Talking Periods: ‘Does Your Company Stock Sanitary Napkins?’
We’re talking periods everywhere - from discussing them in schools and at dinner tables to our actors publically pushing to normalise women’s health.
That is, from the access and availability of safe sanitary products, to access to clean toilets to ensuring the correct information is being shared to young girls and boys and to hygienic waste disposal - the entire cycle needs to be built up.
On Saturday, 16 November, The Economic Times SDG Impact Summit a power-packed panel including Trisha Shetty of SheSays India, Natalia Vodianova - supermodel, philanthropist, and the woman behind the podcast "Let's Talk", TheaCare founder Swarnima Bhattacharya and Dharma Life founder Gaurvav Mehta spoke on India’s MHM challenges and potential ways forward.
In India and much of the world, MHM is still shrouded by a lack of awareness. Vodianova began by posing a simple question:
“If your companies has toilet paper and soap for general hygiene/health, do they have sanitary napkins for women’s health/hygiene too?,” she said.
A seemingly simplistic question, this brought into focus the need to think of every single aspect of health from an inclusive perspective. We know that when a mother is ill, the entire family does come to a standstill. Now apart from the unfair burden we put on mothers, this bellies the fact that women’s health is everyone’s issue.
Imagine this- a girl gets her period, she drops out of school because of a lack of access to safe sanitary products, she only has rags or sand and must stay home. Her education abruptly ends and her future economic earning is severely limited - affecting not just her financial independence but her family’s financial security and the country’s GDP too.
Woah. This seems like a hasty downward spiral but it’s a reality for many, many girls in India. According to a 2015 Dasra report on MHM in India, girls are typically absent for 20% of the school year due to menstruation, and up to 23% drop out entirely!
Battling the Inequality: Key Areas to Work on
If we continue to think of menstruation and women's health in isolation, we are leaving huge gaps in providing quality healthcare to half of our population. Gaps in MHM have a ripple effect on overall healthcare, often of the entire family, the economy and much more. So how do we plug this? What do we need to focus on?
- Education: Who did you run to when you first got your period? Chances are, your mom. Up to 70% of Indian moms still pass on their shame and misinformation about periods, keeping the cycle of shame alive. The first thing we need to do is reach out to the mothers and empower them with the right information and the ability to create a safe space for their girls.
- Education for Children: Boys and girls need to be educated on the natural process of menstruation in school, ideally before menarche so the girl is prepared. Teachers need to be empowered with correct, up-to-date and inclusive education modules to be a safe and open resource for curious kids.
- Lack of Products: 88% of menstruating women in India use unsafe sanitary alternatives like old fabric, rags, sand, ash, wood shavings, newspapers, dried leaves, hay, and plastic according to the DASRA Urban Sanitation 2015 Report. Then, the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme study of 2016 found that 80% of adolescent Indian girls are aware of sanitary napkins, but only 30% have access to them. So the availability of products needs to be improved and the government can encourage micro-enterprises to create cheap and safe sanitary products. Pads need to be considered as a normal product in the market with demand-price considerations.
- Engage stakeholders: Menstruation, and indeed women's healthcare needs to be looked at as more than just a woman’s concern. Men, business owners, Panchayat leaders, school teachers and more all need to be made aware of the ripple effect of poor MHM practices.
- Promote health-seeking behavior: For eons, women have been taught to silence our pain and curiosity.
- Women need to unlearn this. A well-informed mother or teacher can guide a girl and educate her on what a normal period is. The space at home and school need to be open so a girl can discuss menstrual problems, and feel confident to seek medical help when they notice signs of discomfort. Poor menstrual hygiene causes a 70% increase in reproductive tract infections. But over Over 90% of menstrual problems are preventable if treated at an early stage.
The Government is actively working to improve menstrual health management, but an inclusive module that keeps overall health outcome improvement in mind works best.
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