Covid-19: Lockdown affects availability of affordable sanitary pads in rural areas

Tina Edwin New Delhi | Updated on April 28, 2020

Arunachalam Muruganantham, popularly known as Padman. (File photo)

Gains in improvement of menstrual hygiene may be reversed by shortages of affordable pads

The prolonged nation-wide lockdown is compromising the menstrual hygiene of economically disadvantaged and rural women, as units making affordable sanitary pads are forced to keep their shutters down or are facing disruption to the supply of raw materials to keep the units running. This is leading to a jump in shortages of affordable sanitary napkins across the country, forcing many women to adopt unhygienic methods of managing their monthly period.

Affordable sanitary pads are largely made by the informal sector units that are run with a few workers, mostly women, with the support of non-governmental organisations. Some of these units are in urban areas while a large number of them are in rural areas. The Union government had declared sanitary pads as essential goods, along with groceries, but those operating the units said that the government’s order does not help them run their units.

Arunachalam Muruganantham, popularly known as Padman, told BusinessLine that his factories in Coimbatore that manufacture the machinery for making affordable pads as also units that process raw materials for the pads are idling due to the lockdown. He has also not been able to get imported raw materials used in making the sanitary pads released from the Chennai port. “The material is sitting in containers at the port and I am paying large amount as demurrage charges on it,” he said.

The imported raw materials are processed at his unit and sent to thousands of small units across the country to make the sanitary pads.

He complained that he has not been able to send mechanics to any units where the machinery needs repairs.

Pratibha Singh, who runs an NGO in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, said that her unit was running out of raw materials. Her NGO, Kshitij Education and Rural Development, has two pad making machines that Muruganantham had invented, and was due to get a quarterly supply of raw materials from his factories late March. With the lockdown being imposed, she has not got the supply. She is not keen to source the raw materials from other suppliers, as they do not offer the same quality of cotton filling. “I am exploring if my unit can make reusable cloth pads made of cotton fabrics, and thus give women a hygienic option, till normal operation is restored,” said Singh.

“There is a lot of demand for affordable pads. I have received a few enquiries,” says Deepali Bhardwaj, a practising dermatologist. An NGO run by her with family and friends, Deepanjan Charitable Trust, has installed pad making machines invented by Muruganantham in Delhi and Dehradun. The Delhi unit continues to operate, with one person, who stays at the premises. The Dehradun unit has been idling since the lockdown was imposed. Dr Bhardwaj’s NGO has been distributing pads for free to needy women and also supplying it at cost to those seeking to buy in bulk.

All of them fear that if the governments at the centre and states do not act urgently to restore normal production of affordable sanitary napkins, the gains made over the last decade in improving menstrual hygiene may be reversed. Mr Muruganantham wants the government to allow normal operations of the units making these sanitary pads, while observing social distancing norms as well as the unfettered distribution of the pads. Most of these units and distribution of the pads are done by women, who are organised as self-help groups. A return to normalcy is also important to restore the livelihood of these women, Singh added.

Published on April 28, 2020

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