After a year-long opposition and multiple campaigns held by activists to protest the matter, the GST council recently declared that sanitary napkins would be exempt from the GST. This means that sanitary pads, which were earlier taxed at 12% due to being classified as ‘luxury goods’ – something I still have difficulty wrapping my head around – have now been completely exempt of the tax levied on them.
But the fight is far from over, as there’s much more that needs to be done. In the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) conducted during 2015-16 by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, it was discovered that only 57.6% of women in India within the 15-24 year age bracket used hygienic methods of protection during their menstrual period (‘hygienic methods’ translate to locally prepared napkins, sanitary napkins and tampons). Apologies for being a glass-half-empty kind of person, but this means that there are 42.2% of women out there who still use old fabrics, rags, dried leaves, sand, wood shavings and even ash during their period.
Using unhygienic methods for the absorption of period blood not only leads to menstruation-related problems like yeast infections but also restricts adolescent girls and women from performing basic daily tasks, such as going to school or helping their families in household work. In India, about 23% of adolescent girls drop out of school every year, not only because of lack of access to proper methods for period-management (Sanitary pad dispensers? What are those?), but also because of the absence of functional toilets in schools.
What’s even more alarming is the persistent shame and taboo which is associated with the word ‘period’. Even my modern, urban class mother refuses to say the word out loud, or says it in a hushed tone, reminding me of how almost no one was willing to say the name ‘Voldemort’ in the “Harry Potter” series. My mom also insists that shopkeepers wrap her sanitary pads in a newspaper and turns as red as a tomato when a Whisper or Stayfree add comes up on TV. But her behaviour doesn’t surprise me anymore, as during my research I found that 70% of mothers consider menstruation ‘dirty’, perpetuating a culture of silence around the completely normal biological process. So, if my mother finds the word ‘periods’ embarrassing, it’s only because she was raised in a time when society taught her that menstruation is something that is not to be talked about.
And while some may argue otherwise, not much has changed when it comes to conversations about menstruation in our urban neighbourhoods. We still talk about it in hushed tones. We still hide our pads/tampons when we walk to the washroom at work. We still separate girls and boys in schools to educate girls about their periods and then tell them not to tell the boys. We can’t even watch period-centric films like “Padman” and “Phullu” with the male members of our family.
The situation in rural areas isn’t any better either. The same study which said that 57.6% women use hygienic methods of menstrual protection also states that out of that 57.6 %, 48.2% belong to rural households, which means more than half of the 166,064 rural women aged 15-24 years don’t use proper methods of period blood absorption.
Besides not having access to sanitary napkins (reasons vary from unaffordability to the fear of public embarrassment), women in rural areas also have to deal with ridiculous myths regarding the subject. Whether it’s not touching pickles or not entering temples/kitchens, they’ve seen it all. However, the most astonishing discovery I made during my research was when I came across the concept of a ‘gaokor’ in Maharashtra, prevalent amongst Gond and Madiya ethnic groups. What is a gaokor, you ask? It is a hut located outside the village, where menstruating girls are banished for five days during their periods. In an article by The Guardian on goakors, the conditions of the huts were described as follows:
“Since the huts are considered public property, no one takes responsibility for their upkeep. Gaokors lack a kitchen as women who are menstruating are not allowed to cook; those staying inside rely on family to bring them food and other items. Women usually sleep on the floor with just a thick sheet for a mattress, which is folded and used as a cushion during the day.”
Isn’t is bad enough that women have to deal with blood coming out of their vagina for five days, menstrual cramps and absurd myths and taboos that they’re also being banished to tiny huts in the middle of nowhere?
The good news is that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has instructed the Maharashtra state government to take steps to eradicate the practice of gaokors, which it described as a “serious violation of the human rights of women”. The bad news is that this was three years ago, and there have been no updates on the matter since then.
There are no clear-cut solutions to the problems we’re facing today. There are many areas which need improvement. The tax exemption on sanitary pads was just a small (but commendable) step towards the right direction.
Providing access to sanitary pads or other affordable alternatives to women all over the country needs to be a priority for the authorities. I’d say tampons and menstrual cups too, but inserting anything into a vagina before marriage is another taboo that needs to be addressed, so let’s just leave it at that for the time being.
Both adolescent girls and mothers need to be educated on the fact that menstruation is a normal biological process, and not something to be ashamed of. I specifically say, mothers, because more often than not, mothers are the main source of information when it comes to a girl’s period. Schools need to create a safe and comfortable environment for girls to talk about their period related queries if they can’t talk about it at home.
But, more importantly, we need to educate young boys and men about periods too, so that we can raise more men to be like Arunachalam Muruganantham, who take the mantle into their own hands and help women overcome the stigma surrounding their periods. Or we could just educate them enough so that they turn out like my boyfriend, who’s bought pads for me on multiple occasions without complaining about it, and has taken care of me when I’ve been bed-ridden by my painful menstrual cramps.
Like many issues, the period taboo needs to go too. A woman’s period is not something she needs to be ashamed of, nor is it a valid excuse for society to impose unnecessary restrictions on her. There’s still a long way to go for us, with so many hurdles to overcome. But the least we can do is stop treating it like a sin, or as something that shouldn’t be mentioned in our day-to-day conversations.