New Delhi: Did you know that globally, 2.3 billion people lack basic sanitation services? According to UNICEF, in the least developed countries, only 27 per cent of the population has a handwashing facility with water and soap at home. UNICEF further adds that about half of the schools in low-income countries lack adequate drinking water, sanitation and hygiene crucial for girls and female teachers to manage their period. Inadequate facilities can affect girls’ experience at school, causing them to miss school during their period. Ahead of Menstrual Hygiene Day, marked annually on May 28 to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene management among the people, the Banega Swasth India team spoke to Parnasha Banerjee, Associate Director, Urban WSH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) from Dasra to understand the connection between menstrual hygiene and sanitation.
Connecting The Dots Between Sanitation, Menstruation And Menstrual Hygiene
Inclusion and inclusivity across the sanitation value chain have become an important part for all of us and within which, menstrual hygiene plays a very critical role. One of course is in the form of lack of menstrual hygiene facilities in some of the public and community toilets. Even if menstrual hygiene facilities are there, they are not up to the standards that women and girls are able to use them. Secondly, there’s a huge focus on the disposal. As income and awareness levels have increased, more menstruators in India have started using sanitary pads. We have seen sanitary pads have reached the first mile. This in turn has led to an increase in menstrual waste, said Ms Banerjee.
There has been a long-standing debate around menstrual hygiene waste. How should it be disposed of? As a regular waste product or biomedical waste? In whichever way we dispose of, it is important to note that sanitation workers are exposed to menstrual hygiene waste. Further talking about menstrual hygiene management, Ms Banerjee said,
While I talk about menstrual hygiene management across the sanitation value chain, one is to understand our service providers, sanitation workers who are exposed to the waste. Secondly, their own menstrual hygiene needs. Sanitation workers have to wear certain personal protective equipment (PPE). We haven’t penetrated fully across how many sanitation workers do wear PPE and that too adequate ones. How do we look at the safety of these sanitation workers who have access and menstruating while doing their jobs for us?
Key Steps To Improve Menstrual Hygiene In India
Having a conversation around it is the first and foremost step towards improving menstrual hygiene. Ms Banerjee believes that with Bollywood movies like Padman, various advertisements, and media talking about menstruation, there has been an increase in terms of awareness and people’s understanding of menstrual hygiene and the need for it. However, there is still a taboo and social stigma around it. She said,
I still see pharmacies selling menstrual hygiene products wrapped in newspapers and black polythene. We still feel uncomfortable talking about menstrual hygiene within our families, with men around us – fathers, boyfriends and husbands, among others. It’s still an uncomfortable conversation.
Secondly, there is a need to increase access to menstrual hygiene products, she said. There is a huge penetration of sanitary pads and that’s also leading to disposal issues however, there are also affordable menstrual hygiene products that ensure women’s health and they need to be also taken out right there.
There are cloth menstrual pads that work actually very well and they inhibit fungal and bacterial growth thereby reducing a lot of symptoms that women undergo. But we don’t talk enough about the right to choices. As a woman, we have a choice and that choice, unfortunately, remains limited to the privileged part of the community.
Thirdly, training of stakeholders is needed to create awareness and accessibility. Ms Banerjee said that we still don’t know where menstrual hygiene sits in the larger Ministry. Though a lot of ministries have done a fantastic job like the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs came up with a gender guideline for Swachh Bharat Mission Urban which does talk about menstrual hygiene, said Ms Banerjee.
But I think, training is needed on how each urban local body talks to communities and vice versa across their needs on menstrual hygiene management. A large part of this is probably stigma, she said.
Further talking about ensuring sanitation and menstrual hygiene in schools so that girls don’t drop out, Ms Banerjee emphasised on two key things:
1. Creating an enabling environment in schools and communities where the community leaders can come forward to work with local authorities – leveraging community leaders to ensure that basic sanitation services and hygiene practices are available.
2. An outcome of this is that when you do talk about sanitation and hygiene and public places ensure the availability of sanitation and hygiene services – toilets are usable and women are able to access them – it creates awareness.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.