Business Standard

Lack of menstrual hygiene at work drives income loss, absenteeism

Despite growing awareness about water and sanitation-related issues, menstrual hygiene facilities have been found lacking at the workplace in both the formal and the informal sectors

menstrual hygiene, periods

Barkha Mathur New Delhi
Mona, a 29-year-old mother of two, who works as a door-to-door waste collector with a private contractor in Sihani, Ghaziabad, is forced to abstain from work for three days every month during menstruation due to the lack of proper hygiene management such as proper menstrual supplies, safe space to change, and safe disposal of sanitary napkins, among other things.

“During the first three days-- the heavy flow days, I ask my neighbour to take on my work of collecting waste from homes. For those three days, not only does she keep the garbage for herself to sort and sell, but also retains my wages for those days,” she told Business Standard on World Menstrual Hygiene Day 2023.

For Mona, a daily wage worker, this means a loss of as much as 10 per cent of her monthly income. When asked why she gave the work to someone else during menstruation, she said, “I work on the road every day for 8-10 hours, where I face challenges in managing menstrual hygiene. There’s no access to toilets, appropriate means or materials. Often the supervisor at public toilets does not allow us to use the services. and even if he does, we have to pay Rs 5 each time.”

Poonam, a 34-year-old construction worker, even spoke of the difficulties of using the temporary toilet facilities that are common for men and women. She says that during menstruation, using such facilities leads to stressed work for her throughout those days.

Radhika Chabria, founder of The Shakti Menstrual Cup pointed out that women in the formal sector face challenges related to menstrual hygiene as well. “During recent interactions with factory workers, I got to know how they take pills to delay periods as they do not have proper sanitation facilities at their workplace. Since their supervisors are usually men, it is difficult for them to ask permission to go to the bathroom several times a day.”

According to the World Bank, on any given day, more than 300 million women worldwide are menstruating. Yet, an estimated 500 million lack access to products and adequate facilities for menstrual hygiene management.

Raman VR, India In-Country Focal Person, Sanitation Learning Hub, IDS Sussex and National Convenor, Public Health Resource Network, India, said that despite growing awareness about water, and sanitation-related challenges, women still face a lack of menstrual hygiene facilities at the workplace in both the formal and informal sectors. He said currently there is no data that provides a sense of how widespread this issue is.

“Menstruation affects women’s participation in daily life around the world. Women working in the infrastructure sector suffer a lot, as most of the work happens in the open without adequate facilities for safe and private management of menstrual hygiene. Women who work in marketing have to rely mostly on public facilities. Most domestic workers are not permitted to use the toilets in the houses where they work. Sanitation and waste workers suffer too. While some of them clean toilets, they are not allowed to use them even if the facilities for the workers are far away," Raman said.  

According to him, women in the production sector have very minimal facilities too, despite the fact that a large number of them work in a specific setting.

"Women and girls working or getting treated at health facilities are suffering too, with the added challenges of facility-acquired infections. Facilities for women in public offices are poor too, most times,” Raman said, adding that there is an urgent need to make labour codes and workplace protocols more women-friendly.

There are recent guidelines by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) on gender-inclusive toilet infrastructure and menstrual hygiene programs as part of education, Swachh Bharat Mission and other programmes, which are less referred to on the ground.

Chabria highlighted that while there is no one-size-fits-all solution, menstruators at the workplace must be educated and empowered to make informed choices about menstrual hygiene management. She said menstrual cups are a cheap, sustainable, and eco-friendly alternative to sanitary napkins and women can use them for longer periods without worrying about challenges related to the lack of safe disposal facilities. “We have reached out to over 2,000 women factory workers on the usage of menstrual cups. We have achieved over 80 per cent of transition to menstrual cups.”

Status of menstrual hygiene management in India

The fifth National Family Health Survey, 2019-2021, or NFHS 5, revealed that around 90 per cent of women with 12 or more years of schooling used safe period products (locally prepared napkins, sanitary napkins, tampons, and menstrual cups) in 17 states and Union territories. From the previous round of the survey (NFHS 4), 20 per cent more women aged 15-24 years used hygienic methods during menstruation.

While different states have their own schemes, the primary focus of service delivery remains on the distribution of sanitary napkins, mainly through schools or Anganwadi centres. Maharashtra’s ‘Asmita Yojana’, Rajasthan’s ‘Udaan’, Andhra Pradesh’s ‘Swechcha’, Kerala’s ‘She Pad’, Odisha’s ‘Khusi’, Chhattisgarh’s ‘Suchita’, and Sikkim’s ‘Bahini’ all have provisions to distribute subsidised or free sanitary napkins to adolescent girls.  Kerala and Karnataka governments have been distributing menstrual cups as a sustainable alternative to sanitary napkins.

While these initiatives have helped promote menstrual hygiene among girls, however, women and girls who are working are not covered under these programmes.

World Menstrual Hygiene Day

To break the silence, raise awareness and change the negative perception about menstruation, May 28 is observed as Menstrual Hygiene Day. A German non-profit organisation called WASH United in 2013 initiated Menstrual Hygiene Day. For the past two years, the day has been marked with the theme: ‘Making menstruation a normal fact of life by 2030’. The aim to work towards the overarching goal of building a world by 2030 where no one is held back because they menstruate.

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First Published: May 28 2023 | 7:55 PM IST

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