Periods don’t stop for pandemics.
A survey by the Menstrual Health Alliance of India found that 62% of community organizations reported a disruption in the supply of menstrual health management products, specifically sanitary napkins. There were a number of factors that contributed to this fiasco that affected over 335 million women and girls across the country. The unplanned closure of schools and workplaces meant that most vulnerable women were cut off from their regular source of menstrual health management products. The strict conditions of the lockdown in some states restricted their access to pharmacies and stores and with the loss of employment, menstrual health management products simply were not a priority for households anymore. There’s been a gradual shift back to using cloth to manage one’s menstruation, however, without the correct maintenance and disposal mechanisms, these rags can be hazardous to women and the environment.
Two months into the Covid pandemic and ensuing lockdown, I had my first group call with 10 of Swasti’s wellness facilitators in Delhi. They had been engaged in reaching out to all their members to check-in with them and enquire about the health of the women and their family members. I asked the health facilitators what type of problems the women they work with were facing in relation to their menstrual cycle. I was astounded when these health facilitators, who otherwise had incredible insight into the lives and struggles of their members, were not able to articulate any problems that their members might have been facing in relation to their menstrual cycle. When I began sharing what I had been reading about the impact of the lockdown on access to menstrual health management products, the health facilitators slowly began to agree with me. They realized that since they had been so comfortable using the menstrual cup, they had completely forgotten how dependent other women were on store-bought sanitary napkins and the struggles they might have had to face to procure them during a lockdown. The small act of switching the menstrual management method had a far-reaching impact on not just the environment , but also made them that much more independent and care-free!
I’ve spent the last 12 months talking to over 4500 women about sustainable menstrual management methods. These are often first-generation sanitary napkin users who have been the focus of the niche development sector that focuses on womens’ menstrual needs. Today, while many of these pad users may have made the reluctant switch back to cloth because of the Covid pandemic and the resultant shortage of supply and money, these women are certain that their children will not use cloth. To them, using sanitary napkins represents modernity and a slow but steady climb up to social ladder. So when we first introduced the menstrual cup to the community health facilitators at Swasti in Delhi, we were met with skepticism. Having been part of the ecosystem that encouraged the uptake of sanitary napkins, the health facilitators were confused when they heard about the impact that these pads had on the environment. However, slowly, one became two and the health facilitators leaned on each others’ experience of using the cup to gain courage to give it a shot themselves. Couple of months into the training, 9 of the 10 health facilitators used the cup and in their words ‘became 150% confident’ in its ease of use, comfort and safety.
The model we deployed with these facilitators hinged on their buy-in to the product. Once they became users, we encouraged them to introduce the product to the women they work with. Equipped with a set of cups, a training booklet and demonstration kit, these women set off to talk to women in the slums of Mohammadpur about the menstrual cup. By convincing women to make a switch, these health facilitators simultaneously got the opportunity to increase their livelihood. It was a tough start, with facilitators complaining that women would brush them aside, be overcome with laughter and simply block out the possibility of this cup working.
Image: Screenshot from a group call with the i4We Team
We’ve been talking to our wellness facilitators every week following that initial call and we’re thrilled to see them transform into mini-entrepreneurs. They’ve been hard at work convincing other women to make the switch like they did. The Covid pandemic seems to have turned the tide in their favor, they now have women reaching out to them actively asking for a demonstration or placing an order with them. Some of them have even onboarded partners and introduced the cup to women back in the villages they live in, setting up a supply chain there. It’s thrilling to hear these women talk about pipelines and risk taking ability every week and watching them grow from strength to strength makes me sure that change is possible, albeit slow, it’s possible.
They give me ‘Shakti’, every single day.