COVID-19 pandemic disrupted lives with the announcement of an unanticipated lockdown by the central government in March.
The period following the imposition of the lockdown and curfew restrictions impaired the source of income for large strata of the society, pushing millions into the shackles of poverty.
However, during the time span of more than six months several not-for-profit organisations and good samaritans came forward to help the underprivileged with food, shelter, and basic necessities.
Noticing that the 'basic necessities' being provided was devoid of the most significant thing for menstruating women, Indian Revenue Services (IRS) officer Aman Preet who is currently posted in New Delhi as Joint Commissioner of Income Tax started an initiative of distributing sanitary pads and has distributed over 12 lakh sanitary pads across 17 states during the lockdown.
What started as a mere one-time act of providing her household help with a packet of sanitary pads turned out to be a massive campaign involving awareness on menstrual hygiene management and starting a dialogue on 'healthy periods' for officer Aman Preet and her team.
The officer stresses on the fact that 'periods don't stop during pandemic' and under the given circumstances when personal hygiene is of utmost importance, it is crucial to ensure the availability of the basic menstrual needs to the women across the country.
"The administration received requests from a group of girls in Rajasthan. The girls mentioned that they were facing difficulties in finding access to sanitary pads as the schools and colleges had been shut down due to the coronavirus lockdown. Now in far-flung areas, these were the places where young girls could buy affordable sanitary napkins which were made available by the government. Also, the incident with my own household help made me realise that this was the need of the hour," Aman Preet tells The Logical Indian.
Initially, Aman Preet invested her own savings for the distribution drives which were limited to near-by areas in Delhi-NCR, however, she was later joined by her fashion designer friend Priyal Bhardwaj and Sangini Saheli, a social organisation to extend the campaign to several states.
Sharing her experience of interacting with women in rural areas, Aman Preet says, "I was shocked! The women were brick kiln workers and also the sole breadwinner in their family and yet when asked for the reason of not using napkins they said the male members would not permit them to use it. They would rather use the money on buying groceries. They do not realise that it was going to impact not just their well-being but also of their family and community.
Some were ready to take it but started looking for something to hide it in while others asked for black bags or newspapers to wrap it up."
"One of the turning points during this period was on Menstrual Hygiene Day which is observed on May 28. My parents had put in the money and organised donation drive expecting at least 50 women to visit to get free sanitary pads in Punjab but to our surprise more than 350 women turned up and we knew they were in dire need of the napkins for their physical and personal hygiene," she said.
The IRS officer explains that the entire mechanism of conducting the distribution of pads is being conducted through an online network of her batchmates who have been posted across India, friends, seniors, family members and local NGOs.
The status of awareness on menstrual hygiene in India has not yet seen the light of the day.
According to the National Family Health Survey (2015-2016), out of the 336 million menstruating women in India about 121 million (roughly only 36 per cent) women are using sanitary napkins which are either locally or commercially produced.
In mid-April 2020, the Menstrual Health Alliance India (MHAI), which is co-chaired by WaterAid India, conducted a survey. The survey had 45 organisations including NGOs and manufacturers that either manufacture or distribute sanitary products as participants.
The survey pointed out that girls and women across the country found it difficult to access period products during the coronavirus outbreak. Notably, 82 per cent of organisations stated that there was either no access or severely restricted access to sanitary pads due to non- operational production units.
Aman Preet tells The Logical Indian about her experiences when she along with her team visited places for the distribution and she points out the underlying reason with menstruation still being considered taboo in the Indian society.
"Myths and customs have been an impediment preventing women from getting menstrual health care and psychological support during their periods. During their menstruating days, women are prohibited to enter the kitchen or temple because of the notion that anything they touch will become impure or rot. But in reality, a menstruating woman is going through a natural and healthy biological process which is made to appear like the bad guy which further shapes the mindset of adolescent girls regarding these three-seven days. Lack of adequate knowledge being passed on from one generation to the next adds to the obstacles," the officer pointed out.
She further opined that there is an urgent need for change in the way men perceive the mensuration, a change in mentality. Isolating women, while they are experiencing physical stress, would only add to their trauma.
"At least 50 per cent of the women we met had seen the sanitary pads for the first time!" exclaims Aman Preet.
Speaking about how teamwork is behind the menstrual products reaching remotest part of the country, from Sundarban in Bengal to Jammu and Kashmir, she says that her batchmates who have been involved in the distribution of relief materials stepped up to include packets of sanitary napkins after they got to know how it played a crucial role protecting a family, especially during the coronavirus crisis.
"From engaging people to distribute the kits in places like Ayodhya, Mirzapur and Arunachal Pradesh to witnessing the expression of relief on the faces of women getting the pads, these seven months have also been a journey of initiating an open conversation around menstrual hygiene. We started talking about healthy periods which should not be seen as a curse. It signifies a woman's ability to reproduce," says Aman Preet.
During the process, they also distributed sanitary napkins in all the prisons of Punjab and Arunachal Pradesh where women inmates are lodged.
The central government introduced a scheme for promotion of menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls in the age group of 10-19 year in rural areas. Under this scheme, adolescent girls can get access o sanitary napkin packs at a subsidised rate, however, not many are aware of the scheme to make use of it, pointed out the officer.
Highlighting the lack of literacy which contributes to the lack of awareness, she says, "Educating mothers is very crucial in the process since they are the first point of contact. It is equally important to educate ASHA and Anganwadi workers who work on grass root level and are tasked with the imparting knowledge on menstrual hygiene management."
"Hum teen din bimar rehti hai. That's what they told me when I was distributing pads and enquiring on their health and it was appalling to hear them consider menstruation as sickness. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioning sanitary napkins in his independence day speech was a big step in breaking the taboos associated with it and now it is our duty to continue the dialogue," adds the officer.