The political picture of today’s India is very different from earlier times because this time the Narendra Modi-led NDA government got a historic majority to constitute the government. This shows that India now has a firm political, majoritarian and self-sufficient one-party rule. The debate on the political narrative could be accepted but at the same time, the questions and the intention of this government should be talked about more.
One such question today needs to be why menstruation is still missing from the Indian political discourse. We have to accept the fact that with time, people from across the spectrum in the society are now coming out with discussions related to the taboos associated with menstruation. However, in parliamentary politics, this taboo is still well established and there has hardly ever been any political discourse related to menstruation.
In a first of its kind, in the lower house of the Parliament on January, 2018 an MP from Arunachal Pradesh, Ninong Ering, moved a private member’s bill named Menstrual Benefit Bill 2017. “The bill proposes that women working in both the public and private sectors be given two days of paid menstrual leave each month. The bill also looks to provide better rest facilities for women at their workplace during menstruation,” noted an article published in Feminism in India website.
In the process, the Ministry of Women and Child Development came out with a statement in the house where they discussed various awareness programs as planned by the ministry. However, the ministry never accepted the bill and neither was the issue ever discussed in any of the houses of the Indian Parliament.
But the questions is, is it extraordinary to make menstruation a part of the political discourse? The reality is, in a democracy like India every law is passed by both the houses of the Parliament where the public representatives or the lawmakers come from various political parties, therefore, till the time menstruation stays out of the political discourse there cannot be any law in terms of menstrual health, or hygiene, including the discussion on menstrual leave.
To get a world perspective, there are many countries, like Japan, which have the provision of menstrual leave and these countries also have democratic political structure. In the year 1947, Japan passed the law of menstrual leave, right after World War II. South Korea too has been following that since 2001.
In India, menstrual leave is a provision only in the state of Bihar. “While not commonly known, in India, the Bihar Government has been offering two days of period leave to women employees since 1992. Women can decide which two days of the month they would like to take off without having to provide any justification for doing so,” noted an article published in the Business Line magazine.
Standing in 2019, there is no doubt that Indian politics has a very patriarchal nature and is extremely male-dominated. Women Reservation Bill has been pending in the Parliament for years and there is no political consensus over this bill.
This time after the Lok Sabha election, India got nearly 14% of women representatives in the Parliament. With only 14% women representation, how much could be done to take issues like menstruation in the political discourse that only time will tell. Historically, in India, the political discourse has always been silent about the women related issues.
Women representatives of political parties also rarely came together to make such issues a part of political discourse as there is a huge political divide in the political parties. The male-dominated political structure in India has always focused on issues of ideology, corruption, unemployment and economic models. Before every election, every political party in India comes up with its manifesto which is supposed to be a vision plan. This time the manifestoes of the major political parties created a lot of buzz, but in none of the manifestos was there any vision for menstrual hygiene, which is precisely why menstruation is still out of the political discourse in India.
The menstrual taboo is so distinct among political parties that it vividly came out in front of us after the Sabarimala verdict. “The Supreme Court has struck down a rule that disallowed girls and women in the 10-50 age group from entering the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Chief Justice Dipak Misra, who headed the Constitution bench in a 4-1 verdict, said the temple rule violated their right to equality and right to worship,” noted an Economic Times report. But just after the verdict protests and violence ensued across Kerala.
The Hindu nationalist groups created a ruckus and stopped women from entering the temple, after which a review petition was filed in the Supreme Court. This is the reality of Indian political discourse. People are still not ready to disparage the myths associated with menstruation and believe that menstruating women should not go to a temple as they are considered ‘impure’.
In India, a number of women in the reproductive age group (15–49 years) is more than 31 crores (Census 2011). The Central government has incorporated some of the basic awareness programs about menstrual health. “The campaigns like Swachh Bharat: Swachh Vidyalaya have some clauses related to menstrual health. Swachh Bharat: Swachh Vidyalaya campaign has been launched to ensure that every school in India has a set of functioning and well-maintained WASH facilities including soap, private space for changing, adequate water for washing, and disposal facilities for used menstrual absorbents,” noted a research article published in Indian Journal of Public Health.
The article further noted, “High quality and highly subsidized sanitary napkins are being made available to the adolescent girls in rural areas by Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and “Training Modules for ASHA on Menstrual Hygiene” are also used for their capacity building. The SABLA program of Ministry of Women and Child Development has incorporated awareness generation on MHM as an important initiative to improve health, nutrition, and empowerment for adolescent girls.”
The government has also launched sanitary napkins Suvidha in packs of four priced at Rs 10 and the awareness is being done through advertisements.
Lastly, all these above initiatives are not only menstrual hygiene related initiatives but in most of the cases, these are a part of some large campaigns. As a result, there has been no proper report or monitoring of these programs and because menstruation is not a part of the political discourse, the implementation of these initiatives never got momentum in most states.
The state governments also have some similar initiatives but there has not been any report card of the outcome. None of the governments ever came out with any report card on the success rate of menstrual hygiene schemes. The political fraternity of India seems to be oblivious to the importance of incorporating this subject in the daily discourse.