“Can you describe menstruation for me?” I asked a grinning 14-year-old girl, tucked away in a beautifully brazen village of Jharkhand where I had gone to conduct a qualitative field research on menstrual hygiene management.
“Menstruation is impure, didi,” she replied, all remnants of a smile vanishing without a trace.
The village, like many of its contemporaries, had innumerable mud-caked streets, a mix of kutcha pukka houses and a shallow pond. The pond was where the men, women and children of this village went for ablutions as most of the houses were devoid of toilets. The pond looked a lot like this:
This is where the girls have to go during ‘those days’, the girl told me, her voice lowered. When I pressed further, she told me that girls accompany each other to the pond, or a clearing to change/clean themselves and bury their menstrual cloths. She further reported that since the toilet at her school is not functional, she and her school friends preferred to remain at home during their periods.
I was in her village two years ago and had comfortably forgotten her plight, but thanks to the responsible citizens of India who have initiated a much-needed dialogue on making menstrual absorbents tax free and shaken me out of a reverie.
Menstruation is a natural process that brings about a 360-degree change in a girl’s life, sparks a million questions in her mind, that if not answered, endanger her sexual and reproductive health, her identity of herself, her right to education and her ability to negotiate for better health.
A brief review of existing literature on menstrual health behaviour of adolescent girls, especially the ones belonging to the rural regions of India reveal what I don’t want to read.
A cloth is the most commonly used absorbent due to affordability and availability issues. There is also the shameful bit of asking someone to buy them sanitary napkins. Adolescent girls are not aware of the frequency of changing pads/cloth, don’t clean their private parts adequately, and the worst, don’t dry the used cloth under the sun after washing.
Their vulnerability to UTI increases manifold due to these factors. Furthermore, menstruating girls and women face a multitude of social and religious restrictions that are bolstered by centuries of myths and misconceptions, gender discrimination and further perpetuated by the women themselves.
There is still hope, with some Non-Governmental Organisations and the Central and State Governments supplying sanitary napkins for free, creating social and behavioural change campaigns to impart necessary life skills to the girls and the women. Special mention of Arunachalam Padmanabhan, a man who fought against his entire community, risked losing his family and suffered social ostracization to make pads affordable for all.
While tax exemption on the sanitary napkin will make it a little more affordable, the real challenge is to make more rural women and girls regular users of sanitary pads; sensitize them about menstruation, adequate frequency of changing pads, proper hygiene; empower them to negotiate with their families for a toilet/ private enclosure and also provide sustainable solutions for safe disposal of menstrual absorbents.
We should raise our voices and push for tax exemption on sanitary napkins, and rightly so, because, among other things, we didn’t ask for it, it is not my privilege to writhe in pain every month and wear an uncomfortable napkin 24X4 and then pay a luxury tax on top of it, this dialogue should also accommodate the voices of our rural sisters and make optimal menstrual health and hygiene a reality for them as well. Because if a condom is an essential good, so are menstrual products.