“No worker visits us for any awareness campaign. No one has ever come to our village with jaankari (information) of any sort,” Ramdevi, a resident of Kumhedi village in Bundelkhand’s Lalitpur district, tells it like it is.
In a world that has seen superstar Akshay Kumar portray the inspiring Arunachalam Muruganantham on 70 mm and in the week that saw Miss World Manushi Chillar spearhead a menstrual hygiene drive and walk the streets of Lutyens Delhi with hordes of young people holding up placards saying ‘Menstrual Blood is Not Impure’, a small group of rural women in Lalitpur led a revolution of their own.
Kalpana, like some of her peers, is angry. “Pads? What pads? There is no sign of them here.” Or of any charcha (discussion) around them, she adds. “Mostly women use cloth. There are a few, very few, who buy them from the shops. But usually, we are all poor here, we can’t really afford the expense every month.” Ah yes, 12% Goods and Services Tax, we think. Ash, sand, grass and even paper are some of the other things women end up using during their menstrual cycles.
Rajkumari says that since the same cloth is used every month, it’s not long before it gets filthy. The fear of cancer is a prevalent and all-pervading one here in Kumhedi.
Ramkali, 16, who’s entitled to free of cost sanitary pads as per the Kishori Yojna and Menstrual Hygiene Scheme (MHS) that was launched in 2011 by the health ministry, isn’t having a better period either. “We’ve asked the ASHA workers thrice. She gave them to us once.” Ramkali is also certain that the sanctioned sanitary pads do come to her village, but that they are not distributed as per the rule. “She tells us they haven’t arrived.”
Arti, the ASHA worker in question, acknowledges the need for menstrual hygiene and calls the adverse outcome a “gupt rog”. When asked about the missing pads, she insists that they reach the officials, but not her. Dr Pratap Singh, the chief medical officer and official in question, cites a complete lack of knowledge about the concern.
The lack of awareness about the policy at the grassroots level is shocking, even if expected. Launched with the express aim to provide subsidised sanitary napkins, the MHS had a few mind-boggling numbers: 15 million girls aged between ten and in 152 districts across 20 states were to get free sanitary pads, a specially manufactured product termed ‘Free Days’.
According to a report, an evaluation of the MHS done by Chandigarh’s Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research published in International Journal of Community Medicine and Public Health in 2016 revealed the scheme never really took off due to an irregular supply of sanitary napkins – something that Arti at Kumhedi village alludes to even in 2018.
Perhaps the palpable keenness around awareness and the rage around the demand is the silver lining here. Usha, significant of the awareness that seems to have risen of late, says, “Using pads means you are clean. Using cloth means you’re inviting health problems.” And Ramdevi adds, “We want the information to reach us. We want to know more about our health, our issues. Whatever policies are introduced for us women, for our health and pregnancy and generally, we should get those benefits properly.”
Knowing is the first step to power, they say. By that logic, perhaps Kumhedi is on the cusp of a sanitary pad revolution.
Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.