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.
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.