Death Of A Woman In Assam Shows Why Govt. Needs To Remove The Tax On Sanitary Pads

G Talukdar, an 18-year old woman from Assam’s Baram area, died on 23 April after a parasite was found inside her stomach. The story came to light when the woman complained of severe pain after her stomach swelled in an abnormal manner. She was admitted to a hospital in Guwahati on Saturday evening.

Her family had noticed the swelling for almost two weeks but had assumed that she was pregnant as a result of an affair. Despite initially being concerned about the consequences of a pregnancy and the need to get her married, her family finally got her admitted to Guwahati Medical College and Hospital once she began suffering from serious stomach pain.

The doctors, after examination, found that a parasite had been scavenging her from the inside for almost two months, resulting in severe damage to her intestine. The doctors concluded that it had happened due to the unhygienic practice of using cloth in place of sanitary napkins during periods.

The use of old pieces of cloth in place of sanitary napkins is commonplace in rural Assam, where access to proper menstrual hygiene is still limited.

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Archana Borthakur, founder of Priyabandhu, a non-profit organisation working at the grassroots level on this grave issue, said over the phone that women from rural areas not only do not have access to proper menstrual hygiene but also do not wear panties. Drying their underwear in the sun being looked upon as embarrassing, many women prefer to let their underwear remain unwashed and highly infected, resulting in poor menstrual hygiene.

The government has been giving much importance to the use of condoms for safe sex but has not focused proportionately on menstrual hygiene. Some months back, Congress MP Sushmita Dev’s campaign for tax-free sanitary napkins under the new Goods and Services Tax regime had garnered a huge response from people all across the country. Her online petition had secured more than two lakh signatures.

Terming sanitary napkins ‘necessary safeguard(s) for health and life’, she wrote to Finance Minister Arun Jaitly asking for napkins to be exempted from the tax. Dev argued that zero tax on sanitary napkins would make them more accessible to girls and women, thereby raising school attendance and women’s participation in the workforce.

It is very tragic that such unhygienic practices have claimed several lives in this country – and that these deaths are, as yet, undocumented. As Archana Borthakur remarked, G Talukdar is just the tip of the iceberg.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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