I learnt to look away or pretend to be overly interested in doing something when there was any hush-hush discussion about periods and sanitary napkins. You were not supposed to ask what the black plastic bag contained. Even commercials for sanitary napkins had to be discreet enough to not allude to the fact that they were concerned with periods, a biological process that almost all cisgender women go through. Not to mention the mystifying blue liquid that made it even harder for an eleven-year-old me to understand what the commercials were about.
Periods are still a taboo, and the commercials for sanitary products have to be clinical, the women starring in them happy. I started to attach it to something that is to be hidden and not talked about. Not only do women have to go through periods, they also have to hide any evidence of their discomfort.
I am Sanket Patil, Head of Communications at SheSays, a non-profit NGO that addresses sexual violence as a public heath issue and focuses on educational reform, health and sanitation and improving gender-specific public safety via youth engagement. Recently we started a viral campaign called #LahuKaLagaan, or ‘tax on blood’, to urge Hon’ble Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, to make sanitary napkins tax-free under the GST.
Not only are periods considered a taboo but are also taxed up to 14.5% depending on different states. To make matters worse, they are taxed as luxury products. Sanitary products are deemed a luxury by our government. Girls in remote areas miss school for five days in a month because this ‘luxury’ is not accessible or affordable to them. Some leave school on menarche i.e. the first occurrence of menstruation. They are caught off guard when they get their first period because no one had explained to them what periods are. In fact, only 12% of Indian women use sanitary napkins because the remaining 88% cannot afford them, lack information, or sanitary napkins are simply not accessible to them. Women resort to using unhygienic objects such as paper, cloth, husk and wood shavings, which in turn cause urinary tract infections and vastly increase the chance of cervical cancer.
Something has to be done about this oppressive and discriminatory taxation. Women are not able to achieve their full potential because of a biological process. Their quality of living is affected because of lack of affordable and accessible sanitary products. This has to change now.
So, at SheSays, we started a petition in collaboration with Global Citizen India in October 2016 called #DontTaxMyPeriod, to spread awareness about this tax and catalyse the fight against it. We sent legal representations to concerned government officials to urge them to abolish the tax. #LahuKaLagaan is the second segment of this campaign. We spent days using social media to bring people’s attention to this issue.
The response to the campaign has been tremendous, and it has gone viral with many publications covering the campaign. It’s become a people’s campaign, bigger than all of us, and has taken a life of its own. Many people were not aware of this tax and responded with surprise, shock and anger to the campaign. It was heartening to see the outpour of support from actors, comedians, sportspersons, YouTube personalities and people from various other fields. After all, they are key in amplifying the campaign and helping it reach out to a wider audience. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think that together we can affect policy-level change. We have to ensure that we are heard and our demands are considered before the GST council.
With such support, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to think that together we can affect policy-level change. We have to ensure that we are heard and our demands are considered before the GST council. We want to make as many people aware of this unfair tax as possible. Especially when it is literally taking lives in some parts of India. As a people, we need to use our collective voice to effect change by mobilising everybody around us and putting pressure on the government. Condoms are rightfully tax-free and it really is about time that sanitary products are too.
— SheSays (@SheSaysIndia) April 21, 2017
Today, the hashtag #LahuKaLagaan has more than 22 million impressions on Twitter, a testament to the fact that people are concerned and they care. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has also taken cognizance of our representation and forwarded it to the GST council for perusal and consideration. However, we still have a long way to go. We need not only to ensure that sanitary products are tax-free but also to ensure that they are included as ‘essential commodities’ under the Essential Commodities Act. Vending machines that dispense sanitary napkins must be installed at appropriate places. Local self-help groups should be provided with inexpensive machinery to manufacture sanitary napkins designed by Indian innovators to ensure that sanitary napkins are affordable and accessible everywhere.
— SheSays (@SheSaysIndia) April 19, 2017
The paramount importance of accessibility and affordability of sanitary napkins cannot be downplayed. No girl should ever be made to feel that her biological bodily process, that she has no control over, deserves to strip her of basic rights such as hygiene and education. It’s time to lend your voice, speak up and ensure that sanitary products are an accessible and an affordable reality for every woman!
Right to hygiene is non-negotiable. Right to health is non-negotiable. Right to education is non-negotiable. Say no to #LahuKaLagaan!