Periods don’t pause for pandemicsOnly by understanding menstruation as a biological necessity can society tackle the real problem, which is poor menstrual hygiene.
Menstrual Hygiene Day, which was observed on May 28, is a global day of advocacy which aspires to provide a bigger stage for efforts in facilitating good menstrual hygiene. The day is also marked to remind us that menstrual products cannot be luxury items, and that no one should be shunned for a process that occurs naturally.
Menstruation is not a matter of purity. Cisgender women, trans men as well as gender non-conforming people can have a womb, experience menstruation, become pregnant and give birth. The capacity to give birth to a child is a life-changing experience; indeed, organs that support this should not be considered taboo. It should not be appalling to simply let menstruators continue with their normal, regular activities. As long as general hygiene measures are followed, menstruators can perform their daily activities exactly like every other person, on any given day.
The ongoing pandemic has significantly impacted lives everywhere, and the situation is worsening every day in Nepal. The use of sanitary pads among adolescent urban menstruators is higher (50 percent) in comparison to those in rural areas (19 percent). Whereas, the use of old pieces of cloth was higher among rural (35 percent) than in urban (14 percent) menstruators. Covid-19 has affected the access to sanitary products for such young menstruators, as the majority of those living in rural locations used to get access to sanitary products in schools, which are now closed. Closure of schools has made it hard for menstruators who depended on schools, as they have no alternative at the moment. This has given rise to menstruators using sanitary pads longer than they should or more reverting back to unhygienic methods, which heightens the risk of reproductive tract infections (RTIs).
Earlier, things were starting to look positive for menstrual hygiene issues. Various campaigners had used a diverse range of media to help spread awareness regarding menstrual hygiene as well as to pressure the government to remove value-added tax (VAT) on sanitary items. While contraceptives are tax-free, menstrual products are still taxed as luxury goods. When one is living close to the poverty line, a 13 percent premium on an essential good becomes a major barrier.
Some of us are privileged enough to access safer alternatives, but the truth is many menstruators still strive to afford sanitary products due to poverty and lack of affordability. The sanitary pad is comparatively costly in Nepal. One packet costs around Rs60 and menstruators use at least one and a half packets in a month. The minimum monthly wage of a Nepali worker engaged in the formal sector is Rs13,450, but in the informal sector, workers can earn much lower than this. A large number of menstruators work in informal sectors like in households, contributing to self-work in agriculture and at home care services. Such informal workers do not have the luxury of spending extra on sanitary items.
Another added risk with Covid-19 is soaring unemployment. Many Nepalis, both at home and abroad, are at risk of losing their jobs. For the many that rely on domestic or foreign remittances for their livelihood, menstrual hygiene is suddenly going to take a back seat to other pressing concerns.
Many menstruators in the rural setting are compelled to live in a period hut every month. Even though this tradition was outlawed in 2005 and criminalised in 2017, it is deeply entrenched and continues to be practised in many villages in Nepal. This is the vivid example of how stigmatisation of periods influences the day-to-day lives of menstruators.
Stories of Chhaupadi have many urbanites decry such barbaric practices. Yet, nearer home, several educated elites in urban locations too do not allow family members who’re on their period to enter the kitchen or go to the temple. This subtle practice of period shaming has been internalised. According to the 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, conducted by Central Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF, about 50 percent of urban dwellers that menstruate dodge all social gathering invitations when they are on their period. In an article in The Kathmandu Post, many even said that they didn’t mind following these rules because they are not as outrageous as Chhaupadi. This confirms people are still haunted by these social restrictions—no matter how educated and independent they are.
Having access to menstrual products is, undoubtedly, a human right. It is time for our government to deal with the fact that menstruators, especially in marginalised groups and from rural regions, are deprived of it. Moreover, to truly elevate menstrual hygiene into social consciousness, the taboo must be broken. The rural populace, lacking internet access, need specialised attention to communicate the wrongs of this phenomenon. Only state-sponsored education can uproot such ideas from society. In the short term, as Covid-19 wreaks havoc, the government must heavily subsidise sanitary products. After all, they are an essential good.
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