Menstruation, also known as a period or monthly is a natural process every woman goes through every month for most of her life. Women use menstruation products such as sanitary pads, tampons, and menstruation cups. But are they easy to come by? Let’s talk about that.
In India, sanitary napkins were at 14.5%. Due to the GST, it came down to 12%. The finance minister had assured Ranjana Kumari, a female activist that sanitary napkins would be made tax-free. According to a study by UNESCO, over 20% students drop out of school after attaining puberty. Due to this, women protested and went on hunger strikes to oppose the tax. Letters addressed to the Finance Minister pointed out that items like sindoor, bangles, and bindis are tax-free. Despite people wearing them out of choice. Whereas sanitary napkins are anything but a luxury, they are a necessity.
A mere 12% of women have access to sanitary napkins according to SheSays, a non-profit organization. The remaining 88% of India’s total population is still surviving on traditional methods like cloth pads, dried leaves, and newspapers. Not only do they have to deal with pain, decreased productivity, and lethargy, they also have to deal with the possibility of being subjected to unhygienic period, health and disposal practices and the perils of cervical cancer and reproductive tract infections. The data also highlights that on an average, adolescent girls miss five days of school every month because of their period. And close to 23% girls drop out of school when they start menstruating.
The campaign #LahuKaLagaan translates to a tax imposed on blood, urges the Finance Minister to exempt hygiene products. The Finance Minister justifies this decision by implying the increase in production costs and the need to protect local manufacturers. Proponents of tax exemption argue that tampons, sanitary napkins, and compatible products constitute basic unavoidable necessities for women and thus should be exempt.
Meanwhile, in global news, Kenya is the first to abolish sales tax for menstrual products, becoming the first to do so. In Australia, the tax on sanitary products is 10% under the goods and service tax. Canada removed its tampon tax in mid-2015 following an online petition signed by thousands. Ireland levies non-value added on tampons, panty liners, and sanitary towels. While other European Union countries can’t create zero-rated value added, Ireland’s exemptions are grandfathered. In the United States, it varies from state to state. Taxations imposed on tampons and other sanitary products include California, New York, and Wisconsin. Tax exemption on feminine hygiene products is in Maine, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.
Back here in India, one man decided to change things. Arunachalam Muruganatham, a social entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu, India is the inventor of the low-cost sanitary pad-making machine. Credited for innovating grassroots mechanisms for generating awareness about traditional unhygienic practices around menstruation in Rural India. His machines produce sanitary pads for less than a third of a cost of commercial pads, have been installed in 25 out of 29 states. And he’s currently planning on expanding production of the machines to 106 nations. In 2014, he was a part of Time’s magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World. In 2016, he was awarded the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honours, by the Government of India.
What brought on this? Upon marrying his wife in 1998, he soon discovered that she collected filthy rags and newspapers to use during her menstrual cycle since sanitary napkins were expensive. Concerned about her health, he decided to make pads himself. He initially made them out of cotton, only to have his wife and sister reject them. Until they stopped cooperating, unwilling to discuss their menstrual issues with him. With no other choice left, he tried them out himself, using a bladder filled with animal blood. Soon, the village found out, ridiculing and calling him names. Unable to take this, his wife as well. He was shunned by his family and the village only because of the topic of menstruation is a taboo in India.
It took him two years to discover that commercial pads used cellulose fibres derived from pine bark wood. The fibres helped the pads absorb while still retaining their shape. The imported machines that made pads would come up to INR 35 million. So, he decided to develop a cheaper alternative that anyone with minimal training could operate. His machine would grind, de-fibrate, press, and sterilize using ultraviolet before packaging it for sale. It costs INR 65,000. He visited IIT Madras in 2006, to show his idea and they registered it for the National Innovation Foundation Grassroots Technological Innovations Award. And he won. He then founded Jayaashree Industries, which now markets these machines to Rural India. Despite several corporal entities to commercialize his venture, he refuses to sell and continues to provide these machines to self-help groups (SHGs) run by women.
Women in prison or homeless shelters don’t have access to personal hygiene products because they’re expensive and are under pressure to use rags or nothing at all to deal with their period. Despite this, many people believe that women want the tax exempt for no reason. When we want it done because menstruation isn’t something we control. We don’t menstruate just because we can. A condom isn’t a luxury, despite being a necessity, people choose to use a condom. We, on the other hand, don’t have a choice. Basic hygiene is a necessity, especially when we menstruate. We live in a world, where a condom is tax-free and sanitary products, a luxury. And that needs to change.
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