Scotland has just passed the Period Products (Free Provision) Act becoming the first country to provide universal and free menstrual products to women. In the meanwhile in India, 23 million girls have to drop out of school each year because of the lack of menstrual facilities. What is it that makes periods so hard to manage in India?
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
Scotland has passed the Period Products (free provision) Act and become the first country to provide universal and free access to menstrual products for all people who need them. This move comes after a four-year long grassroots campaign spearheaded by Scottish Labour’s health spokeswoman, Monica Lennon. This movement has effectively transformed the public discourse around menstruation in Scotland. All over the world “period poverty” or the struggle to pay for (basic) sanitary pads on a monthly basis is a well-documented phenomenon and for Scottish women this is the moment in which this finally begins to end. While women the world-over celebrate their victory, we must also also look towards our own countries and see where we stand.
While access to menstrual products in India has been improving, especially over the last few years, there are several problems surrounding the issue. As of 2015, only 36% of women in India used sanitary pads or had access to them. While NGOs like Sachi Saheli and Goonj work towards filling this gap, a large portion of women still use cloth (which is sometimes shared with other members of the family) and a small portion still face isolation in sheds removed from the household during their period. After the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST), feminine hygiene products were initially classified as a luxury item and taxed at 12%, in 2018 they were finally declassified after an aggressive campaign largely bolstered by the Bollywood film “Padman” because even on women’s issues, it’s not until a man speaks up that they are taken seriously. A 2014 report by Dasra found that 23 million girls in India drop out of school annually because of lack of menstrual facilities. A 2016 study found that out of a 100,000 girls only half are aware of the concept of periods when they first start having them. To the end of awareness, Procter and Gamble have tied up with the government in Goa to add a module on period education to the curriculum in schools. Their campaign “Touch the Pickle” (based on the Indian superstition that if a menstruating woman touches pickle, it will spoil) has also aimed at ending the stigma around periods.
Gradually, things are getting better. However females have been having periods ever since there were females, so it is worth asking why things were (and in many ways, are) so bad to begin with? Why are menstrual hygiene products, a basic necessity, so difficult for women in India to access after all?
This issue is multi-layered and there are various layers between the layers. It’s a tiramisu that got really creative, but let’s start where it makes most sense — at the money. The fact that the Indian government ever classified period products as a luxury is very telling about the Indian mindset. A majority of Indian women either don’t or aren’t allowed to work and as a result don’t have the financial independence or disposable income to be able to set aside money each month for pads. When women in low-income households are unable to contribute to the influx of money (in any substantial way), their financial role is limited to being as minimal an expense as possible. As it is daughters in many ways are viewed as a large chunk of wedding expenses, and as a result aren’t at liberty to ask for sum of money to be spent on them on an ongoing basis. Period products aren’t viewed as the household necessity that is rice and are treated as optional by the (usually) men who hold the purse-strings in a household. In this environment, making period products a basic necessity that is freely provided by the government would lift this financial burden off of women but governments in democracies are a representation of the mindset of the majority of the population of our country, and our country believed until very recently that if women don’t want to bleed all over themselves, they should have to pay for that luxury.
While there are several organisations and disjointed governmental initiatives to provide sanitary napkins to women in rural areas, the discontinuous supply creates an insecurity which leads to women trying to maximize the use of their existent stock by using each pad for a period longer than stipulated which creates a health hazard. Fundamentally, a part of the problem also lies in the fact that over 95% of women who use sanitary products in India use pads and nothing else. This is where the tiramisu gets creative. It’s not that pads are the cheapest to produce, I would say the menstrual or diva cup obliterates the financial argument in favour of pads entirely, but in India “unmarried” (but what they really mean is virgins) women are deeply discouraged from inserting anything into their vagina. Tampons, for instance, while not necessarily more accessible are more sanitary, more environmentally-friendly and take up less space in terms of storage, but are used only by a fraction of the Indian population mostly limited to big cities. The health of women is not as important as it is to preserve the “virgin” seal on vaginas. Providing menstrual cups to women who face financial and supply-based insecurity would be more economical, more hygienic and easier but it would be useless because we are not even close to a place in social evolution where a mother would tell her daughter to insert anything into her vagina except her husband’s penis on their wedding night. Even Indian advertising on television and to a large extent even the internet only advertises pads, I have never seen an advertisement for tampons or menstrual cups anywhere in this country. That’s the extent of the taboo, even advertisers won’t touch it (but that’s a lot of stuff these days, isn’t it?). Even medically, insertable products are demonized and I’ve known smart educated women who believe every tampon will lead to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) (which is not to say TSS doesn’t exist, but it’s all menstrual products carry their own risks if not used or produced properly).
