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Menstrual health and hygiene is the mantra
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Menstrual health and hygiene is the mantra

Though menstruating women continue to face discrimination, many individuals and organisations are doing their bit to break the taboo by providing sanitary napkins to women in rural areas

A day before International Women’s Day (IWD) this year, Dr Jhunu Mukherjee, a psychiatrist with Eastern Railway, Kolkata, wrote a strong message on Twitter about menstrual health.

 

IWD, observed on March 8, is an annual global event to uphold women’s achievements, recognise challenges, and focus greater attention on women’s rights and gender equality.

 Menstrual health
Photo by Anantha Subramanyam K

In the tweet, Dr Mukherjee not only espoused the cause of menstrual health as a human right but highlighted the discrimination faced by most menstruating women.

Along with discrimination, stigma and exclusion, women are vulnerable to reproductive and urinary tract infections because of a lack of access to menstruation-related products such as sanitary napkins, tampons and menstrual cups. Like in many parts of the world, menstruation is a taboo subject in India too.

Thus most often, the menstrual health and hygiene parts get ignored. Because of the lack of awareness, some women/girls don’t use sanitary napkins. Instead, they use rags, ashes and husk sand. Thus, incidents of reproductive tract infection (RTI) are common among these women.

The first phase of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) released in 2020 found that the percentage of women using sanitary products and practising hygiene during the menstrual cycle increased across states and union territories in the past decade-and-a-half in India.

While 98.9 per cent of females in Andaman & Nicobar Islands used hygienic products during their menstrual cycles, in Bihar the number stood at 58.8 per cent, as per the NFHS-5. The survey stated that Bihar saw a 30 per cent increase in terms of better and safer menstrual hygiene practices but it is not enough to ensure a better health index for women.

In India, about 23 million girls drop out of school every year due to periods as they have no access to menstrual health management.

Menstrual health and the good news

However, it’s not all bad. Many voluntary organisations and individuals — such as Tamil Nadu activist Arunachalam Muruganantham, whose life was the basis of the Bollywood film Padman — are doing exemplary work in providing menstrual health, hygiene, comfort and safety to women, especially from rural and poverty-stricken areas. Muruganantham’s mission is to provide sanitary napkins to poor women in rural areas.

Some Indian NGOs working towards providing menstrual health and hygiene are:

  1. The Ammada Trust: Its campaign, GiveHer5, helps provide sanitary napkins to rural girls so that they don’t miss their school during periods. “GiveHer5 is a social initiative bringing safe sanitary solutions to young women in rural areas across India. We use your donations to provide Saafkins, a reusable and affordable sanitary panty, to women that would otherwise resort to unhygienic and harmful alternatives. We work towards a brighter future for thousands of women across the country. With your help, we are one milestone closer to achieving gender equality,” says the NGO’s website.
  2. The NGO Goonj was started by Ramon Magsaysay Award winner Anshu Gupta. As a part of its ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’ initiative, Goonj provides clean cloth sanitary pads to women in villages.
  3. Eco Femme is an Auroville-based organisation that provides education to girls and women about menstruation and how to have a dignified menstrual experience. It also manufactures washable and reusable cloth pads.
  4. Aakar Innovations gives biodegradable and affordable sanitary pads to rural women who do not have access to them.

The National Health Mission (NHM) under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) is also doing its bit. It has introduced a scheme for the promotion of menstrual health and hygiene among adolescent girls (aged 10-19) in rural areas.

The objectives of the NHM are:

  • To increase awareness among adolescent girls about menstrual health and hygiene
  • To increase access to and use of high-quality sanitary napkins for adolescent girls in rural areas
  • To ensure safe disposal of sanitary napkins in an environmentally friendly manner

Started in 2011, the scheme now provides subsidised sanitary napkins to adolescent girls in rural areas across the country. Under ‘Freedays,’ girls are provided with a pack of six napkins at Rs 6, as per the NHM. Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers run the programme under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Along with providing napkins to menstruating girls, the ASHA workers create awareness of safe and hygienic menstrual health practices with the help of audio, video and reading materials. For every pack of napkins sold, an ASHA worker earns an incentive of one rupee. She is also given a free pack of napkins every month for her personal use.

Talking about her experiences, Rajkumari (who asked to be identified only by her first name), an ASHA worker from Thakurpura village in Kathua district of Jammu & Kashmir, said girls from her village were happy because of access to affordable sanitary napkins. “It is amazing that 43 of the 55 young girls in my village now come to me to discuss their menstrual health issues. I know exactly when they would need the sanitary napkin packs. I also visit schools regularly so that the packs are readily available to the girls,” she said.

Salima (who also asked to be identified only by her first name), a school-going girl from Dharmasala block in the Dhubri district of Assam, said, “I am glad the government is providing affordable sanitary napkins. Now, I don’t have to use dirty clothes during menstruation which increases the chances of getting RTIs.” Salima added that she learnt about RTIs and their causes from an ASHA worker.

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