At Saral Designs, we are working towards providing access to health and hygiene through our programs on menstrual hygiene in tier-2,3 towns through our one of its kind pad making machine technology called SWACHH. I head Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) projects in the rural areas of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Haryana that focus on creating awareness on MHM and providing access to high quality affordable products through a network of trained local women. Our projects in these geographies are focused on offering improved access to information on subject matter as well the product awareness.
As soon as the lockdown started, I began receiving calls from our rural sales representatives explaining the situation in their areas and how it has affected the information and distribution channel. The initial list of essentials released by MHA did not mention sanitary pads which are a necessity for the individuals of the menstruating age group, but with an uproar from various factions working on MHM advocacy finally, it was included in the essentials list. However, the stigma still remains and availability of sanitary napkins began to decline in the farthest areas of India.
Our production partners had challenges in some of the geographies as there were no clear guidelines laid out for operations of essential manufacturing industries at small and medium scale. With projects getting affected and ambiguity surrounding the Covid itself, the local distribution was put on hold unless some clarity was acquired. However, like every other organisation working on grassroot issues, we too faced challenges reaching out when needed. Also, the initial two months were rough for local women who were deprived of sanitary napkins due to unavailability of the products locally. Over the last one and a half years, we invested our time and energy in building a remote distribution network – our rural women sales partners would buy pads from our production partner and sell them in their locality. We built a network of over 550 women to distribute these pads and our efforts paid off in the time of such a crisis. It was the local network that helped women and girls in the distant location during menstruation making pads available.
During the same time, Covid-19 positive cases were on rise in Mumbai and majority of the populous regions like urban slums were under radar for their highest count. Some of the slums were declared containment zones and life had come to a standstill with only essentials operating. However, the menstrual hygiene situation was affected at large as incomes were negligible and girls and women were at the discomfort with regards to water sanitation and hygiene. One of our now collaborators Jameel Begum, who is a firebrand activist from Govandi says, “menstruating population in the urban slums was at the disadvantage of the lockdown restrictions. The girls are not getting sanitary pads and they hesitate using cloth pads as it requires washing and drying in the sun. With multiple male members in the family and men loitering around the community toilets, they get embarrassed to wash cloth in the community toilet. Of course water access is another issue altogether though linked with menstrual hygiene management.” She also goes on to narrate the ordeals of young girls and women from her locality during scorching summer heat and lack of water supply. The basic hygiene conditions are missing in the slums and with Covid-19, it has become even more difficult to thrive.
We were approached by one of our partners MSInS (Maharashtra State Innovation Society), to provide access to pads in the slums of mumbai. We had some funds from our previous campaign which also got affected due to the situation posed by Covid, and thus diverted those funds to provide free access to sanitary pads in the slums. Our first batch of pads was sent to Ghar bachao, ghar banao through MSInS in Annabhau Sathe Nagar and gradually we joined hands with other stakeholders who willingly ran a parallel campaign for pad distribution in slum areas. During the 4 months of Covid-19 lockdown organisations like Essar Foundation, Jeevandhara, Red is the New Green, Apanalya approached for sanitary pads to be distributed in their area of operations in Mumbai. We reached 40,000 beneficiaries in areas such as Govandi, Mankhurd, Vashi naka and Malwani (Malad) and made sanitary napkins available at their door steps. A total of 3.3 Lakh pads were distributed during the first two phases of nationwide lockdown.
It is a known fact that women often prioritise families’ health over their own and in crisis situations like these, vulnerable and sensitive issues regarding women’s health and hygiene are knocked back. But menstrual hygiene is considered intimate and something that is not talked about given the myths and taboo around it. An issue like this which is apparent, yet invisible, if dealt with sensitivity can make lives better, and of course if ignored can also make it uneasy and distressed. Distributing pads to women and girls during the lockdown and especially when slums were tagged as containment zones was a challenge. However, our efforts were rolled out because of the conviction of so many like-minded stakeholders such as donors, local NGOs, manufacturers, activitivists and local administration who had come together to make menstrual hygiene accessible to the population at risk during the pandemic.
I began venturing into the slums of Mumbai with my very first field work 7 years ago. From a reverse lens, I empathise with the social conditioning in these spaces, however, I leave the depth and breadth narration of their lives to them as I am only bridging the patches by providing must haves in these locations. Of course, it is a small contribution towards a massive journey on the path of recovery from the crisis. What Jameela narrated, comes straight out of informal settlements of Mumbai, and not a fiction. The issue is as real as the pandemic.