The government, which imposes these taxes, clearly does not apply its mind enough to realise that marriage is a choice, but menstrual cycles are not.
The central government, which has been touting saccharine schemes like Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, has undone whatever good it may have intended to cause with a 12% GST on sanitary napkins. The move has been widely criticised, with various campaigns urging Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to exempt the basic hygiene product from tax as the Kerala government distributes free napkins to schoolgirls. Why is female hygiene even being considered a luxury, asks Priyam Chhetri
Women may have made great strides in various fields in the country, but scratch the surface and attitudes have barely changed. In government, at least, the understanding of women’s issues seems still at a very nascent stage.
Consider this : Women in India can today buy bangles, sindoor and bindis tax- free, but not essentials like sanitary napkins. The government, which imposes these taxes, clearly does not apply its mind enough to realise that marriage is a choice, but menstrual cycles are not. Sadly, while the world celebrates Menstrual Hygiene Week that seeks to break the taboo around periods, Indian women are paying a considerable amount of tax on something as basic as menstrual hygiene products. Not surprisingly, they are hardly enthused by the recent decision to exempt bangles and sindoor under the Goods and Services Tax , but tax sanitary napkins upto 12 per cent in the country.
Not willing to be pacified by the 2.5 per cent fall in tax from the previous 14.5 per cent, women activists argue it makes no significant difference and are unwilling to give Karnataka the kudos either for its still lower rate of tax on sanitary napkins.
"It is absolutely unfair to make us pay for something that is a natural process, a bodily function. The GST should be uniform and at the lowest at least. Karnataka is a lower five per cent but even so the problem remains," says menstrual health activist and founder of MITU (Multiple Initiatives Towards Upliftment) Foundation, Kala Charlu, warning that the older generation of women is more at risk.
Ms Kala, whose organisation works with women and adolescent girls in the rural areas of Karnataka reveals that while the younger girls, who have been in touch with the urban areas, strive to use pads, the older married women in the community still do not use napkins. " Un-sanitised cloth, ashes, and husks are usually the alternatives," she adds ruefully.
Arguing that the tax exemption for bangles, sindoor and bindis serves no purpose other than promoting religious traditions, women’s rights activist, Asha Ramesh, from the city says it is absolutely ridiculous to tax something as necessary as food to women. "It appears to be more about religious beliefs when menstrual hygiene products are taxed and sindoor and the like go tax -free!" she observes regretfully.
The tax on the napkins is not going to help matters any as going by the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, while 81.6 per cent of women in urban areas of Karnataka opt for hygienic methods during menstruation, as much as 37.9 per cent of women in rural areas still do not use sanitised or safe materials inspite of the Shuchi Yojane of the state Department of Family and Health. Rolled out in 2014, the scheme provides sanitary napkins to women in rural Karnataka free of cost, through schools and anganwadis.
But Dr Veena V, Deputy Director and programme implementer of Shuchi is hopeful. "As we target girls between 10 to 19 years of age I think over time we will see a considerable change in this number. As these girls step into their twenties they will become more aware because of the yojane and hopefully, the trend will continue," she says.
But is distributing pads free of cost enough to promote menstrual hygiene? Absolutely not, says Ms Ramesh, who has worked with rural women through various organisations. "Do these schools where they are distributed even have running water or electricity? Is anyone monitoring the usage or the disposal of the pads? Without this this sort of a scheme is bound to fail, " she warns.
Petition to make pads tax-free
A petition to remove tax from sanitary napkins was started in March earlier this year by Member of Parliament, Sushmita Devi, who represents Silchar in Assam, to increase affordability of menstrual hygiene products. The petition gained momentum on social media and now has 302,890 supporters.
Sustainable menstrual hygiene methods
For women, their monthly period comes not just with discomfort and pain in a lot of cases, but also with the added burden of disposing of the sanitary napkins or tampons used. While the BBMP is not doing a great job of collecting sanitary waste for disposal along with the rest of the garbage, the methods used to destroy the napkins are still being debated.
Menstrual health activist and founder of MITU (Multiple Initiatives Towards Upliftment) Foundation, Kala Charlu says rural schools and PU colleges are quite willing to install electric incinerators to take care of them, but more often than not the toilets are located far away from the main school buildings and do not have electricity. "So it is futile to install such incinerators there," she explains, adding that in villages with large expanses of land, it might seem right to dump them in landfills but this too could have long term effects.
Considering the problems involved in disposal, sustainable methods of menstrual hygiene are now becoming the new ‘in’ thing. It is being suggested that menstrual cups and re-useable cloth napkins should be used in place of sanitary pads and tampons. "There are three reasons why they are becoming popular. One being its good for the environment as they don’t clog drains or emit fumes and secondly, it is good for your genital health as it is free of chemicals and doesn’t give you pesky rashes. Finally, it is a one time investment that lasts a long time," contends Ms Sugandhi Gadhadhar, a city based sustainable menstruation crusader.
But Dr. Anu Sridhar, Obstetrics Gynecologist at Fortis Hospitals Bannerghatta, does not buy the argument and recommends sanitary napkins any day over the new methods suggested. "There are dangers of serious reproductive tract infections, boils and fungal infections if sanitised and safe materials are not used. It should be taken very seriously," she warns, adding, "As far as reusable pads go, there are similar issues that arise just like with cloth. Cups have a learning curve and are better than reusable pads. But I think sanitary napkins remain the best."
Breaking the silence campaign
A group of 150 bikers rode for raising menstrual hygiene awareness in the city on May 28, the designated International Menstrual Hygiene Day, covering 40 kms within the city, starting from Town Hall. The length of the ride signified the time period for which women generally menstruate, that is 40 years. Mayor Padmavathi G and Bengaluru Police Commissioner, Praveen Sood flagged off the rally.
Guest column: We won’t stop fighting until napkins are made free, says Urmila Chanam
Clearly the government of India sees women’s hygiene as a luxury. It seems to think that sanitary napkins are a luxurious commodity and it is stances like these that show us where we stand as a fraternity. Women’s rights activists have been fighting for the cause, but the government seems unaware of our problems. I think as a country we are living in denial. The tax levied is an indicator of how much the issue is negated.
The fight for menstrual hygiene goes beyond tax exemption, although it is very important too. The subject is still taboo even as we stand here in the 21st century proud of how developed we have become. One does not need to look further than one’s own home to recognise the problem. Married women are asked to delay their period by taking pills so that they can participate in a ritual, which takes a toll on their health, or are shunned altogether. This is a violation of their human rights.
More and more women are coming together and empowering each other and this feminism is said to be causing a divide among men and women. But these women are not seeking attention or asking to be worshipped. All they want is to be treated as equals, say goodbye to menstrual taboos, and better laws and reforms around the subject. Men shouldn’t lag behind either as they have for far too long been a part of the problem. They now need to come forward and be a part of the solution. The fight is still on, and we will not stop till the napkins are sold tax free or at minimal cost.
The writer is a menstrual health activist and winner of the global award for Voices of Our Future Award by World Pulse