UNINHIBITED SHARING CIRCLE: INSIGHTS

Context and Objective:

For the occasion of Menstrual hygiene day, we at Uninhibited organized a virtual sharing circle on 22nd May, 2021 to co-create a reflective space for individuals, collectives and organisations working in the Menstrual Health and hygiene ecosystem. To share how the journey of their work and mission towards menstruation has been impacted in the past one year through COVID-19 pandemic.

The event marked the presence of 32 individuals and organizations such as Project Bala, Goonj, Dasra, MITU foundation, Jatan Santhan, Saral Designs, Dev Solutions, Shiksharth, Pahal, Anandwan and many more.

Everyone shared their experience, thoughts, along with recommendations on navigating the unprecedented crisis of Covid-19 pandemic. Having to continuously adapt, or discontinue the work towards menstruation, this served as an opportunity for the ecosystem to reflect about how we could all move forward, taking inspiration and learning from each other’s breakthroughs and breakdowns .

Key challenges, insights and anecdotes that the ecosystem is collectively facing:

In India, the lockdown and its extension impacted the ability to access information, health or maintain hygiene during menstruation with the privacy, agency and dignity of millions of marginalised menstruators at stake.

Some key challenges in continuing the menstrual health work in India, was predominantly with respect to:

  • The effect on networks and grassroots projects due to immediate restrictions being placed.
  • Transition to remote mode of working with the team, and having to reimagine on ground work with access to communities cut off.
  • Limited budgets and funding is an ongoing challenge, especially with work being done prior to COVID, coming to a halt or having to adapt.
  • The digital divide became even more evident with lockdown, as menstruators’ inaccessibility to updated technology or phones led to further challenges in reaching them directly.
  • Menstruators with limited mobility to purchase sanitary napkins are left without a choice, they often turn to unhygienic homemade substitutes to maintain their menstruation until supply chains are restored.
  • Moreover, due to the lack of privacy, unavailability of menstrual materials, and restricted mobility, they are worn for longer time periods than they should be. Thus, increasing the risk of reproductive tract infections (RTI) and associated health issues for menstruators.
  • Reusable cloth pads came up as a natural alternative during this period. Ensuring safe and hygienic use cloth/ cloth pads is a high priority, as they may not be washed and dried thoroughly due to paucity of water and privacy, thus posing additional risk for infections.
  • Problems of hygiene, safe disposal, proper procurement of the menstrual requirements has also been exacerbated with anxiety, stress and lack of nutrition, culminating to debilitating health conditions for menstruators.
  • With the health care sector being overburdened with COVID response, there is widespread fear and lack of health care accessibility with respect MHH and SRH issues. (refer to glossary of terms below)
  • At the organizational level, management had to deal with issues pertaining to the dissemination of credible information, ensuring proper safety measures are in place, distribution of sanitary essentials, documentation, awareness generation, and reiterating engagement and operational strategies to continue working on the issue.

One of the participants drew anecdotal evidence and shared the challenges they faced with their on field workforce,

In Maharashtra and Gujarat, nearly 1500 women were trained but when the lockdown and the pandemic began abruptly, the female workers due to multiple issues started leaving the network and eventually the network shrunk. The women were only familiar with using phones for making calls. Expecting them to conduct surveys or even attend virtual meetings was too far fetched. Further, the problem of affordability always lurked with many having to step down from participating only because they could not afford the monthly network packages.

Breakthroughs in working through the challenges:

The interaction within the sharing circle turned out to be inspiring as every organization and individual was working with tremendous resilience and flexibility, and were achieving some level of breakthroughs in the work and mission.

