For some time now, activists, politicians, and organisations have been demanding that the central government scrap taxes on sanitary napkins. From better attendance of female students in schools to better employment opportunities for rural women, they have listed a number of reasons for doing so.
And while that may be a good thing to do, menstrual hygiene is an issue that demands action on multiple fronts, as some have already highlighted. Take for example, the case of a group of women advocates in Tamil Nadu who filed a petition before the Madras High Court last year demanding that not only ‘Napkin Vending Machines’ be installed in government schools but incinerators for safe disposal of napkins be also provided for.
The court then ordered that sanitary napkins be provided in all government schools for girls, in co-education high schools, and higher secondary schools. “The quality of the Napkins should be ensure,” the court said, while pronouncing this order for immediate implementation. The court also ordered that at least one operational incinerator be installed in all government schools by the end of the academic year.
The order just goes on to show that we can demand more from the government when it comes to the issue of menstrual hygiene. There are in fact guidelines under Swachh Bharat Mission that address the issue of menstrual hygiene. Here are some areas the government is required to work in as per the guidelines that you can demand action on:
The guidelines intend to convey that menstrual hygiene doesn’t just begin and end at using sanitary napkins. No wonder a number of ministries such as the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, the Ministry of Human Resources Development have been asked to provide for these facilities.
In schools, the guidelines say, women – both students and staff- must have “clean, easily accessible water and soap to wash themselves, wash their clothing if soiled, and wash menstrual cloths or reusable napkins”. Not only should the water be provided “inside the toilet”, a mug to dispense water should also be available.
A well-positioned mirror for checking stains, a private bathing/changing unit, including a place for drying reusable menstrual adsorbents, are other infrastructural facilities required to be provided in schools.
Disposing used napkins in the open, in water bodies, or in public places not only are not helpful for sanitation workers, they can also have adverse effect on the environment. The guidelines therefore also require that schools provide for disposal bins preferably within each cubicle for collection of such waste. Further, these bins should have close fitting lids to minimise seepage of waste.
If disposing the waste offsite, schools can either seek the help of solid waste management system or hospitals which have safe treatment unit for hazardous waste.
However, as transportation can be a logistical problem for rural schools, they are advised to use “deep burial, composting, pit burning and incineration” for disposal.
Many women face stigma and discrimination while menstruating from men, a problem that the government has recognised. “Informed adolescent boys, male teachers and parents contribute to a supportive environment for adolescent girls in school and at home,” the guidelines developed by the government in 2015 say.
The Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram medical teams visiting schools are therefore required to hold educational sessions around menstruation for both girls and boys. Fathers and male teachers should also be sensitised and informed about needs of adolescent girls, according to the government’s guidelines.
Many state governments haven’t been prompt or judicious in utilising funds for a scheme meant for menstrual hygiene. The new guidelines say that allocating required budgets for dissemination of information and education as well as for capacity building of teachers is a must. Moreover, the guidelines also provide a model framework for allocation of these funds.
Unfortunately, expenditure particular to Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) isn’t maintained by the central government under all schemes. It is also data that may not be readily available unless the government audits these schemes specifically to find out the money spent on MHM. But there’s always the Right to Information Act which you can use to request information on such expenditure from your local administration or government.
Only 12% women and girls in the country who menstruate have access to sanitary napkins. It’s not enough to just demand sanitary pads. There is a lot more that we need to do in order to make sure this statistic changes. Let’s ask the government to address this issue in its entirety.