In school, I often encountered my period when I was least expecting it, since I had an irregular menstrual cycle. What made this dreaded encounter worse was that I almost always forgot to carry a sanitary napkin with me.
Thankfully, I had a habit of dragging my friend along with me to the washroom. She would always rush to the medical room to get a sanitary napkin for me. When the medical room didn’t have any, which was quite often, she used to walk around the school, asking every girl she saw, in a hush-hush voice, if they had a pad. She sometimes had to muster the courage to go to the staff room to borrow one from the teachers too.
I am one of the few women who has access to menstrual health in India. So, it may seem trivial, but I am recounting my struggles with having access to menstrual health because if we don’t talk about our struggles as well as the struggles of other women, the knowledge that sanitary napkins are a necessity, will remain exclusive to few people.
The ordeal of hunting for a pad wasn’t limited to school – it became more complicated in public places where there were no medical rooms, no helpful friends and teachers. Trying to find a chemist around the area, having the required amount of money to buy a small packet of sanitary napkins (since you can’t buy one pad), was a different battle altogether.
When I began studying in Panjab University last year, I found that there was a sanitary pad vending machine in our university’s library. While I did wonder why the vending machine was in the library and not the washroom, since you’d never wear the napkin in the library itself, I was glad that if nothing else, at least my unpredictable menstrual cycle wouldn’t raise hell during my college life.
It was only the first time I had my period in college that I realised that the university campus is quite scattered and the library is far off from various departments, making pads difficult to access once again. The department I was in at that time was a kilometre away from the library. I didn’t even have a friend with me since I didn’t think I’d have to face this again.
Left with no other option, I nervously went to the market close to my location and purchased a pack of sanitary napkins and then all the way to my college to wear it. On another day, I got to use the sanitary napkin vending machine in the university library and wasn’t even shocked when it didn’t work.
My struggles with menstrual health made me wonder that if I, as a financially secure person, can at times find it difficult to find a sanitary napkin, what about those who aren’t? What about those for whom the problem isn’t, “Where can I find sanitary napkins?” but “How can I afford them?”
In India, 20% girls drop out of school upon reaching puberty because of financial problems, lack of awareness and societal taboos. It’s appalling how menstruation, a natural process that women have no control over, becomes a deterrent for them to get an education. This is why it’s essential for educational institutions to take charge and spread awareness and install free of cost sanitary napkin dispensers.
But it almost feels silly to expect institutes to take charge when our government, which is supposed to set precedence for all citizens, thinks sanitary napkins are luxury items. It’s because of this that ‘free of cost sanitary napkins’ seem like a far-fetched dream. However, even if the ‘luxury’ tax on sanitary napkins is removed, so many more women will have access to proper menstrual hygiene, and consequently, so many girls will have access to education. Removing the luxury tax doesn’t seem impossible to me. If condoms can be tax-free, why not sanitary napkins?
It’s high time the government formulates policies to make menstrual health accessible to all. Only then will educational institutes follow suit and make the initial years of menstruation a little comfortable for young girls.