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The Insensitivity Of GST On Sanitary Napkins When 70% Women Still Can’t Afford To Buy Them

India welcomed the Goods and Services Tax (GST), a new tax regime on July 1, 2017. The tax reform, which embodies the principle of “one nation, one tax, one market”, had an impact on various industries in the country. While the GST has been greeted with cheers by many, it simultaneously has brought concerns over the issues of sanitary napkins.

A sanitary napkin should be considered as a fundamental right of every woman, as it is a necessity every month. Turning a deaf ear to the outcry of women to make sanitary napkins tax-free, the GST imposes 12% tax on this necessary item. Though there has been a fall from the earlier tax rate of 14.5%, the decision is still irrational, as products like sindoor and bindis are tax free. I can not understand how this makes sense for the government.

Putting sanitary napkins, an essential need for almost all adult women, in a non-essential tax bracket, shows the utter ignorance of women’s health issues by the government.

Recently, the Delhi High Court slammed the centre for not exempting sanitary napkins from the GST ambit, even as products like bindi, sindoor and kajal are kept out. The centre, however, argued that the price of sanitary napkins would rise if exempted from tax.

Menstruation is a natural and an unavoidable biological process for women. All women on an average menstruate from the age of 12 – 51. The process is as natural as sleeping, eating or drinking and is also necessary as there is no life without it.

Women already face a lot of discomfort that menstruation brings in every month, and on top of that, the added expenditure makes things even more miserable. You can avoid an outing during the days your pocket feels light, but the expense associated with menstrual hygiene products is as unavoidable as menstruation itself. It might be easy for us to say that these products are affordable when we can afford to dine and shop at exotic places, but for the less privileged, it is not all that easy. The biggest barrier to using a sanitary napkin is affordability, and the facts speak for themselves.

According to a survey, only 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins and the remaining 88% of women resort to shocking alternatives like unsanitized cloth, ash and husk sand. Around 70% of women say their family cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins, and maybe it is these figures that make people believe that sanitary napkins are a luxury item when in fact, they are a necessity.

This inadequate menstrual protection makes adolescent girls (age 12-18 years) miss five days of school in a month, which makes it 50 days a year. Around 23% of these girls actually drop out of school after they start menstruating.

Incidents of Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) are 70% more common among women who do not use sanitary napkins. Nearly 97% gynaecologists in a survey conducted in October 2010 by AC Nielsen believed that use of napkins reduced the risk of severe RTIs. Around 64% of them also believed that sanitary napkins also reduce the risk of cervical cancer.

Menstrual hygiene is lowest in eastern India with 83% women saying their families cannot afford sanitary napkins. Every woman goes through puberty, and hence every woman bleeds monthly. Sanitary napkins are not an ‘urban’ requirement, every woman in the country should be able to access and afford them. It is not like the government has not done anything to make sanitary napkins affordable in rural areas.

Back in 2012, the Union Health Ministry along with Family Welfare Ministry had launched a ₹100 crore scheme to push access and affordability of sanitary napkins among adolescent girls in rural areas. While it faced access and safe disposal issues, the fact that it didn’t significantly increase usage of sanitary napkins is a matter of concern. This means that there are other factors than the cost, which hinder menstrual hygiene in India.

Awareness is another big evil in the way. Forget the government, a large section of India’s women think that sanitary pads and tampons are luxury items. Therefore, we have another big task to deal with, and that is of spreading awareness in our society.

However, even to bring about awareness, making sanitary napkins and tampons tax-free is the first step. In a country where women are forced to use things like straw and ash during their periods, putting a tax on sanitary napkins seems like a travesty of common sense. Taxing women for a biological process they have no control over is like taxing women for who they are.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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