The Free Sanitary Napkin Debate in India: Why not?

In light of the fast approaching International Women’s Day on March 8th of 2019, the sanitary debate regarding menstrual hygiene comes to mind again. The population of 1.32 billion of India consists of 48.4% females, making half the nation of India female. Despite having women in such large numbers, the women in the country have had to fight for their menstrual hygiene rights.

The United Nations has declared safe menstrual hygiene as basic human rights for women across the globe. The lack of awareness of menstrual hygiene in rural areas and negligence on the part of the government leads to various health and gender-gap problems among women.

In rural areas, the concept of something as simple as a sanitary napkin is rare. The 2018 movie ‘Padman’ was a topic of debate among the citizens of India as it highlighted how unaware the women of India are regarding their own menstrual hygiene.

While most women in the urban part of women manage to get their hands on sanitary napkins and menstrual hygiene products, to the rural India sanitary napkins is a luxury, if they even exists. The concept of discussing about menstrual hygiene is so rare that entire women communities in villages are away from the idea of sanitary napkins.

The price of sanitary napkins makes it hard for families to afford it, when they are struggling to put food on the table on a daily basis. The women, in an attempt to save face by not talking about the taboo topic of periods, suffer in silence with the inconveniences of such ill managed period cycles.

Women resort to the most unhygienic of alternatives such as use of cotton clothes, unsanitized old rags, tree leaves, husk sand and even ashes. Some women in the same family even share the same cloth. As a person born and brought up in the urban area, I have no idea how the women in rural India could come up with ashes as an alternative to sanitary napkins. These unhygienic means lead to various health problems. Women without access to proper sanitation facilities are at the highest risk of amenia, vaginal infections, and pregnancy problems and could develop cervical cancer.

One-third of the girls in school miss school on a monthly basis given the lack of access to sanitary napkins and sanitation facilities on the premises of the school. The concern of the young girls is that the male students might tease them for such a normal physiological process. Some girls even drop-out of school as they do not have any means to menstrual hygiene management (MHM). This adds to the problem of low literacy rate of women in India.

The problem of menstrual hygiene is less about the sanitary napkins and more about the mindset of people now. The lack of awareness about periods, period-shame and misinformation regarding menstrual hygiene, especially in rural areas, is a deep-rooted evil that leads to a plethora of human right concerns. The menarche, or beginning of periods, is taken as a sign that the young lady is ready for marriage and leads to child marriage problems along with early pregnancy and mother-child life risks.

In some rural parts of the nation, the idea that period makes a woman unclean or impure is followed religiously. The women are forced to live outside the house, stay away from water and cooking area, religious activities. The women are forced to stay outside the house for five days each month, regardless of the dangers associated with such seclusion. Women have been raped, bitten by snakes and even frozen to death during such outside the house living during menstruation cycles. A problem of such large degree cannot be solved by sanitary napkins alone, but it is a definite and major step towards the menstrual hygiene right of women in India.

 The Government lifted the tax on Sanitary napkins last year after much protest from women activists around the country. Earlier, sanitary napkins were listed as a luxury item and had a GST (Goods and Services Tax) of 12% on them. After a nation-wide protest was called upon by women right activists, the tax was lifted. The women activists, though progress is seen, are not happy about the lift; they want more. They want free sanitary napkins to be accessible throughout the nation and why not, when it is a country of menstruating women as much as it is that of condom using men.

The activists argue that the governments that can distribute free condoms to the entire nation for awareness of HIV can also distribute sanitary napkins for free, seeing that half the population is female and menstruate for about 35-40 years of their lives. However, the promise of the government to provide free sanitary napkins was only an election gimmick that the GOI played in order to garner votes. The politicians promised either free or very cheap sanitary napkins to the women.

The safety and hygiene of the women of India is not an issue to the government, mostly because it is mainly male representing body with very few female representatives. While the women are not saying that all brands should be free, it is the duty of the government to provide the most basic sanitary napkin for free. Those who wish to use better alternatives can choose to do so, but those who cannot afford the napkins at all must be given access for free. #YesIBleed campaign was launched by Maneka Gandhi last year for menstrual hygiene awareness but a lot is yet to be done.

This is for healthier woman populations of the nation, who do not have to miss school or lag behind in studies, suffer from health problems or mental stress due to lack of access and unaffordability of sanitary napkins. This is for the better health of the mothers of future generations of the nation, for healthier future generations and a brighter future of India altogether.


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