Before Debating GST On Sanitary Pads, Let’s Address This Vital Issue First

By Ira Sahai:

In the last couple of weeks, ever since we heard that sanitary napkins will have a tax of 12-14% levied on them under the GST, the internet has been in an uproar. When condoms and contraceptives are considered necessities, how is it possible that a sanitary napkin be considered a luxury item?  This makes me wonder if this is a general apathy towards an accessible product, or a lack of awareness about the larger issue of menstrual hygiene for women. 

So far as the sanitary napkins are concerned, a 2011 study titled “Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right” by AC Nielsen estimated that only 12% of the 335 million menstruating women in India have access to disposable sanitary napkins. So, what is happening to the other 88%? Did they magically opt-out of having their periods? If not, then shouldn’t we be extremely concerned about them? 

 As a society, menstrual hygiene awareness probably ranks very low on our list of priorities. Men don’t want to hear about it and women, in most cases, due to the social stigma attached to the subject, do their best to hide it. It’s treated like the wrath of God, that we bring upon ourselves. We don’t have a choice. But sometimes the lack of awareness gives rise to myths and misconceptions about the issue. 

But how will we ever raise awareness if we don’t even acknowledge the issue? Women who don’t have access to sanitary pads, use things like old clothes, and cotton, which are very commonly available. Unaware that this can lead to numerous infections and diseases if not washed and dried properly in the sun. 

So, what’s the real challenge we are facing? Is it the stigma around periods, which puts an end to conversations even before they can start? The lack of access to hygiene products? The sheer unavailability of any information around the health impact of menstrual hygiene, and where one can go to know more? Have we even considered the ecological impact of the disposal of sanitary napkins? Environment portal Down to Earth estimated that 432 million pads are disposed of every month. Since they are non-biodegradable, the soiled napkins stay in the landfills for about 800 years. And who is answerable for the loss of dignity of the waste picker who has daily encounters with soiled pads?

So instead of getting enraged over tax structure, lets us try and figure out how the larger issue can be addressed by including both private organisations and government bodies. We have to be able to reach women who need affordable and eco-friendly solutions, and start a meaningful dialogue on the overall state of mensural hygiene for women, rather than having debates on social media.