Anita, a 36-year-old cook who works in three households in Delhi, uses cloth during her periods. "I have a daughter and a younger sister to support. There's no way I can afford to buy pads for all three of us," says Anita.
In India, about 50 percent of women aged 15-24 years still use cloth for menstrual protection, according to the 2021 National Family Health Survey (NFHS) report. This is despite research indicating that unsterilised cloth can make the user susceptible to urinary tract infections, HPV infections, and cervical cancer.
Then why do women still use it?
Here's the flipside: On average, a sanitary napkin costs Rs 6-10. A packet of seven pads costs Rs 45. This might seem cheap, but in the larger scheme of things, the recurring 'cost' an Indian woman from the lower-income group has to bear for a sanitary napkin is so much more.
The Quint spoke to six women from across India about the price they pay to access an essential menstrual hygiene product – and here's what they had to say.
'With Cloth, I Can Use as Much as I Want'
Apart from the Rs 12,000 that she earns every month from the three houses she works at, Anita makes another Rs 2,000-3,000 from the additional work she gets when someone requests her to cook for a day or a few days at their house.
Every month, she buys two to three packets of pads, each costing Rs 59, for her sister and her daughter.
Anita believes it would be of great help if governments could distribute pads at dispensaries, the way they give free rations.
So, what would Anita do if she could save the money she spends on sanitary pads every month?
Anita loves experimenting with food and considers herself a chef-in-the-making. "I want to cook in MasterChef. They are taking auditions in a school nearby next month. I want to practise for that by buying some ingredients," she adds, shyly.
'My Daughter Gets Free Pads From School, but...'
"If we didn't have to buy pads, we could have used the money for other things – like more milk and food. But using pads is important, too. I can't imagine using a cloth anymore... it was dirty work," says Aarti (name changed), who works as a beautician in Delhi.
She has two kids – a boy and a girl. Aarti's husband works as a car washer in a colony. He also runs errands for some residents of the colony. Aarti also accompanies him daily and performs beauty services for some of the women living in the colony and a nearby residential area. The family lives in a one-bedroom quarters near the area.
Though Aarti's daughter, Isha, gets sanitary pads from her school free of cost, the 34-year-old has to buy at least two packets of pads, each costing Rs 45.
"She (Isha) asks her teacher for pads, and while madam gives them to her, she shows a lot of reluctance and says so many things before handing over the pads. Madam asks the girls why they don't get pads from home. Also, the quality of the pads they get in school is poor, so they leak easily and have to be changed frequently."Aarti
'If I Keep Buying Pads, How Will We Eat?'
The only earning member of her family of six, Madhavi Rathore is employed as a domestic worker and earns Rs 15,000 a month, of which a major chunk of Rs 5,000 goes towards house rent.
Madhavi used to buy four packets of Stayfree Ultra – each costing around Rs 45 – every month.
"But for the last 3-4 months, I have not been purchasing pads for myself because my daughter has heavy bleeding. One didi asked me to get her checked for fibroids in the uterus, but I do not have money for the scan. So, my daughter uses almost three packets. I use whatever is available, and the rest I manage with cloth," she says.
'The Free Pad Vending Machine Stopped Working...'
"No matter what, I do not want my daughters to be using cloth when they are menstruating as it is not hygienic, and they might be prone to health issues that will end up costing more than a pad ever will," insists Maryam Shaikh, a resident of Pune.
Maryam works as a security personnel at a mall in the city, earning Rs 15,000 monthly. In addition to herself, she has four menstruating daughters. They spend Rs 600-700 on pads every month.
"There was one vending machine in our area which was supplying free pads, it was near the community toilet. But it stopped being refilled after six months. Sometimes, when we are working, we would need to change more than two pads a day, but I sometimes really wait until it definitely needs to be changed, because I do not want to waste a pad that my daughters can use."Maryam
Lack of awareness about menstrual health and age-old stigma associated with periods don't help the situation either.
"My youngest daughter is supposed to get free pad at her school but she never asks for it because she feels that everyone will laugh at her. What is there to laugh in this?" Maryam remarks.
'I'm Scared of Staining...'
The 'shame' of the period stain, which is traditionally associated with 'evil spirits' and bodily embarrassment, is a real fear that often inhibits menstruating women who lack access to sanitary facilities from stepping out into public places.
Subbulakshmi, who works as a nanny in Chennai, shares that she prefers to change her pad frequently because she is worried about staining something at the house where she is employed.
"I use normal Whisper pads and I buy two packets of that. I change at least two-three times because I am very scared of staining something. My mother says that staining clothes with period blood is not a good sign. But I work in a nice place and the didi tells me not to worry. But since I am very scared of staining nice things, I change the pad often."Subbulakshmi
Aged 21, Subbulakshmi is the only earning member of a family of two. She cares for her mother who is a person with disability.
Subbulakshmi spends Rs 150 a month on pads.
'I'd Rather Spend the Money on Milk'
Bindoo, a medical attendant, says she tries to make do with 1.5 packets of the small Whisper pads every month. Sometimes, when the flow is more, she requires two packets. Each packet costs Rs 45.
There are two members in her family – Bindoo and her husband. Both work as medical attendants through the same agency and have 12-hour shifts each day – morning or night.
"Sometimes, even when my pad has reached its full capacity and is wet, I try to wait a few more hours before changing, so that I don't use too many in a day," shares Bindoo.
When asked if she has ever considered switching to cloth to cope with the expense of pads, Bindoo says, "No. I am working in the field of health, so I know it is unhygienic to use cloth. It can cause cancer and other complications during pregnancy, I think."
In India, 64 percent use sanitary napkins, 50 percent use cloth, and 15 percent use locally prepared napkins, as per NSFH data. Overall, 78 percent of women in the 15-24 group use a hygienic method of menstrual protection.
The government should make pads subsidised for women, Bindoo opines. "I have so much back pain and weakness during the first 2-3 days of my period. And I have to do a lot of physical work, like patient lifting and cleaning. I would rather use the money I spent on pads on milk for myself during those days, which would give me more strength to do my work."