Gita cuts up her petticoat into pieces to use them as sanitary napkins, quite aware of the repercussions that an unhealthy practice like this can have on her health. “What can I do in this situation? I have no other option,” she says. Gita is one of the six women housed at the makeshift quarantine centres at the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya in Banda, Uttar Pradesh. As of 16th April, the total number of Covid-19 cases in Uttar Pradesh are up to 773 – having caused 13 deaths.
The Uttar Pradesh government has converted several primary schools in its rural areas into quarantine centres to control the spread of Covid-19 cases. As per prevention protocol stated on 29 March by the state government, migrant labourers returning to their homes during the lockdown are being quarantined in these schools. According to The Hindu, it is estimated that over 2 lakh migrant labourers had returned to the state with the help of the bus services provided by CM Yogi Adityanath. It is reported that ASHA workers and village heads are actively working towards tracing and quarantining everyone who has returned from the cities.
Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya is one among many such school-turned-quarantine-centres, which is housing 23 migrant labourers in total. Out of the six women staying here, two are also pregnant. Khabar Lahariya visited the school on World Health Day and had one all-encompassing question to ask – “Who is looking after the essential needs of women in the middle of this global pandemic?”
Less than 50% of women in our country use hygienic methods during menstruation. In UP alone, 81% of women end up using cloth during menstruation.
The answer was quite visible in Gita’s case, and hardly surprising. For our central government, sanitary pads only made it to the list of essentials on March 30th, a full five days after the nation was put under lockdown. On March 29, Bloomberg Quint quoted Rajesh Shah, President of Feminine and Infant Hygiene Association of India, “The central government is yet to clarify if sanitary napkins are an essential item because of which almost all factories have shut. State governments also need to add sanitary napkins to the list of the essential items so that companies can start manufacturing.”
Shortly after media pressure, Smriti Irani, Minister of Women and Child Development (WCD) of India tweeted that, “Taking note of the growing concern regarding the availability of sanitary napkins” – they have now been listed as an essential commodity.
While urban India has recorded a more open conversation on menstruation in the last few years, with many digital campaigns focussed on breaking the taboo of menstruation, the situation in rural areas hasn’t changed all that much. According to the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS) released in 2015-16, less than 50% of women in our country use hygienic methods during menstruation. In UP alone, 81% of women end up using cloth during menstruation.
Even before we were in the grip of a global pandemic, the situation was hardly favourable. Scheme after scheme has been launched by successive governments in an attempt to provide free of cost sanitary pads and create awareness around menstrual hygiene – such as the Kishori Yojna and Menstrual Hygiene Scheme (MHS) launched in 2011 by the health ministry, or the Menstrual Hygiene Management National Guidelines in 2015 – and they end up as mere lip service due to ineffective implementation.
The 12% Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced in 2017 goes to show how sanitary pads are treated as ‘luxury’ items far beyond the reach of rural young women – both at the policy and socio-cultural levels. In March 2020, the WCD Ministry admitted that the crown jewel of the government’s women empowerment scheme – Beti Bachao Beti Padhao – a staggeringly vast majority of allocated funds for which (between 65% and 91%) have been spent on government advertisements rather than any other tangible vertical since 2016. All this data is par for the course in a crisis approach that fails to acknowledge the truly ‘essential’ nature of sanitary napkins and hygienic facilities for women in the planning of a country-wide lockdown.
Sanitary pads only made it to the list of essentials on March 30th, a full five days after the nation was put under lockdown.
“I am six months pregnant. I do not get even adequate tea on time, let alone any nutritious food. Often when I don’t get food on time, I start getting palpitations. I wish to go home, but I’m not allowed to leave this centre even in this condition. The police have threatened to beat us up if we try to leave before completing 14 days of isolation here,” complains Goura, another woman housed at the centre. A far cry from the required prenatal nutrition of a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables, the centre serves them basic meals of roti and dal. When asked if there is female staff in the facility to cater to the health needs of women, the answer was an astounding “no”.
Rajendar Prasad Nigam, the Lekhpal, was asked by our reporter about the facilities provided at this primary school. He said, ‘There are rooms, beds, electricity and water supply, and provisions for meals”. What is missing in this list of essential commodities is the availability of water, hygiene and sanitation (WASH) facilities specifically for women. When probed further on how much the government has planned before making the sweeping decision of quarantining all migrant labourers, the Lekhpal added, ‘There is a female guard stationed outside – if the women can let her know what their problems are, we will then figure out how to solve them”.
As is obvious in such an approach to a national health crisis, women’s health and hygiene remain an afterthought. More so in rural healthcare systems that are already adversely affected by poor infrastructure, the dearth of facilities and qualified medical staff. Information on isolation and self-quarantine, social distancing and lockdowns are common worldwide now – yet holistic information about the most basic functions of women’s reproductive health still remains an unsolvable mystery for many. While we must fight the virus by standing united, this national crisis is another reminder that our health policies need feminist interventions.
This article was first published in Breakthrough
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