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Remove the cultural baggage, awkwardness about menstruation

Removing GST from sanitary napkins and menstrual hygiene products is only one of many issues we need to address when talking about menstruation

columns Updated: Jun 16, 2017 14:21 IST
Recyclable sanitary napkins being made at a processing unit at Goonj,Delhi. Most sanitary napkins available in the market are non-biodegradable and are difficult to dispose
Recyclable sanitary napkins being made at a processing unit at Goonj,Delhi. Most sanitary napkins available in the market are non-biodegradable and are difficult to dispose(Saumya Khandelwal/HT)

Hay, dried leaves, straw. Nature’s bounty? Hardly. These are just some of the innovative blotters used by many Indian girls and women who menstruate.

That word itself; so troublesome, so awkward. Perhaps that’s why we choose to keep mum over a natural biological process experienced every month by 336 million Indian girls and women.

This enforced culture of secrecy comes at a price. Nearly half of all girls have absolutely no knowledge about menstruation when they get their first period, and 70% of their mothers are convinced that it is ‘dirty’, finds the Menstrual Health Alliance (MHA), a coalition of organisations working on sanitation and hygiene.

The secrecy also perpetuates purity myths that make gender inequity so much harder to fight since menstruating women may not enter temples or kitchens. Moreover, the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products means that girls either miss school or drop out altogether.

We really ought to cheer that menstruation has been in the news thanks to a group of women, including Congress MP Sushmita Dev and BJP spokesperson Shaina NC, who are urging the finance minister to exclude sanitary napkins — classified bizarrely as a medical product — from GST.

It’s hard to say how much a tax waiver would help when the cheapest pack of eight costs Rs 20 — still beyond the economic reach of most women. Yet, the latest round of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) finds that 57.6% of women in the age group 15 to 24 now use sanitary napkins. How come? Two possible reasons, explains Tanya Mahajan of Zariya, one of the MHA constituents: The first is a government scheme that provides free sanitary napkins in some schools and the second is the increasing availability of low cost pads even in low income communities.

Unfortunately, this is creating a new problem — that of disposal. If 121 million girls and women, according to NFHS data, use eight pads a month, then India is looking to dispose over a billion pads a month. Most have cellulose fillings and plastic barriers and can take 250 years to decompose.

A tax waiver is certainly needed. But in addition, we need a complete policy that addresses several issues that we have so far managed to ignore: Making affordable menstrual hygiene products available; encouraging eco-friendlier alternatives like washable pads and menstrual cups by, say, providing manufacturers a tax holiday; and proper disposal through incinerators.

But nothing can begin unless we are able to first drag menstruation out from the deep recesses of our cultural baggage.

A good start towards normalisation would be to just use the word in conversation and in school curriculums, equipping girls with information that gives them the self-confidence and understanding that really, it is a part of life.

Namita Bhandare writes on social issues and gender

The views expressed are personal