All girls remember getting their period for the first time, but it’s the days that follow immediately that people just don’t talk about. The days when you come to terms with the practical everyday matter of changing pads, stained clothes and the importance of menstrual hygiene.
I remember my mother instructing me to change my pads frequently to prevent staining, but the question of ‘hygiene’ or ‘infection’ never came up. On the contrary, I remember being scolded once because I was too fastidious about changing my pads frequently (every two hours or so) with my mother sternly telling my that these things “cost a lot of money”.
Yes, they do indeed. A packet of seven pads can easily cost up to Rs. 70. For seven sanitary napkins which would, at most, last two days of a menstrual cycle; or less, depending on how heavy your menstrual flow is. For something which is an absolute necessity for menstruating women, this price might be an insurmountable obstacle. No wonder only 12% of women in India use sanitary napkins, using anything from cloth pads to ash in its place.
I remember a trip which I took with my friends; a trip that unfortunately coincided with my menstrual cycle. I was a student at the time and while I did have some backup sanitary napkins, they weren’t enough to last the whole trip. Being on a restricted budget, I bought some more, but not as many as I wanted, given how heavy my menstrual cycle could be. I spent the trip making each pad last as long as I could, sometimes changing only once or twice a day.
In case you’re wondering, this is a bad idea. Wearing sanitary napkins for too long (anything more than six hours) can cause vaginal and/or urethral infections. More common than infections are rashes caused by wearing a damp sanitary napkin for too long, which might also cause itchiness, make walking around a nightmare and ruin your general day. I remember wincing while walking because of rashes I had inevitably developed by wearing my pad for too long. While I (thankfully!) never got an infection, the rashes were an all too common an experience and persisted, making even changing to a fresh pad a chore.
For many, changing a sanitary napkin every six hours is not an option. Even for those who have access or knowledge about sanitary napkins, affordability gets in the way of menstrual hygiene. Thus, women are forced to rely on unhygienic alternatives or ensure that sanitary napkins last longer by keeping them on longer than recommended. And this is the story of more women than not.
Women should not be courting infections and ill-health literally every month because of lack of access to a necessary health product. Menstrual hygiene needs to be given the importance that it deserves, especially since there are lives on the line. It’s not enough to have access to sanitary napkins, women should also be able to afford it. In India, shockingly, sanitary napkins are taxed as luxury commodities. But using sanitary napkins is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. And it’s time the government got that.
Because at no point should it be acceptable that someone should die because they don’t have access to a basic health product.