Congress MP Shashi Tharoor rightly drew a lot of criticism from gender rights groups on his remark that the two women who recently entered Sabarimala was an “unnecessary, provocative act”. One week later, he introduces a private member’s bill, among three others, favouring the Women’s Sexual, Reproductive and Menstrual Rights.
While the Bill aims to advance “agency” and women’s autonomy over their bodies with regard to terminating pregnancy, it’s wordings on menstrual rights and equity is fairly limited to the age-old sanitary-pads-freebies-distrubution formulae. Here’s why this approach needs to be regarded with caution. It needs a broader dialogue (preferably with all menstruating people) so that it actually becomes a useful instrument for change and not just a ‘progressive and symbolic gesture’.
While girls and women need access to toilets, the Bill doesn’t address the issue of lack of clean, hygienic, and safe toilets that are functional with access to water and safe disposal of waste. Given this reality that affects most of the country, especially in public infrastructure, free sanitary pads are not going to make much of a difference.
Sanitary pads that are produced in bulk for free distribution are always low-quality, laden with toxic substances, and made with plastics. They contain skin irritants, and are problematic to dispose because they pollute the waterways, soil, and air if not disposed correctly. The burden of disposal then falls on manual scavengers and cleaners. These are people who are often from the marginalised castes and communities, and they face harsh, unhealthy and precarious consequences while dealing with waste. Instead what needs to be addressed and mentioned explicitly is that menstrual hygiene products distributed under such an initiative must have quality control to provide toxic-free material, hygienic use, and safe disposal.
Sanitary pads are not the only available products to manage menstruation. In fact, calling them sanitary itself is archaic. Menstrual hygiene products like cotton pads, reusable cloth pads, period panties, and menstrual are eco-friendly and easier to dispose. Agency and equity cannot happen if there’s no scope for informed choices. The discourse around access to menstrual hygiene products must go beyond market monopoly of plastic pads and eliminate competitive pricing that directly affects access to healthy range of choices.
Information disclosure and ethical compliance is a must from menstrual hygiene products companies involved in an initiative like Tharoor’s. This will eliminate any risk of chemical exposure during use and disposal. Current standards globally, and in India, do not account for such realities and have very lax standards that make it easy for anyone to bring cheap products to the market without due diligence.
Menstrual rights and equity calls for systemic change and transforming how we perceive sanitation and reproductive health. Even today, reproductive health conversations are largely centered around child bearing. They ignore the concerns of single women, non-pregnancy related concerns, as well as critical healthcare for Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, endometriosis, and birth control.
Many non-binary persons, trans-men, and persons with disabilities are among others who menstruate, but are sidelined in a linear approach to ‘solving’ period poverty. Menstruation matters need destigmatising. Seeing menstrual blood as impure and polluting remains a problem. Removal rituals in the name of Faith that exclude menstruating people from access to decent, dignified living is a problem too. Faith and empowerment can never be at the cost of a human being’s bodily realities, and Bills like this have a long way to go. They must be made accountable for respecting gender and human rights in a complex nation, riddled with religion, politics and their consequent hypocrisies that violate our rights.