So we have to provide pads, but there is a great environmental cost to using pads. The cheaper a pad is to produce, the more plastic it uses and while there are initiatives to create environmentally-friendly and affordable sanitary pads by private institutions in India, these initiatives cannot come close to meeting the demand without the support of the scale at while the government-administered Public Distribution System (PDS) functions. In an ideal scenario the government would fund better and more extensive research into menstrual products so they can be produced at a larger scale, be more environmentally-friendly, more comfortable for women and easily accessible. It just does not track that thousands of years of menstruation has yielded one widely acceptable product for period use in a world where I can buy 35 different types of headphones in under a minute and 12-types of natural “male vitality” tablets at the local pharmacy.
At the heart of all of this lies one basic phenomenon: Stigma.
Approaching with rationality there is absolutely no cause for the stigma, but rationality and the patriarchy are not even distant relatives. Personally, I feel the heart of the stigma is an unspoken internalisation of the fact that a menstruating women is definitely not fulfilling her biological duty of being pregnant. Moreover, we demonize women from the second they hit puberty (refer: sterotype of “emotional, crazy teenaged girls”). The cause of the stigma being whatever it is, it is perpetuated by a single force and that is religion and its impact on culture. Holy scriptures themselves consider women impure because they are shedding their endometrial lining. Women are disallowed from participating in religious ceremonies and entering temples while on their period. I have personally witnessed a pandit holding an aarti asking all menstruating women to vacate the premises and cite impurity (in exactly those terms) as the cause. I have also personally witnessed new-age Hindu “lifestylers” disseminate information through whatsapp about the “scientific” reason for women not being allowed in temples etc on their period and I just wish they could all get refunds from their schools and colleges and then just, go the fuck away. Education has failed you, and you have failed the women in your country.
It is no good to laud women as goddesses who bear life when the specific functions of bearing life have led to little girls dying while locked away in sheds to bleed their impurities away from society. It’s no good to celebrate the birth-potential of women when we simultaneously consider this potential dirty and treat women as inherently dirty creatures (seriously, my stepson won’t wash around his neck and ears unless I lean into the bathroom and remind him to do it and girls are the dirty ones?). No matter how you put it, religion reduces women’s roles and then demonizes women for our biological functions. It’s no good having a pooja to mark the occasion of your daughter’s first period if after that pooja she will never be allowed in another. It’s hypocrisy at its finest. I have been groped, attacked and abused by men while inside temple premises under the garb of “fervent religious festivity” and this doesn’t hurt any sentimentsb(probably because I wasn’t groped by a muslim boy), but a woman bleeding out of her vagina is too much for a temple to bear.
With the strong foundation of this stigma, social stereotypes about periods flourish and misinformation about it only deepens the stigma. The superstition about pickle is probably the most common but I have heard a tonne of others — Period pain only occurs in immoral women with bad habits. Women should not exercise while on their period. Women should not shower (why?). Women should not wash their hair — it’s an endless array of bullshit that ensures one thing. It ensures that the silence and shame around periods continues. Women should keep their periods a secret and deal with all allied issues in private. That is at the heart of why menstrual hygiene is not a bigger, more widespread subject of public health, because it is seen as each individual woman’s secret problem.
That’s why cutting taxes and providing 5-boxes of pads a year to each family isn’t enough. It doesn’t do what information, law, empowerment, lack of stigma and governmental support are able to do. The access to period products does not deserve to be only a fringe movement when it is pertinent to half the population. My menstrual blood should not be depicted as blue on television to protect the sensibility of the (religious) patriarchy especially when women are secretly drowing in the very real, very red (and sometimes brown) blood of stigma.