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.