Indian women: Second-class citizens in their own land

The Modi government’s silence on the demand for withdrawal of tax on sanitary pads shows women their true place in India

Photo by Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Pragati Saxena

Well-known filmmaker R Balki recently announced a film on the now famous but very modest Arunachalam Muruganantham, who has brought about a revolution in women’s health in South India by introducing affordable and eco-friendly sanitary pads. Ironically, a film on the same issue made by a lesser known filmmaker is given an ‘A’ certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification. Needless to say, it did not go down too well with the intelligentsia. Somehow, sanitary pads have gradually become a point of discussion. People on the social media are talking about it. Many urban, educated women have shed their hesitation and are no longer whispering but speaking aloud.

Photo courtesy: Facebook
Photo courtesy: Facebook
A Facebook post by Geeta Yatharth saying that sanitary pads are more expensive than condoms. Market and governments are simply anti-women
Photo courtesy: Facebook
Photo courtesy: Facebook
Another post by Geeta Yatharth demanding sanitary pads to be tax-free and explaining that girls/women often do not change sanitary pads for an entire day to save money and thus become prone to infections

Yet, the government which prides itself on initiating programmes like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan etc. went conspicuously silent on the demand for waiver of taxes on sanitary napkins so that they become more affordable.

The Congress party MP from Silchar constituency in Assam, Sushmita Dev, started a campaign through her petition on in March for abolition of tax on sanitary napkins. She argues that it is an essential commodity and so it should be exempted from tax as the GST council is likely to exempt about 80 items. It is a valid argument. Her petition evoked huge response from people. Till now, more than 3 lakh people have supported her petition and several MPs have endorsed it. Women on social media are expressing their opinions and problems supporting the cause.

Dev has met the Union Finance Minister, the Union Health Minister and the Union Minister for Women and Child Development. She has also written to the finance ministers of all the states who, she was told, will be discussing the issue at the GST council meet. But as of now, she has not received any response from the council, making it clear that sanitary napkins, in all likelihood, may not be included in the list of exempted items.

So, why this fuss over the sanitary napkin, a thing which has always remained under wraps for decades in India? The Indian government has made the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan an important mission in its development roadmap. Security, health and education of women are also much publicised issues. But menstrual cycle and hygiene, a seemingly insignificant though integral part of every woman’s life, are being completely ignored in this ‘men’s world’.

These are some facts related to menstrual cycles and the ways Indian women deal with it. Dev’s petition includes the following figures from a survey:

  • Only 12 per cent of 355 million women use sanitary napkins in India.

  • Women buy sanitary napkins paying 12 per cent VAT which in some states can go up to 14 per cent.

  • Of the 75 per cent of rural women, who were surveyed, only 2 per cent use sanitary pads.

  • 70 per cent of Indian women cannot afford sanitary napkins.

  • 12 per cent tax is expected to be applicable once GST (Goods and Services Tax) is implemented.

  • Out of India’s 36 states/union territories, only in seven (Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, NCT Delhi, Kerala, Mizoram, Puducherry and Tamil Nadu) did 90 per cent or more women, aged between 15 and 24 years, use hygienic protection during menstruation, according to the latest national health data.

  • Not even 50 per cent women used clean methods of dealing with menstrual hygiene in the eight states/union territories of Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Chandigarh, NCT Delhi, Kerala, Mizoram, Puducherry , Tamil Nadu and Bihar. The average for these eight states was 43.5 per cent, with Bihar faring the worst at 31 per cent, according to the National Family Health Survey-4 (NFHS), released in 2015-16.

  • A Rutgers study revealed that for absorption of menstrual blood, 89 per cent women used cloth, 2 per cent used cotton wool, 7 per cent sanitary pads and 2 per cent ash. Among those who used cloth, 60 per cent changed it only once a day.

The irksome fact is that women are taxed 12 months a year for about 39 years for a process they have no control over. Even condoms and diapers are cheaper than sanitary napkins.

Moreover, menstruation is a taboo subject in India. Only 55 per cent of the girls consider it a normal physical process as a study conducted jointly by Water Aid, PATH, Zariya, Development Solutions and Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council revealed.

Even now, women are considered impure when they are on their periods. The shame attached to menstruation forces many girls to drop out of schools. They do not talk about it and the problems related to it. Rather, they are discouraged from doing so. Many girls don’t even go out of their homes during menstrual periods because of the lack of access to sanitary pads and clean toilets.

In rural India, the situation is the worst. Poor women are forced to use dirty clothes, leaves and even ash for absorption of blood during menstruation. These practices could explain why 14 per cent of women reported menstrual infections as the Rutgers study mentioned above reveals.

Environmental factor

Nearly all sanitary napkins are non-biodegradable since plastic is used in them. The environment and health-friendly pads (made of cotton cloth, cotton) are not easily available in the market where they face stiff competition from the big brands. Making them absolutely tax free can thus give a push to environmental conservation too.

Sanitary napkins are so expensive that even middle-class urban girls are forced to wear them for long hours, making them vulnerable to various kinds of infections. NGOs like Goonj and individuals like ‘Padman’ Arunachalam Muruganantham have been trying consistently to spread awareness about healthy sanitary napkins by making and distributing pads themselves. But such efforts are like little drops in an ocean.

What the government can easily do is to tie up with such organisations and popularise the use of such sanitary napkins all over India through its agencies. But no such effort has yet been undertaken.

When asked why the finance ministers of the states did not respond to her letter, Dev said, “None of them apparently are women. So, they couldn’t have grasped the seriousness of the issue.” This absolute lack of empathy adds to the woes of women.

As the MP succinctly says in her petition, affordability, availability and accessibility are the three things that can put an end to Indian women’s menstrual problems.

But it seems the country that worships women and goddesses for fertility, health and prosperity, the government that spends millions in girl child and women’s welfare schemes, are not really bothered about the health and sanitation of 50 per cent of the population.

Or else, women’s voice about making sanitary napkins cheaper would have found a place amid the humdrum over change and new economic policies for sure.

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