Assam govt notifies sanitary napkin as essential flood relief item

The move comes after a two-year-long digital campaign on the plight of women in flood camps by Tezpur-based public health activist Mayuri Bhattacharjee.

The Assam government Friday said that sanitary napkins will be officially included as part of relief material distribution during floods.

A notification from the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (ASDMA), signed by MS Manivannan, Commissioner and Secretary, Revenue and Disaster Management Department, was sent to all districts, asking authorities to include the napkins in the list of relief items from the Gratuitous Relief fund.

“Menstrual Hygiene Management during emergencies faced by women and adolescent girls living in flood-prone districts of Assam is an area which has remained unattended in the relief measure,” the communication dated May 25, from the Revenue and Disaster Management department said.

The move comes after a two-year-long digital campaign on the plight of women in flood camps by Tezpur-based public health activist Mayuri Bhattacharjee. The petition titled “Dignity of Floods” on has over one lakh signatures, and asks the government to build fifty women-friendly flood shelters in Assam, apart from including “pads in the list of relief items with immediate effect”.

“The relief materials from the government generally include food grains, pulses, salt, utensils etc — this is the first time sanitary napkins will officially be a part of it,” said Mandira Buragohain, Knowledge Management & Climate Change, ASDMA. “Bhattacharjee’s petition brought this issue to the notice of the concerned authorities.”

Every year between May to September, lakhs in rural areas are forced to move into schools and community centres, which serve as temporary relief camps. Last year, waves of floods across the state had affected over 73 lakh people and killed 103 people. Usually, NGOs and activists distribute sanitary napkins to women and adolescent girls during floods in the state.

Bhattacharjee, 34, has been campaigning for women-friendly flood centres since February 2019. She said that it was an “entirely achievable demand” for several reasons.“One, floods are quite predictable in Assam. Second, the disaster hits every year and usually in the same areas. Third, most often the same schools and community centres are turned into flood shelters. This means the Assam government can use the predictability of the situation to its advantage by being better prepared,” she had written in the petition.

“I had done a survey in 2017 and found that women had a tough time managing during floods,” she said, “But no one was really talking about it because the floods are so devastating in Assam that it becomes just about basic needs of survival — food and shelter. I thought it was about time that even menstrual needs began to be acknowledged as a basic human right during floods, apart from food.”

She added: “There is talk of gender-sensitive disaster response, but it takes time to put it in practice.”

In August 2020, Bhattacharjee ‘gifted’ a box of 300 pads to the ASDMA chief Manivannan and to Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma (the then health and finance Minister) to draw “government’s attention to the plight of women living in flood relief shelters”. “Mr Manivannan had called me up the next day and said they would look into it. I am glad that finally something has been done.”

The government has also issued tenders for sanitary pad vending machines and incinerators to make the relief camps more friendly. “We have started tendering for it and the bid will open soon. If it works out we will do it on a pilot basis in three districts,” said ASDMA’s Buragohain, “Since most relief camps are in schools, we believe the machines can be used by girls students throughout the year.”

While she hopes that more of her demands will be met, she is happy that at least a first step has been taken. “Menstruation is taboo talk, and has only come into public discourse recently,” she said.

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