The Modi government is reportedly planning to launch a Rs 12,000 crore scheme to ensure women have access to sanitary napkins across India. Pegged on its popular Re 1/pad Suvidha brand, this is part of the plan unfurled on the 15th of August when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, mentioned the government initiatives towards menstrual hygiene and women empowerment. Prime Minister Modi said in a part of his speech, “The government has always been concerned about the health of our daughters and sisters. Through 6000 Janaushdhi centres, about 5 crore women have got sanitary pads at Re 1.”
What is the Re1 Sanitary Napkin Scheme?
Since 2018, under the Suvidha brand, pads for Rs2.5 per piece were made available in Janaushadhi stores around the country. They were made available at Re 1 per pad since August 2019. Januashadhi stores are set up to provide access to generic medicines and sanitation products countrywide. The pads are also oxo-biodegradable, which means they break down into “tiny pieces in the presence of oxygen and may then slowly biodegrade”. India’s sanitary napkin usage is at 500 crore units per annum, the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers projects a yearly requirement of 12,000 crores to keep the scheme running.
The scheme has always been touted as a step towards women empowerment. At various occasions, the central government has expressed its goal of making sanitary napkins universally available. However, since the inception of the Suvidha pads scheme, there have been reported gaps in supply and demand. Often Janaushadhi stores do not have them due to delayed supply chains and constrained manufacturing. Further, the awareness about this scheme is also very low, due to which most people still use cloth rags or purchase much more expensive pads that are available in the market. The Suvidha pads are reportedly smaller than napkins made by other companies.
Where does India stand in the case of Menstrual Hygiene?
According to one study, only 36% of India’s 355 million menstruating females use sanitary napkins, while the rest use old rags, husk, ash, leaves, mud and soil and such other life-threatening materials to manage their flow. This is due to the high rate of sanitary napkins in the market and also lack of awareness and accessibility to menstrual hygiene products. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, about 58% of women aged between 15 years and 24 years use locally prepared napkins and tampons. These are linked with infections like UTI’s and TSS. Also, the lack of access to sanitary napkins leads to severe constraints on women’s education and participation in the workforce.
Nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually after they start their periods, according to a 2014 study by DASRA. In India, an estimated 70% of all reproductive diseases are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.
How far will these Scheme go in the case of Menstrual Hygiene?
We reached out to Suhani Jalota, Founder, Myna Mahila Foundation for her views on the scheme. She adds, “The Re 1 sanitary napkin scheme launch is a mixed bag – universal access to sanitary napkins is necessary and this scheme could help India get there, but it does not tackle the most difficult challenges in improving menstrual health conditions in India. The most difficult challenge is not how to get sanitary napkins into rural homes – Coca Cola has already figured that out! The most difficult problems are around the usage of menstrual health products – How many hours are pads being used for in a day and are they still being used in combination with other products such as old rags (many girls keep it on for more than 12 hours a day)! Is there still a stigma surrounding menstrual health (girls are still afraid to speak about their bodies, worsening health and social outcomes)? What is the quality of the menstrual products being provided (government schemes have been infamous even in the past of providing very low-quality pads to provide them cheaply)? Of course, disposal concerns are of priority too, and we do not have a way to manage this disposal at all in the current state of matters.”
Taboos related to menstruation are still a major issue. As reported by DASRA, only 48% of girls knew about menstruation before getting their first period. Education about menstrual hygiene is still not actively taken up in schools and when it is done it is after girls have been experiencing periods for 3 and 4 years already. Thus there is a shame attached to it. The lack of inclusion of men into such conversations just adds to it.
Can we call Menstrual Hygiene, Women Empowerment?
“The most dangerous thing we could do is think that this scheme will solve the menstrual health-related problems in India. It is being used to “highlight the government’s efforts towards women’s healthcare and empowerment”, but their job towards women’s healthcare and empowerment only starts here. The longest road is ahead, not behind. Providing napkins is a necessity, and providing it as a scheme isn’t “empowering” them, it’s only providing them with the basics they need. Does the government providing water empower you? So then why should simply provision of pads empower you? It’s the education and understanding that goes along with it that breaks the taboo and stigma that would make a difference in empowerment” adds Jalota.
To comprehensively ensure menstrual hygiene, there are a host of other provisions required. Access to clean water and soap means for disposing of pads in school, access to toilets is also which is required. Further, anaemia is still widely prevalent among adolescent girls.
“So, while we need to provide sanitary napkins, let us not forget this does not mean we have solved the problems of women’s healthcare. This is the only one-millimetre tip of the iceberg. Everything else is less glamorous, a lot harder to do, and the government is not taking these subjects up. It’s a refreshing change to see the Indian Prime Minister talking about sanitary napkins. However, let’s not laud the government for this scheme – rather accept it with the acknowledgement that they are simply doing their job, and be critical of it to ensure that the long path ahead around awareness generation and stigma breaking is taken.”
Anureet Watta is an Intern for SheThePeople TV.