IAS officer Harjot Kaur Bamhrah, who also heads Bihar’s Women and Child Development Corporation, has been getting flak for her snarky response to a schoolgirl asking her about the possibility of the government subsidising menstrual care products and making them available for Rs 20-30.
"The government is already giving a lot. Today, you want a packet of sanitary napkins for free. Tomorrow, you may want jeans and shoes, and later, when the stage comes for family planning, you may demand free condoms as well," she said.
She received a lot of flak after the video, which was taken at an event organised by the Bihar Women and Child Development Corporation and UNICEF, went viral. And although Bamhrah has now expressed regret about her barb, her remarks have once again sparked the debate surrounding period equality and better accessibility to menstrual care products in the country.
The sad truth is that as shocking as Bamhrah's rebukes sound, she echoes the popular rhetoric surrounding menstruation and menstrual products – Are they really that essential? Why should the government have to shell out taxpayer money for 'personal products'?
We asked experts – and this is what they had to say about incorporating menstrual health in state healthcare policies.
'Subsidies Are Not Freebies'
According to the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) report released in 2021, in India, about 50 percent of women aged 15-24 years still use cloth for menstrual protection, making them susceptible to local infections.
Both social and economic backgrounds play a role in the choices made by women, with the use of cloth being higher among women from rural areas (at 57.2 percent) compared to those from urban areas (at 31.5 percent).
Speaking to FIT, Dr Aqsa Shaikh, a community medicine specialist based in Delhi, says, "This (subsidised menstrual products) is shown as an act of charity done by the government...almost like a favour for the people. Every citizen of the country pays tax, and on the basis of that, the government provides services; it is not charity."
"It's sad to see that someone who is an IAS officer has responded in such a way to a young schoolgirl who only suggested if it would be possible to provide sanitary napkins at a subsidised rate. Not for free."Dr Aqsa Shaikh
In her retort, Bamhrah had asked why one should depend on the government for it and told the student to save up and buy them for herself.
Mohita, SRHR-J, Program Coordinator at The YP Foundation, tells FIT: "The comment itself is so uninformed and coming from such a place of privilege. The level of unawareness here is so shocking."
"Some people's daily wage itself is around Rs 50. If they expect someone to be able to shell out 30 bucks from that just for menstrual health products, that is stupidity."Mohita [They/Them], Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights-Justice, Program Coordinator at the YP Foundation
Why Should the Government Provide It?
The idea of subsidising menstrual care products to make them more accessible is hardly revolutionary. In fact, governments have, over the years, come up with various schemes to do just that.
For instance, in 2019, the government, under the Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana, launched a scheme selling biodegradable sanitary napkins called ‘Suvidha’ for Re 1 at around 5,500 Jan Aushadhi Kendras in the country.
Several states, including Kerala and Punjab, have also launched schemes providing sanitary napkins for free.
In fact, keeping free sanitary pads for students is a requirement in most government schools in most states, says Kehkasha, SRHR-J, Associate at The YP Foundation.
Of course, to what extent these schemes are reaching the people in practice differs from place to place, adds Mohita.
"While some schools follow this beautifully, in other schools, students are not even informed that such a provision exists."Mohita [They/Them]
By the Way, Condoms Are Subsidised Too
"Next, you will ask for free nirodh (condoms)," is another remark Bamhrah made as a way of underscoring how outlandish the student's request is.
But here's the thing, free condoms are, in fact, provided in government hospitals and clinics.
"The provision of contraceptives is a part of the National Family Planning Programme. And it's something that the government should continue to do."Dr Aqsa Shaikh
Moreover, the government has also put a price ceiling on how much you can sell condoms for in India.
In April 2021, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority revised the Annual Wholesale Price Index (WPI), increasing the price cap on regular condoms to Rs 9.15 per piece.
These are all welfare measures by the government in order to make condoms more accessible and promote safe sex and population control.
What Happens When Menstruators Don't Get Access to Period Products?
"When there is a lack of access to menstrual health products, when they can't afford them, the things they are forced to use are wet soil, dried leaves, cloth, because of which the risk of infections, RTIs, and UTIs, go up, which can seriously effect the sexual and reproductive health of the person," says Mohita.
"Even if they are using sanitary napkins, if you keep it on for an extended period of time, it can become dangerous, and can increase the risk of infections," adds Dr Aqsa Sheikh.
"It's not enough to use sanitary napkins. You also have to change them frequently, which people are not able to do because of high costs."Dr Aqsa Shaikh
Not only that, "The number of dropouts from government schools and low-income private schools is very high among girls around the age when they hit puberty, because of menstruation," says Mohita.
And those who don't drop out are forced to skip school for those four to five days every month.
A campaign carried out by sanitary napkin brand, Whisper, in 2022, found that 1 in 5 girls in India drops out of school when their menstrual cycle begins.
In that sense, it very much ties into the right to health and education, and "it has to be seen as an essential healthcare service. It is not a cosmetic," adds Dr Shaikh.
"If government can regulate life-saving medicines, there should be no reason why they shouldn't regulate sanitary pads. I mean there is price regulation on stent implants. So, why not menstrual hygiene products, which are as lifesaving?"Dr Aqsa Shaikh
"Dignified periods are a right and as long as we continue to treat products as a luxury for menstruators and keep perpetuating period stigmas, we will continue to hear jarring statistics like 1 in 5 girls dropping out of school because of their periods," says Niharika Sharma, co-founder of Paint It Red, another NGO that works to promote menstrual rights.
Access and Awareness
Most menstruators who can't afford them, "continue to acquire pads and management products at cost or through social sector organisations," adds Niharika.
"At Paint It Red, we work to address issues of access through the distribution of a sustainable period kit. Other organisation in the MHM sector are also dedicated to similar endeavours."Niharika Sharma, co-founder of Paint It Red
While these are great initiatives by NGOs and individuals, they shouldn't absolve the state authorities of their duties.
"The government has recently launched a programme where the civil society can donate sanitary napkins to schools. In these kinds of schemes, individuals and businesses are spending money to provide sanitary napkins to poor students in schools rather than the government, shifting the onus of providing these essential services from the government to the civil society, which is a dangerous concept," says Dr Aqsa.
'Period Poverty Is Not Only Accessibility To Period Products, but Also Lack of Awareness'
This further propels taboo, misinformation, and ignorant takes on menstrual care.
"We can't bring down the prices of these products. What we can do is spread awareness about menstrual health," says Mohita. "Because if you are not informed enough, how can you advocate for your rights?" they go on it say.
"When it comes to inequality and inequity, mindset and prejudice play a vital role," adds Keykasha.