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A Month After GST: The Other ‘Bloody’ Battles To Be Won For Menstrual Health

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A month ago, India removed its ‘tampon tax’, a move welcomed by activists worldwide. But the struggle for safeguarding menstrual health of all people who menstruate has other fronts which need our attention.

This year has been a ‘bloody’ good year in India for those who menstruate. From the Bollywood film Padman to the removal of Goods and Services Tax (GST) on sanitary napkins a month ago, our periods sometimes received more attention than what Rahul Gandhi’s hug to PM Narendra Modi, in the Parliament, received.

The decision of the GST Council to remove the 12% tax on sanitary napkins was welcomed by activists and people who supported various campaigns to make sanitary pads tax-free. But, this sense of joy was short-lived. The bubble we created with our emotions was pricked by something called the Input Tax Credit (ITC). A lot has been explained by experts about ITC and you can do a mere Google search to know more about its importance.

Pic credit: Rudrani Ghosh Photography

It seems the benefits of removal of GST on sanitary napkins is negligible and it has instead created problems for domestic manufacturers, who want a lower GST on sanitary napkins.

Looking Beyond Pads                            

As a menstrual health educator, I believe the removal of GST was an emotional victory and the silver lining was that it got people talking about a taboo topic. The campaign against GST on pads has shown how online petitions and campaigns on a taboo topic can drive conversations and influence a government to take a drastic measure because of public opinion. The move to remove GST on sanitary napkins might end up in a fizzle, but let’s not lose heart as there are bigger battles out there which require our attention.

I searched online to find campaigns which are looking at other important aspects of menstrual health and found a few interesting petitions.

1) Make Menstrual Hygiene Education Compulsory in Schools: This petition had to feature at the top of my list because its impact will be long-term and more sustainable than free distribution of menstrual hygiene products. I strongly believe education is the most important pillar of menstrual hygiene management (MHM).

In the past one year, I have reached more than 7,500 people who menstruate in Assam through our workshops at Sikun Relief Foundation and I have heard stories which make me question the progress we have made as a society. Making people who menstruate sleep in cow sheds or sleep on the floor even during harsh winters is inhumane. Only sustained education campaigns can change perceptions to stop these harmful practices.

Families might still be hesitant or lack the skills to discuss about menstruation, but schools have the capability to impart menstrual hygiene education. There could also be state-specific MHM curriculum for maximum impact.

2) Plastic waste created by Disposable Sanitary Napkins: Disposable Sanitary Napkins (DSNs) have their utility and ease of use but they are unsustainable. We are facing a climate change crisis, our landfills are burning waste and islands of plastic trash are threatening our oceans. The most popular brands of sanitary napkins manufactured by MNCs take 600-700 years to decompose in landfills.

Last year, when Sushmita Dev an MP from Assam launched a petition to make sanitary napkins tax-free, the campaign Green the Red launched a counter petition to make only sustainable menstrual hygiene products such as cloth pads and menstrual cups tax-free. I believe this campaign can be relaunched again by asking the government to incentivise manufacturers of such products and also asking MNCs to invest in efforts to deal with menstrual waste sustainably.

3) Accountability of schemes pertaining to menstrual health: In 2014, the UNICEF and WHO defined Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) as: ‘Women and adolescent girls using a clean menstrual management material to absorb or collect blood that can be changed in privacy as often as necessary for the duration of the menstruation period, using soap and water for washing the body as required, and having access to facilities to dispose of used menstrual management materials.’

MHM is a part of government programmes such as Swachh Bharat Mission, National Adolescent Health Programme, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan to name a few. But quite often government agencies end up working solely on the product angle of this definition. Education, proper toilet and water facilities and safe disposal are areas that quite often get neglected.  Here are two state-specific campaigns Ensure Mandatory Menstrual Hygiene Service in Anganwadis of Jharkhand and Keep UP Girls in School – Make toilets accessible to them!  which are demanding the respective state governments to provide proper infrastructure and education for people who menstruate, to manage their periods with dignity.

Towards A Taboo-Free Future 

I work in flood-hit areas in Assam where quite often the needs of people who menstruate in cramped flood relief camps go unmet because of silence and shame. But, things are changing slowly. Menstruation is finally having its moment in the sun and menstrual hygiene activism in India is evolving to include other neglected aspects of MHM such as the needs of disabled people who menstruate, menstrual hygiene during emergencies, etc.

As a grassroots development professional, these recent developments make me optimistic about a future where we are free from menstrual taboos and no one is held behind by their periods.

 

Mayuri Bhattacharjee is the Founder of Sikun Relief Foundation, an organisation working on climate resilient WASH systems and Sexual & Reproductive Health in environmentally fragile regions in India. She is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper and a Climate Reality Leader.

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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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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