NEW DELHI: The All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi is considered to be one of the finest medical institutions in the country, with India’s leading doctors and world-class facilities in medical care. Yet the hospital is not providing its patients and their attendants, living just outside its gates, with basic sanitation amenities.

The Citizen interviewed some of the patients and their family members, who are forced to live on the footpaths outside AIIMS during treatment, about the problems they face with sanitation.

Rekha Devi, 23, came to Delhi from Bihar last year with her husband Manoj Kumar Yadav to get treatment for their son Montu, who has a hole in his heart. It has been very difficult for the family as they are daily wage labourers. They have no money for food or shelter and have been living by the road outside AIIMS for almost over a year now.

Apart from the delay in Montu’s treatment, his parents say that the sanitation facilities provided for them are substandard. They are only allowed to use the washroom outside the building, which is small and usually dirty. There is no place for them to bathe or wash.

When we asked Rekha Devi about how she manages her menstruation period in such conditions, she said that she just uses water to wash off the blood. Further when we asked her if she uses a sanitary napkin, her silence was the response.

Like Rekha Devi, there are many women who know nothing about sanitary napkins or other hygienic alternatives, or cannot afford them. According to the last round of the National Family Health Survey, 62% of women in India still use unhygienic alternatives during menstruation, and lack knowledge about menstrual health and hygiene.

Sakshi, 19, is from Uttar Pradesh and her father suffers from Hepatitis B. Sakshi has similar symptoms while her mother is a heart patient. After her schooling her family moved to Delhi, leaving behind her 20-year-old brother Rakesh who works hard to support their treatment. Rakesh’s salary is almost entirely spent on their treatment, leaving nothing for food or shelter.

Asked about the sanitation facilities provided to her family, Sakshi says that the toilets here are often overcrowded and dirty. It becomes very difficult for her to maintain menstrual hygiene during her periods. As she cannot afford sanitary napkins, she tries to reduce her consumption by using one napkin for as long she can, sometimes using the same pad for successive days.

Health experts recommend that women should change their sanitary pad or tampon every four hours, in order to protect themselves from bad odour and bacteria.

Aarzoo, 31, who came to Delhi from Madhya Pradesh two months ago with her husband Shaukeen, three children and her mother-in-law Ruksaar, describes how difficult it is for her mother-in-law to use the washroom in her wheelchair.

Ruksaar is 62 years old and was referred to AIIMS for treatment, but the doctors here are still unable to diagnose her condition. Her health has been deteriorating ever since she started taking the medicines prescribed to her, so much so that she has trouble walking now and needs to use a wheelchair.

“She cannot walk so I have to take her to the washroom,” Aarzoo tells The Citizen. “Taking her to the washroom is difficult as the wheelchair is heavy, and then we have to wait in line amid the bad odour. As she is old now she cannot wait so long, and sometimes she wets herself while waiting in line. The hospital staff rarely help us.”

Like others, Aarzoo too faces issues relating to menstrual hygiene. She uses an old piece of cloth during her menstrual flow. Asked if she knew what a sanitary napkin is, her head nods a silent yes.

Many women we spoke to knew about sanitary napkins and could afford them, but still choose to follow the conventions of their childhood.

The authorities have a responsibility towards these women, who are living just outside the gates of a premier medical institution in such horrific conditions.

The blame cannot go entirely to the AIIMS authorities. The construction of toilets outside the hospital’s campus is the responsibility of the Delhi government. There are not enough Sulabh facilities around AIIMS. The toilets at the metro station nearby are not free and it closes at night.

Yet the civic authorities must know well that many people take shelter by the foothpaths of AIIMS. Perhaps it’s time they join hands with the hospital to educate these women about menstrual health and hygiene, and stop depriving them of their basic sanitation rights.

(Cover Photo: A family sits outside AIIMS. S.M.Seraj Ali for The Citizen)