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India Needs Free Menstrual Products, Not A Tax Cut

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

Very recently, Swami Krushnaswarup Dasji of Swaminarayan Bhuj Mandir in a very misogynistic statement labelled menstruating women “bitches” and has deterred people from eating food cooked by them. In light of this statement, India’s patriarchal mindset and an openly misogynistic attitude towards its women has come to the forefront. On one hand, wherein such news pieces are still making it to the headlines of some of the leading newspapers in India, Scotland is soon going to become the first country to provide sanitary pads and tampons free of cost at public places such as community centres, youth clubs and pharmacies, spending a total of 24.1 million pounds.

Can This Be India’s Reality?

In 2018, after months of campaigning, the tax on the sanitary pads in India was removed, which was set at 12% under the Goods and Services Act. It was argued that this would enable more girls to continue schools as periods become one of the primary reasons for girls to drop out of school. This was a welcoming step in a country like India where four out of five women do not have access to sanitary products, tax-free sanitary products will bring some relief in accessing these products.

Though affordability of perfumed sanitary pads is very important, this debate ironically seems to focus on a seemingly small urban population. Periods and the usage of feminine products in rural India are still seen as a taboo and is ingrained with a patriarchal mindset. The market penetration of the companies producing these products is evidential enough to demonstrate that the customer base for these companies is largely urban.

As per a report by Motilal Oswal, there is not enough competition nor penetration when it comes to the products of feminine hygiene. Proctor and Gamble’s product Whisper has a market share of 56% and Johnson and Johnson’s Stayfree and Carefree have a market share of 28%. The other companies like Cortex and Sofy lag far behind. More than the process of making the sanitary pads it is the customs duty levied on the raw materials of the pads such as absorbent polymer and wood pulp that increases the price of these products. This is increased by the establishment costs and general entry barriers for businesses that increase the costs of these products. Thus, with a small number of service providers and a high cost of production of sanitary pads what can be done to ensure that these products are more affordable and easily available?

Tax-Free vs Free Sanitary Napkins  

After the 12% GST has been removed, a pack of 10 sanitary napkins that costs an average of 100 rupees, will cost around 88 rupees. This might be a woman’s monthly expenditure on her menstruation needs. However, considering 70% (Census, 2011) of India’s population live in rural areas and depend on manual labour, 75% of whom survives on 33 rupees per day, the amount of 88 rupees for a packet of sanitary napkins remain very high.

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act which provides employment of 100 days to one family in a year, provides a wage rate of 199 rupees. This payment, however, remains unpaid or families end up getting a wage rate of 100 rupees. The amount of a pack of sanitary napkins still remains somewhere around a poor person’s daily wage. What needs to be done then? Will it be okay to ask for an intervention on part of the government to provide subsidized pads to its population?

In 2010, the Union Ministry, after acknowledging the alarming state of menstrual hygiene in India, launched a 150-crore scheme to increase the access to Sanitary Napkins to adolescent girls in rural areas- providing a pack of six sanitary napkins for Re 1 to BPL families and Rs 5 for families falling under APL. Even though the policy is in place, a very small number of girls report receiving the sanitary pads from the Aanganwadi centres, their schools and the PHC.

In 2015, for the first time, The National Guidelines on Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) were released under the Swachh Bharat Mission. Under the Menstrual Hygiene Management guidelines, the government is also looking at spreading awareness and removing the taboo around menstruation. Though the efforts on paper are commendable, the implementation of these schemes always remains a problem.

An Alternative

It is not just the most popular brands like Whisper and Stayfree that produce sanitary napkins but a large variety of lesser-known brands and people who have been devising ways to make cheaper pads and ensure better accessibility. Lesser-known companies like Aakar Innovations and the Muruganantham Jayshree Industries (Pad Man of India) have devised ways to reduce the production costs of these products and extend these products to Self Help Groups (SHGs). These SHGs enable women to buy their own pad making machine, establish a franchise and continue to produce affordable pads.

If the resource exists within the country, can the government make an attempt to promote these brands by providing them with relevant outlets? Moreover, these products should be made available at public places both in rural and urban areas so as to increase their visibility. Only when these items will be openly available at public places that the conversations will begin to gather some steam in rural and urban centres.

In a study published by the National Journal for Community Medicine, it was found that affordability of sanitary pads is still a secondary problem. The study was conducted in 11 villages of Pune, where 43.2% of girls reported missing schools during their periods the prime reasons for which remains, non-availability of toilets, dirty and waterless toilets.

Under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, the government has claimed to construct 9.5 crore toilets in the country, the majority of which remains in rural India, their usage and availability of water still remain a major problem. In addition to this, the criticism and the futility of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been widely written about. On the outset, the government has seemed to work on the prime cause of the problem- non-availability of toilets and aim to work towards removing the taboos around menstruation through its MHM guidelines. Though a lot can be written about the poor implementation of these schemes, they still exist on the paper.

A step towards providing sanitary napkins at public places free of cost will do nothing but strengthen these government measures. It will take away the burden of responsibility from the young menstruating girls and women. Even now, the responsibility of asking for pads from school authorities and Aanganwadi centres bear the burden of shame and embarrassment on these women.

The decision-making power of financial matters that still remain in the hands of men in most families (both rural and urban), further deters women to ask for money to buy these pads (even though subsidized). Government-supported production of sanitary napkins will motivate more local partners to come into the female hygiene market. The increased competition will bring down the prices of these products, in the long run, making it easier for the government to provide free/highly subsidized sanitary napkins to its people.

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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
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        Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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