  • Organisations had to reimagine their current operational strategies and redirect efforts on relief work, and finding out alternative ways of addressing menstrual health and hygiene through collaboration, research and innovation of existing products and intervention, or completely building a new product/service.
  • In light of that, few organisations with production capabilities utilized the existing resources to deal with emerging needs in the pandemic. The pad vending machines were used to produce three layer cloth masks ensuring continued production and employment. Many shared their quantum leaps in production of reusable sanitary napkins and cloth masks.
  • Across the ecosystem with direct outreach to communities cut off there is an emerging trend of partnerships with public and private entities, grassroots organisations, CSOs, and volunteers to ensure accessibility and work in the most marginalised areas and communities continues.
  • Organisations, collectives and individuals are developing new apps and platforms, while exploring various existing online platforms to ensure access to information continues.
  • Lengthy curriculums, training and IEC materials are being reimagined into bit size video and audios for ease of consumption and dissemination for the beneficiaries.
  • While musing over the challenges and breakthroughs, all participants common-grounded over key learnings and takeaways of working through the pandemic.

Recommendations for next steps on how we can support each other:

  • With an urgent need to shift our interventions online, there needs to be a focus on making IEC material available in different vernaculars, also making it more comprehensible and potent.
  • Making the available IEC materials across the ecosystem open source, so that efforts are not wasted in reinventing the wheel.
  • Menstrual material shortages have led to question the widespread dependence of menstruators on single-use disposable sanitary products. Therefore there is an emerging critical need to focus on making available safe and hygienic reusable menstrual products in the marginalised communities.
  • Collaborating, mobilising and engaging with motivated volunteers from civil society came up as a huge potential in bringing change at the grassroots, and help with limited capacities within the organisation. Adding value in expanding horizons, while significantly contributing towards community development and creating a larger momentum and awareness about the work being done in the MHH ecosystem in India.
  • Data Collection and documentation has also emerged as a major challenge during the pandemic with direct access to communities and menstruators cut off, adding a higher risk of data not being authentic or genuine. Therefore, there is a need to explore and switch to alternative means of data collection through various channels, like social media marketing or phone calls.
  • Funding has been adversely affected especially within the sector as MHH is not seen as a priority issue during the pandemic by many donors, funders and CSRs. There is a critical need to build a “case for investment” backed with relevant data for the MHH ecosystem in India, while acknowledging the intersectionalities of the issue with others.

The first ever Uninhibited sharing circle served as an opportunity for all of us in the MHH ecosystem to come out of our individual silos, to reflect, share and brainstorm experiences and resources within the ecosystem. The participants in the first edition of the sharing circle left counting on their privileges and importance of keeping mental and physical health as a priority while embarking on this mission, acknowledging this as a “wake up call” to reflect on themselves, the work and how we are coming together to better serve our communities.

Recognising the availability of such reflection space as an existing gap within this ecosystem, and an unique opportunity for us all to keep coming together. We at Uninhibited, are determined to continue this sharing circle on a quarterly basis, to come together, reflect, share while we learn from each other’s pains and gains.

The collation of IEC materials across the ecosystem to reduce reinvention and increase collaboration came up as a repetitive gap. We are attaching a google form below attempting to collate the existing IEC resources with all of us.

Please take some time to fill the google form for collation of IEC resources (https://forms.gle/gcQMspcUXoUpQTUr9)

Please share this with other MHH organisations we might have missed, we will collate the resources on a google drive and share it with everyone in the ecosystem and Menstrual Health Alliance India (MHAI) network.

Resources shared in the circle:

  1. COVID-19 Induced Menstrual Hygiene Management Adversities and Impact Assessment of Project Baala’s Intervention in Response to These Adversities in Peri-Urban Fringes of Delhi: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3733664
  2. The full English language set (13 motifs + 1 video) is available here: https://public.zenkit.com/c/hnYp2KTsa/2021-readytouse-campaign-materials-english?v=ZkeJvGSCGF&hide=filters,views,workspaceLists
  3. The 5 motifs with Hindi headlines can be downloaded here: https://public.zenkit.com/c/YrXRJQDy5/2021-campaign-materials-other-languages?v=oEWP9RYX1vD&hide=filters,views,workspaceLists

Glossary of terms used:

  • MHH- Menstrual Health and Hygiene
  • SRH- Sexual Reproductive Health
  • IEC- Information, Education and Communication
  • CSR- Corporate Social Responsibility
  • CSO- Civil Society Organisation

Previously Sukhibhava Foundation. Improving gender equity, health and wellbeing of marginalised menstruators across India