Today, the government health centre in Nandpora at Saidakadal locality Srinagar wears a deserted look. The only visitor, a stray dog that lies dozing in the compound, basking in the mild May sun. In the pre-pandemic times, however, the health centre was the hub of many a bustling activity. Awareness campaigns around the importance of menstrual health would be held every fortnight, refuting myths and misperceptions around mensuration. The World Menstrual Hygiene Day, which falls on May 28, would have especially been a lively affair.
But in these pandemic times, like every other non-Covid healthcare intervention, menstrual health has taken a backseat. With every resource being diverted to the crisis at hand, a crushing blow has been dealt to menstrual awareness efforts in the valley.
Dr Auqfeen Nisar (30), a resident doctor at Shri Maharaja Hari Singh (SMHS) Hospital, initiated a first-of-its-kind, crowd-funded campaign against menstrual taboo, `Panin Fikr’, when she was still a post-graduate student. She has been championing the cause since 2019, leading a six-member team comprising two nurses and four ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers. She conducted her campaign from the health centre in Nandpora where she was posted, catering to a community of around 4,000 women, of whom 200 are adolescent girls. She notes that the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has unleashed a sanitary napkin crisis in the valley.
“After the pandemic began, the donations stopped pouring in. Our funds have completely dried up and we are unable to provide sanitary napkins free of cost to the registered population under the initiative. Moreover, door-to-door and mass awareness campaigns are not possible at this time, when social gatherings are disallowed,” Dr Auqfeen rued.
She said it took them a lot of time to bring about behavioural changes in women regarding menstrual hygiene. “The free napkins were a great source of motivation for them. However, all our efforts will go to waste if things continue like this. They will resort to their old, unhygienic practices, if they haven’t done so already,” Dr Auqfeen said.
She cites the example of a 35-year-old woman from Nandpora, who had attended several awareness programs, subsequently shifting from cloth to sanitary pads. However, when Auqfeen met her recently, she was saddened to hear that the woman had reverted back to using cloth. The pandemic had reduced her income, and so pads had become unaffordable.
Similarly, entrepreneur Aqib Peerzada (28), popularly knowns as `Padman of Kashmir’ for launching organic sanitary napkins, concurs that the pandemic has exacerbated women’s deprivation of menstrual hygiene products. “Before the crisis, we at Seha Health and Hygiene were engaged in distributing packs of sanitary napkins to teenage girls at affordable prices as well as free of cost to many others across the valley. Our mission was to create awareness about menstruation in addition to manufacturing affordable and organic sanitary napkins,” he said.
However, the lockdown severely hampered their production and operations. Their manufacturing units were shut down, and the lack of manpower ensured that the production of sanitary pads came to a screeching halt. Aqib himself came down with COVID-19 pneumonia and had to stay away from Seha during his month-long hospitalisation and recuperation. “Eventually stocks were exhausted in many places and women had to resort to unhealthy alternatives,” he said.
However, despite the lockdown and threat of infection, Seha has managed to distribute many boxes of napkins, especially to women in quarantine. “I have faced many hurdles and difficulties during this time but still I personally delivered many boxes to needy girls during this crisis. I believe that it’s our priority to not think about profits and targets but come forward and help people as much as we can,” he said.
The crisis is aggravated by the fact that the mobility of women is severely restricted during the lockdown. Irfana Zargar (30), the founder of `Eva’s Safety Door’ campaign, illustrates this. As part of her campaign to raise awareness, she used to distribute sanitary napkin packs for free among the attendants of public toilets in Srinagar city so that the women coming there could use them. With the toilets now shut, the campaign has also gone for a toss.
“The lockdown has resulted in restricted access and mobility, making it even more difficult for girls to manage their monthly cycle in a dignified healthy way,” she said. Meanwhile, Irfana who also works at the Srinagar Municipal Corporation, is deputed these days at the 24*7 district control room Srinagar that handles COVID-19 related complaints. “The work is so taxing that there is no time to devote to altering the campaign to meet the pandemic needs,” Irfana said.
Dr Nausheen Khan, a senior gynaecologist at Lal Ded, the lone maternity hospital in Srinagar, said after lockdown, the distribution of the sanitary pads has hit a dead end.
“The government must ensure that the sanitary pads are distributed to females in the community through Auxiliary Nurse-Midwives (ANMs) and ASHAs. Even if sanitary napkins are not available, they should educate them on how to make sanitary napkins at home. The napkins can be made from cotton cloth and changed frequently. They should be washed properly before using it again,” she said.
Dr Khan pointed out that subsidised sanitary pads can also be made available for sale through the ration shops. “An inclusive and gender-sensitive response to COVID-19 must involve catering to the menstrual health and hygiene needs of women and girls especially from the most marginalised sections,” she said.
(The author is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)