A draft menstrual hygiene policy, at long last

Centre’s Menstrual Hygiene Policy, recently hosted online for comments from the public and experts, aims to address the long-standing challenges associated with menstruation in our country.

October 20, 2023 12:06 pm | Updated 12:06 pm IST

Image for representational purposes only.

Image for representational purposes only. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

While the debate about whether menstrual leaves must be given or not occupied space, time and effort, more recently, traditionally, menstrual hygiene or the access or affordability of menstrual products and private and clean toilets have not been the flavour of any season. The Centre’s Menstrual Hygiene Policy, which was recently hosted online for comments from the public and experts, seems to remedy that.

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The Menstrual Hygiene Policy officially aims to address the long-standing challenges associated with menstruation in our country. The document records: “Historically, this biological phenomenon has been overlooked, resulting in negative impact on girls, women, families and the environment. With time, awareness has increased, but we need more investment to comprehensively address the diverse requirements of all individuals who menstruate. India, with its vast and diverse population, acknowledges the critical importance of this issue and places great emphasis on framing a comprehensive menstrual hygiene policy. This policy is essential for effectively addressing the needs of all who menstruate and promote a positive transformation within our society.”

Indeed, given the population figures, any problem is bound to be daunting, because of the sheer number of people it affects. “You will be surprised at what exists at the ground level, and what women, many of them, go through, during menstruation,” says Jayashree Gajaraj former president, of Obstetrics and Gynaecological Society of Southern India, and senior professional. “The number of women who have no access to the restroom, access to napkins, or other menstrual products is staggering. It is a reality. First and foremost, it affects the mental health of the women, impacts their confidence, development, and so, if there is a policy that will be seriously implemented, and improve women’s access to hygiene and privacy, then it is a welcome measure,” she adds.

The policy will adopt a “lifecycle” approach and attempt to provide comprehensive support throughout the menstrual journey – from menarche to menopause. So, when and if fully implemented, it might just break down the barriers that women and girls face today. The Menstrual Hygiene Policy document online reiterates its commitment to align with India’s aspirations to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — particularly in relation to good health and well-being, quality education, gender equality, and clean water and sanitation. It has also pledged to make menstrual products more accessible and affordable, in addition to creating hygienic toilets in public areas, workplaces, and schools.

Also Read | Menstrual health is a public health issue

In addition to the effect of lack of safe spaces, while they are menstruating, women also can develop local infections that cause discomfort and are repeated month on month. Dr. Gajaraj says things are actually worse in rural areas where toilets for women are few and far between, women working in the fields or in the MNREGS programme will literally have no access to a private spot for themselves, forget a proper toilet.

Quoting NFHS-5 statistics, the Policy reports there has been a significant improvement in the percentage of women aged 15-24 years, who use a hygienic method of protection during their menstrual cycle, rising from 58% in NFHS-4 to 78%. Among these women, 64% use sanitary napkins, 50% use cloth, and 15% use locally prepared napkins. Dr. Gajaraj adds that affordable alternatives are now available, primarily in urban areas, and menstrual cups, as a sustainable option, are also being distributed to the public, mentioning two instances in Kerala and in Chennai.

Attention needs to be paid to disposing of the sanitary napkin or tampon, in a safe manner, in order that it does not affect community hygiene too, she adds. As menstrual cups grow in popularity, facilities for cleaning them properly should also be available. Uma Ram, senior gynaecologist, says many women struggle to properly dispose of sanitary napkins, outside, even inside the home, sometimes. She adds that the hygiene aspect is only one part of the issue, there’s a great deal of stigma still associated with it, particularly in rural areas. It is a well-documented fact that girls who start menstruating drop off from school, also because of the lack of toilets and clean water in schools. The stigma has not been addressed in any constructive manner, and it would help if the policy brought this into focus.

The policy itself vows to do this: serve as a catalyst to raise awareness, challenge societal norms and foster a society that embraces menstrual hygiene as a natural and normal part of life.

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