Come Rain or Shine, Women Menstruate All the Time – And That’s Why Kerala Needs Pads

The scale of the deluge in Kerala, which has claimed 336 lives and driven 8.45 lakh people to relief camps, is staggering. Never before in the history of independent India has Kerala experienced a disaster of such proportions. With 3,700 relief camps set up across the state and the monetary value of the damage being estimated at Rs 20,000 crore, Kerala faces years of rebuilding as it starts to restore both homes and the economy.

Fortunately, the water has started receding in many of the districts with the red alert withdrawn from all 14 districts. On rescue facilitation Facebook groups and Whatsapp chats, the frenzied ‘missing’ forwards are slowly turning into entire feeds of ‘rescued’ confirmations.

The challenge now is to return people to their homes and help clean these spaces of the layers of sticky mud and debris left behind by the swollen rivers, and ensure that the lakhs of people in relief camps are adequately cared for – with the potential outbreak of contagious diseases a looming possibility. Although the central and state governments, along with hundreds of other private, civil society and international organisations have organised drives to send money and essential supplies to Kerala, invaluable provisions like food, blankets, diapers (for both adults and babies), medicines and chlorine tables are still scarce. One of the most requested items among these? Sanitary pads.

During a disaster, those who are already vulnerable are hit the hardest. Elderly people, children with disabilities and pregnant women were prioritised during the rescue efforts. However, we hardly think of a vulnerability that many women, and individuals who don’t necessarily identify as women, go through every month for most of their lives. In relief camps where medicines and food may be the need of the hour, sanitary pads are essential to maintain health and hygiene during menstruation. Following from this, camps need to have waste management strategies that acknowledge the inevitability of menstruation, even in a disaster situation, and that the lack of segregation or proper disposal of used pads can create a dangerously conducive environment for the spread of infections and diseases.

The floods may have washed away nearly everything people own, but unfortunately they haven’t washed away people’s biases and unhealthy attitudes to something as routine as menstruation. The way the pharmacy bhaiya practically armours a pack of pads in newspaper and black plastic echoes the manner in which some people have reacted to the prospect of donating pads to relief camps – with disgust and dismissal.

An employee of the Lulu Group was recently fired for commenting “Why not add some condoms too?” to a post asking people to donate pads to flood victims. Placing menstruation in the realm of the sexual, base and erotic makes it a lesser priority and actively puts thousands of people’s health at risk. That some chose to explain the torrential rain and flooding as Ayyappa’s divine retribution for permitting women to visit the Sabarimala temple (access to the temple is barred for women during the period of time from menarche till menopause) is reflective of the same toxic attitude.

Wanting to contribute to what is likely a tense situation for relief camp residents and volunteers alike on the ground, my friend Santhy Balanchandran and I compiled the following guidelines for the use of sanitary pads and disposal of menstrual waste. Our sources include the World Health Organisation’s guidelines in waste management in disaster situations, guidelines developed by the Central Pollution Control Board (part of the Ministry of Environment) and guidelines from Menstrupedia, an organisation working towards positive and comprehensive period education.

Credit: Santhy Balanchandran and Jayesha Koushik

Credit: Santhy Balanchandran and Jayesha Koushik

The past week has seen hundreds of fake forwarded messages that have created panic among people; the infographics included here are verified and grounded in facts. Inputs from relief volunteers during the Chennai floods have also been included. We hope that this resource reaches the people it may help, and we hope to take this effort forward by having it translated into other languages, especially Kannada.

Jayesha Koushik is a 24-year-old development practitioner. You can find her on Twitter @jayesha22

Featured image credit: Reuters