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.
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.
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.
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.