Meeting the hygiene needs of all adolescent girls is a fundamental issue of human rights, dignity, and public health.
~Sanjay Wijesekera, former UNICEF Chief of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene
Women all around the world suffer during the course of their menstruation. But are periods the problem or period poverty? Today, we explore the concept of decommodification of women’s health with respect to India. Menstruation is a normal cycle but it is often treated, by society, as the opposite of normal. It can be a tough time for women as almost 80% of them go through stomach cramps, headaches, bloating, knee pain, fatigue, and nausea during menstruation. Instead of ensuring proper medical care and hygiene, people treat the woman as impure, dirty, and sinful. In many homes, menstruating women are not allowed to enter kitchens and temples. They cannot touch preserved food or holy books and are ridiculed if a period stain ever shows.
Despite having various welfare programs in place, the deeply entrenched patriarchal notions and cultural customs consider women’s education as futile which deters young girls from going to school once they start menstruating. According to the latest figures from Sanitation First , one in five menstruating girls living in poverty in rural India drop out of school when they start their period i.e. 10 million girls every year. The lack of proper sanitation and hygiene acts as a barrier too.
Being a developing country, about 65% of India’s population lives in rural areas with little to no amenities due to the unequal distribution of resources, land, and wealth among the rich and the politically invisible poor class. This inequality creates period poverty as well. Today, 77% girls and women in India use old cloth, which is often reused. Further, 88% of women in India sometimes resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves, and husk sand to aid absorption. This shows an acute shortage of economical menstrual products in India. Poor protection and inadequate facilities increase susceptibility to various health issues like urogenital infections, yeast infections, mental trauma, cervical cancer, etc. This grim situation begs a simple question: should something as essential as menstrual products be a luxury item? Scotland seems to disagree.
Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all. The Period Products (Free Provision) Scotland Act 2021 was enacted in November 2020 by the Scottish Government and received Royal assent in January 2021. The act has made it mandatory for all public institutions like schools, colleges, pharmacies, and universities to provide sanitary products including tampons and pads free of cost in their toilets (and shops). The beneficiaries have the right to obtain different types of period products with relative ease and with reasonable privacy, with a choice to either collect them or get them delivered. The Scottish government provided £5.2m funding to support this at an estimated annual cost of 24 million pounds to the taxpayers ($32 million U.S.) There are also measures in place that allow the government to prevent people from obtaining more products than they reasonably need. All in all, the legislation has been a success.
Returning to India, the government has designated tampons and sanitary pads as luxury items by implementing a 12% tax on them. This sparked an immediate campaign to get the measure revoked, including court challenges and petitions – one of which got more than 400,000 signatures. Finally, India scrapped the ‘tampon tax’ after strong protests and feminist mobilization.
Various other initiatives by the government like Swachch Bharat Abhiyan have been executed to improve sanitation among rural women and in turn, decrease the chances of poor menstrual hygiene. But not much has changed as such measures lack the knowledge of socio-economic situations prevalent around the country. Building toilets act as a band-aid, made to cover the deep scar of gender inequality. The habit of using those toilets, making the spaces safe for women, and inculcating basic hygiene practices should be the first step towards reaching our goal.
This is one of the criticisms of free menstrual products as well. With reference to Kenya’s new amendment to provide all school girls with pads, Bethany Caruso, a Ph.D. fellow in Georgia said, “Giving out pads is only part of what needs to be done to help girls manage their periods. It’s not a silver bullet solution.” Otai, a health advisor in Kenya explained, “In addition to sanitary pads, we have issues of water and sanitation within the schools.” Indeed, toilets need to be habitable so that girls are able to get to school and continue their education even during their period. These should be safe, private places for girls to change their pads.
But India is far from making menstrual products free. Many claim that this measure may lead to an economic burden as the country is already going through a financial crisis with a GDP contraction of 7.3% in 2020-21. But activists would also like to argue that more than the economy, it is about the priorities of the ruling party and what they wish to invest in for its people. These become important conversations to dwell in when 70% of women cannot afford sanitary napkins in our nation. A way could be compensating for the free products by increasing the tax for the rich, as has been done in Scotland.
Moreover, women need to be made the stakeholders. Their needs and thoughts must be taken into account while formulating policies. This can be seen in Scotland where the revolutionary bill was introduced by MSP Monica Lennon who had been extensively campaigning to end period poverty since 2016. Feminist protests and movements in India finally led to the repeal of the tampon tax imposed by the government. The first and foremost step in the fight to decommodify women’s health is education. Awareness around menstruation, women’s health, using sanitary napkins, and disposing of them in a non-hazardous way are key steps. The popularisation of reusable and affordable menstrual cups instead of pads should be done to decrease the burden on the environment. Women’s representation in education and politics can take our nation in the right direction.