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India's Period Poverty Amidst the Pandemic Exposes State Apathy Towards Women's Issues

The outbreak of COVID-19 and a short-sighted decision of the Indian government unleashed a storm of challenges for menstruating women and girls. The repercussions were disastrous and lasting. Moving forward, the State must take the lead in addressing issues of menstrual management and its awareness so that deep-rooted stigma associated with menarche can be shattered.

In India, menstruation continues to be regarded as a “dirty” biological occurrence, not to be spoken about openly. Even today, many women grow up believing taboos around menstruation and such beliefs are often passed onto future generations. This is evident from the fact that nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually once they hit puberty due to lack of sanitation facilities. The lack of facilities and means to manage periods, particularly in rural areas, exacerbates their quandary. These issues have long persisted; however, most women and girls were unprepared for what was to come with the outbreak of COVID-19. In a country where approximately 350 million women, as well as trans men and other individuals who identify as LGBTQIA+, menstruate, the government neglected to include period products as essential items when it first announced a country-wide lockdown on 24th March 2020. A week later, as grocery stores, chemists and e-commerce websites were reportedly running out of pads, and women’s collectives voiced concern, the government added sanitary pads to the list of essentials. On a policy level, this delay demonstrates the apathy of the State towards women’s issues.


As a result of not having included period products in the essential items list from the outset, production was severely affected. In fact, some factory owners suggest that the delay caused nearly 10 days of production loss, significantly impacting demand and supply. A survey conducted by Menstrual Health Alliance India found that almost 82% of NGOs engaged in distribution had either no or severely restricted access to sanitary pads due to non-operational production units. Even functional production units had switched their focus to producing face masks. Moreover, as most shops remained closed, distribution was also impacted in both urban and rural areas, leaving women with no access to sanitary products. Others that remained open reportedly engaged in hoarding or with the black market. Furthermore, the inflation of prices, made sanitary products available to only those who could afford to bear the increased costs. The situation did not improve even as the stringent lockdown restrictions were lifted. Factories falling in containment zones were unable to resume operations. Those that were able to operate, faced acute shortages of labour and raw materials. Rajesh Shah, the president of the Feminine and Infant Hygiene Association of India, told the BBC, "[a]fter the government allowed us to operate, it took us another three to four days to restart the factories because we had to get all the required permissions and passes for our workers." This led to continued disruptions in the supply and distribution chain.



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Female migrant workers, who hailed from rural areas, were particularly marginalized by the pandemic. As the first phase of the lockdown was announced, thousands of daily-wage migrant workers suddenly found themselves without jobs and were forced to walk back to their villages. These migrants, many of whom were women and young girls, were fighting for survival, hence food and water took precedence over everything else. On their arduous expeditions home, they had little to no finances nor access to toilets, let alone sanitary napkins. Furthermore, adolescent girls who benefitted from free-pad supply schemes each month under normal circumstances, were left in the lurch due to the shutdown of schools. In rural areas, families already facing immense financial constraints did not see it fit to spend money on buying pads. Consequently, women and girls were forced to resort to unhygienic, home-made alternatives such as old rags, leaves, cotton and mud which can often lead to reproductive tract infections and in some cases may be life-threatening. As many were dependent on community toilets, social distancing norms made period management all the more difficult for women and girls.


Even women in urban areas were presented with significant challenges. Many who could afford menstrual products at normal prices were impacted due to the lack of public transport and mobility restrictions during the lockdown. As the lockdown cut off most informal support systems for women, the burden of domestic responsibilities increased. It was bad enough that the boundaries between their work and personal lives had been blurred due to remote working, but the added strain of having to deal with their menses during the lockdown, without sufficient access to sanitary products, also had a disproportionate impact on women’s mental health. The stress induced by the pandemic wreaked serious physiological repercussions. Having to resort to using menstrual products for longer than recommended exposed women to a higher risk of sanitation-related diseases and complications. In fact, some doctors reported a spike of 20-25% in the number of patients coming to them for irregular periods.

The effects of a short-sighted decision of the government were disastrous, leaving many women with biological and psychological illnesses. However, it points to a larger problem; our leaders, most of whom happen to be men, remain unwilling to speak openly about periods and menstrual health. In Menaka Gandhi v. Union Onion of India, the honourable Supreme Court had observed that the right to life, guaranteed by the Constitution of India, includes the right to live with dignity. In failing to recognize the right of proper access to menstrual products, the government denied, for weeks, a basic human right to a large number of citizens. Menarche is not just a biological event, it is a cross-cutting gendered issue of health and education, of more inclusive workplaces, of women’s empowerment and gender equality. The government should be equally invested in promoting menstrual hygiene awareness and make continued efforts to enhance access to sanitary products. If the State starts addressing these issues stridently, unashamedly and seriously, it will lead the way for both men and women, in homes, schools and workplaces, to shatter deep-rooted stigma and taboos around menstruation.

About the author

Mani Chander is a practicing lawyer based in New Delhi. She is the founding partner of Clinch Legal, and has a special interest in gender justice, feminist activism, and politics. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, and is admitted to the Bar Council of India as well as the New York State Bar, United States. She tweets @manichander11

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