We will celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28 and I hope to be a part of some in-person events after two years of the coronavirus crisis.
Despite things feeling ‘normal’ I am writing this article with the news reports of floods in my home state Assam open on a dozen browser tabs.
Also, this year the official Menstrual Hygiene Day website has listed brand new campaign materials on the menstrual health rights of people affected by conflict and natural disasters.
During the first wave of COVID-19, ‘Menstrual Health during Emergencies’ as an area of thought and practice triggered discussions as the ravaging pandemic affected menstruators’ access to menstrual products and supportive menstrual health facilities.
The now-famous rallying cry ‘Periods Don’t Stop for Pandemics’ brought together organizations and activists on webinars and panel discussions which made it clear menstrual health in emergencies is a no longer niche, it’s a mainstream issue.
Connecting the Dots – Menstrual Health and Climate Change
Apart from COVID 19, humanitarian emergencies may be broadly classified into disasters caused by natural hazards (e.g., cyclones, floods, droughts, earthquakes); man-made emergencies (e.g., armed conflicts, fires, industrial accidents) and complex emergencies (e.g., drought in a civil war-ravaged country).
During such crises, the challenges of menstruators increase exponentially given the loss of privacy and safety often associated with living in shelters, relief camps or being in transit.
(As I typed the last line, the Assam floods have displaced more than seven lakh people and almost half of the affected will be women and many will menstruate in relief camps and temporary shelters.)
With climate change being the Damocles Sword of our times, I am asking: How prepared are we in India to safeguard the rights of menstruators in the face of emergencies triggered by the climate crisis?
To answer this question let’s look at some promising developments. During the first two waves of the pandemic, Indian organisations and citizen collectives have tackled the issue of menstrual health mainly by initiating studies and menstrual materials donation drives among vulnerable populations.
In 2021, UNFPA and WaterAid India published a framework to guide action on Menstrual Health and Hygiene Management (MHHM) during emergencies in India.
A development which put menstrual health during floods in the spotlight was the Assam government’s notification declaring sanitary pads as an essential flood relief item as a response to my two-year-long campaign Dignity in Floods.
The notification released by the state’s Revenue & Disaster Management Department on May 25, 2021, is significant because it put menstrual health rights at par with the right to food and shelter during floods.
These developments are encouraging, but I am still doubtful about our preparedness to secure menstrual health rights in the face of extreme weather events such as cyclones, floods, and heatwaves, which could be the ‘new normal’ of the future if we continue business as usual.
Even if we do manage to cap the planet's warming to 1.5 °C, the impacts and risks of an already warm planet might still be devastating.
According to the latest IPCC report, my second home Kolkata features among the 20 largest coastal cities with potentially the highest flood losses by 2050.
So, what will become of our sanitation facilities and solid waste management systems in the face of such flooding?
Additionally, a Toxic Links study titled 'Menstrual Products and their Disposal', shows how woefully unequipped Indian cities are when it comes to menstrual waste management. Recent reports say the Yamuna is ‘almost’ drying up, so how will menstruators maintain basic hygiene in the face of such a water crisis?
Climate change could also affect the production of raw materials used to make menstrual products leading to a supply crisis. Both disposable pads and reusable cloth pads use a basic material – cotton.
According to a study commissioned by the Cotton 2040 initiative, climate change could expose half of all global cotton-growing regions, including India, to high risks from temperature increases, changes in rainfall patterns and extreme weather events by 2040 if carbon emissions continue to soar.
Based on past experiences of COVID 19 and Ebola, we have seen that in the face of crisis there is a propensity to redirect resources from sexual and reproductive health and rights services.
This begs the question: In the face of the climate crisis, could our menstrual health rights be pushed aside in future?
As a menstrual health professional, I know our current challenges are enormous because menstruation is still a taboo in most cultures.
We work under a lot of constraints, but I am convinced that most of the progress achieved in menstrual health will go in vain if we do not account for the risks posed by climate change.
Futures Thinking for Menstrual Health
The Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine defines ‘climate futures’ as a framework for developing plausible scenarios of future climate for adaptation, mitigation, and sustainability efforts at local, regional, and global scales.
Taking a cue, ‘Menstrual Futures Thinking’ could be an exploratory process by which we might build resilience into our programs by considering how the climate crises might affect menstrual health rights in the future.
Scenario planning is not new to us at an organizational level but given the enormity of the challenge, we must address menstrual health in the time of climate crises at the sectoral level not only in India but regionally and globally.
At present various formal and informal coalitions and networks have created thriving spaces for discussions and advocacy in the menstrual health at the global, regional, and national levels.
It is also encouraging to see funding available for innovations such as the world’s first certified flushable pads, tampons made from seaweed and smokeless incinerators which address the issue of environmental degradation.
These developments are promising, and we need to start collaborating in an emergency mode within and outside the menstrual health sector to strategically design climate-proof menstrual health systems which are built on the strong pillars of menstrual health education and access to menstrual hygiene materials and supportive infrastructure.
As a Climate Reality Leader, I imagine a future where we will cap global temperatures under 1.5oC and as a menstrual health professional, I believe in a future where menstrual health rights will not be an afterthought during crises.