Over the past few weeks, 26-year-old Deane de Menezes, the creator of Red is the New Green (a project to raise menstrual health awareness) has been working hard, going from door-to-door distributing free sanitary napkins to low-income households across Mumbai. While the COVID pandemic has lead to closed borders, shuttered businesses and mass movement of migrant workers, it has also had a large impact on the production and accessibility of menstrual hygiene products. “A few days ago when I visited my local chemist I could only get a pack of eight napkins because his stock was so low,” says Deane. “If someone as privileged as me is worrying about managing her periods during the lockdown, you can only imagine how tough it is for women in containment zones with no new income.”
One of the reasons: sanitary napkins were added as essential items eligible for supply chain operations only on March 30, bringing production to a standstill for almost a week. As per a report by the NGO Dasra and Change.org, other factors like limited mobility to buy sanitary napkins, closure of established channels that distributed menstrual products for free or at a subsidized rate, and low working capital of small-scale productions in rural areas has also curtailed the supply to millions of young girls and women in the country.
Over the past four years, Deane has been working closely with several communities to spread awareness about menstrual hygiene. In 2018, she was felicitated by the Queen of England as part of the Queen’s Young Leader Program for Red is the New Green’s innovative ideas in the sector. So when the crisis arose Deane and her team got to work without missing a beat. Together with a strong network of on-ground partners, RING has now distributed 2.3 lakh sanitary napkins to women in need and they’re now raising funds to continue the efforts with their Pass on the Pad initiative.
ELLE talks to Deane about the work they’ve been doing and how you can pitch in…
ELLE: What is Red is the New Green (RING)?
Deane de Menezes: We want to reduce period poverty through advocacy and education. And the first step is to normalize the conversation around periods. Unless we do this, we cannot expect to have great policies or easy access to menstrual hygiene products. We have been working with schools, colleges and local governments in Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Besides education sessions, we also improve access to menstrual products by installing sanitary napkin vending machines in schools. What’s unique about RING is that we also spread awareness on the correct disposal of menstrual products, and have installed incinerators in schools as well.
ELLE: Since schools and colleges have been your primary channels, how has the COVID pandemic affected your ongoing programs?
DM: Girls can no longer access the free sanitary napkins provided to them through our vending machines, other NGOs or BMC-led programs. In the initial days of the lockdown we noticed an immediate dip in supply and access of menstrual hygiene products. It’s not like women will stop bleeding during a pandemic—sanitary napkins are not demand-based products but need-based. While most units in large corporations are up and running in some capacity (like Procter &Gamble and Johnson & Johnson), what’s worrying are the independent units in smaller towns and villages, like self-help groups that made sanitary napkins out of a garage, who may not have the license to run the unit or maybe the money to continue paying rent for the space. Another issue is that the loss of regular incomes is forcing women to return to using old cloth rags. If washed properly, cloth pads can be a great option, but in several containment zones women don’t have access to clean washrooms or even running water. Due to this we are expecting a surge in women’s health issues.
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ELLE: How have you changed your strategy to suit these new issues?
DM: By the first week of April we had regrouped and have since been on ground working closely with our NGO partners, BMC and UNICEF to donate sanitary napkins to those in need. We have teamed up with local area coordinators to go door-to-door distributing sanitary napkins. I’ve heard heartbreaking stories of women workers who are walking back home don’t have access to pads and are free bleeding. We partnered with UNICEF’s Jeevan Rath program to provide sanitary napkins as part of the essentials kits at their mobile stations. We started off with just 1,500 pads and till date have donated 2.3 lakh sanitary napkins via partners. We procure sanitary napkins from a self-help group in Pune that employs local women. The group is part of the government Asmita Yojana scheme that provides women in rural areas with subsided sanitary napkins.
ELLE: How can individuals support these efforts?
DM: Join our Pass on the Pad initiative, it’s like a period party where we are spreading a positive message about periods and also raising funds to donate sanitary napkins. We will host virtual workshops, and even have a therapist do a session on why some women may be experiencing severe PMS symptoms during the lockdown. You can click on our fundraiser link to donate, and share that link with more people.