness and breaking taboos in government departments and schools – could be rolled back.

By Roli Srivastava and Annie Banerji

W ith rains pounding her village in eastern India this week, Neelam Singh weighed the options; walk several miles through the jungle to buy sanitary pads or cut a strip from one of her mother’s old polyester saris.

The 18-year-old used up her last pad during India’s weeks-long coronavirus lockdown, which campaigners say has eroded hard-won progress on menstrual hygiene, forcing many women to go back to using scraps of unsuitable cloth or dirty rags.

Supplies of sanitary products ran low across the country during the lockdown, making them too expensive for many girls and women at a time when millions lost their livelihoods.

“Cotton cloth is expensive and a lot of girls in my village use synthetic, but it leaks and is not comfortable. I don’t know what I’ll use when I get my next period,” Singh told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“There’s no pharmacy in the village where I can buy pads,” she said by phone from eastern Jharkhand state. During the lockdown, she was too scared to walk down the deserted jungle path to stock up at the nearest market.

While the government listed sanitary pads as essential goods during the coronavirus shutdown and asked local health workers to distribute them in rural areas, delivery has been patchy.

Activists fear years of steady gains to improve access to sanitary products and fight “period poverty” – achieved through raising awareness and breaking taboos in government departments and schools – could be rolled back.

“Girls in the last few years had started buying pads or had started asking their mothers for them in both urban and rural areas,” said Bharathy Tahiliani, who drafted menstruation lesson plans for schools in western Maharashtra state.

“There is regression now. There are no field interventions, no mentoring or hand-holding,” Tahiliani said. “We’ve lost ground.”

Source: Thomsons Reuters Foundation

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