The day a girl gets her first period is one she seldom forgets. It is laden with emotions of panic, confusion, and oftentimes, shame. Many private schools today organize dedicated sessions for girls on period awareness – something I, and most girls during my times did not have access to growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Menstruation, being the taboo subject that it unfortunately continues to be to this day, was never discussed at home. The only thing that was subtly conveyed was that menstruation made women impure, compelling them to isolate themselves from key household chores and forbidding them from entering the kitchen, prayer room, and even the living room during their periods. Yet, restricted access to certain areas of the household was only part of the problem. The bigger challenge was the lack of awareness and access to sanitary napkins.
My family did not speak to me about menstruation, menstrual hygiene and how I should prepare myself for it. The day I got my first period is etched in my memory. I was afraid at the sight of blood, and everything else that followed. I had to use a piece of cloth every time I got my period, since sanitary napkins were still uncommon. This practice got with it, every month, the stress of having to wash, dry and then reuse the cloth, which would then need to be hidden away lest the men in the family saw these impure and repulsive pieces of cloth. Menstruation was being perceived not just as an aberration, but as something unclean; while what was, in fact unclean and grossly unfair was the way in which I had to deal with my periods while growing up.
It was not long before I discovered the existence of sanitary napkins. I was introduced to the comfort and disposability of the pads, which was nothing short of revolutionary for me. Alas, this enthusiasm was not destined to last. I soon realized that they were so expensive for girls like me who belonged to the middle class, that I had to ration them. This meant that I could only use sanitary napkins when I went out, and had to continue using cloths when I stayed home. This was the scenario in an urban, middle class home. Needless to say, the situation in the poorer, vulnerable sections of our society is far more disturbing. The lack of affordability, in addition to the severe paucity of both the awareness about hygienic practices and access to sanitary napkins, have perpetuated the deplorable conditions of girls in rural and marginalized parts of the country.
The use of cloths during period, apart from being extremely uncomfortable, also enhances chances of infections and diseases. With no better and more affordable options available, women across sections continue to use pieces of cloth rags! These highly unsanitary practices are an indictment of the system that has failed to address the issue. In many rural pockets, even today, young girls either drop out of school when they attain puberty, or are forced to skip classes during their periods as they are unaware of, and unable to access or afford sanitary napkins. Ensuring access and affordability is therefore critical in the implementation of basic hygienic and sanitary practices.
Central to this goal is first changing the perception of menstruation as a taboo subject. A lot can be achieved by encouraging dialogue and allowing the space for women and young girls to discuss the subject without inhibitions. Next is the need to accept menstruation as a biological process that every woman goes through for most part of her life. It would be an enormous fallacy to treat it as anything but a health, hygiene and sanitation issue. By imposing taxes on sanitary napkins, these basic essential goods are being treated as luxury products. Menstruation is not a luxury, and should not be perceived as such.
In a country where women’s health issues are already on the rise, it is important to implement measures that will prevent further diseases and infections from affecting women’s lives. Reports suggest that only 12% of the 355 million menstruating women in India have access to sanitary napkins. To address this, the luxury tax on them needs to be removed, making them more affordable, and available close to every woman in the remotest parts of the country. The government also needs to ramp up measures to ensure the reach of sanitary napkins to young girls across the country, by tying up with schools – especially public schools – and distributing pads to girls. This will help prevent young girls from dropping out of school on attaining puberty. The installation of sanitary napkin vending machines in public toilets is also something that the government can implement for ease of access. Bringing about these changes, both in policy and in the mindset of the society, is an impending need of the hour, to make sure no woman is deprived of the basic necessities to deal with menstruation – a natural process which is by no means a luxury – with dignity.
The author is a public health advocacy and communications consultant and runs Footprint Global Communications www.footprintglobal.com