Lahu Ka Lagaan: Dear GST Committee, Why is My Bleeding a Luxury?
In the recent hullaballoo over GST, many brands have jumped at the opportunity to declare discounts and sales. But all we could think about was – how are we going to explain to the girls and women in our Sexual and Reproductive Health Programmes that the sanitary pads we had been teaching them to use would now be more expensive?
Most girls in our programmes come from underprivileged backgrounds and rural or tribal areas of Thane without much access to clean water and sanitation. In these circumstances, sanitary pads were treated as a boon that enabled them to attend school.
We knew we'd have a hard time explaining to them that the government has classified sanitary products as 'aesh-aaraam ki vastu' (luxury goods), but we did tell them – and this is what they had to say*:
*translated from Marathi
These are girls from the rural areas of Thane who spoke during a Sexual and Reproductive Health workshop organised by Population First.
Decision to Keep Condoms Tax-Free is Strategic
Mobility is a huge issue when it comes to choice of sanitary products. When we are trying so hard to prevent adolescent girls from dropping out of school, is it not the government’s duty to provide the sanitary products free of cost, instead of contributing to make them progressively more expensive?
While we, as a society, struggle to hide the phenomenon of menstruation altogether, the internalised stigma has now made its way to the annals of the GST Committee revealing their insensitivity to women’s issues in general.
It is interesting to note that the Empowered Committee that deliberated over the nuances of GST was heavily male-dominated, with Smt. Vasundhara Raje being the only female member out of a total of 32 members. Moreover, despite several external petitions by politicians across various parties to eliminate the tax on sanitary napkins, the GST Committee has not amended its decision.
The decision to keep all condoms tax free, even the 'ribbed-for your pleasure' ones, is merely a strategic priority keeping in mind the national government’s agenda of population control and the acceptance of sexual activity as inevitable. Policymakers often gloss over the need to involve women in framing policy for themselves, beyond making token efforts to preserve the visible image of the Indian woman endorsed by traditional societal norms. The same is reflected in the aforementioned Committee’s move to make sindoor, bangles and similar “symbols of womanhood” tax-free while keeping the biological realities like menstruation well under wraps.
In a country where nearly 80% of menstruating women still have to resort to unhygienic means such as cloth, sand and even cow dung to deal with their period, exposing them to the risk of severe diseases and even death, the elimination of GST on essential sanitary products should merely be a first step and definitely not an end in itself.
Despite government attempts to subsidise the provision of sanitary napkins to underprivileged girls and women, the schemes have failed to take off at the required scale. In such a scenario, levying increased taxes on sanitary products without providing a viable and efficient alternative may discourage young girls from using them, hence denying them the mobility and freedom they deserve to lead full lives. There is endless potential to tap into the ever growing and relatively inelastic demand for essential sanitary products which only around 12% women in India use at present and will continue to purchase out of necessity.
As our youth supporter Niyoshi Parekh sums up:
As an urban girl, when you walk into a pharmacy, be happy that you’re privileged enough to buy sanitary pads while women in remote places are still forced to use soiled rags and sand to absorb blood they have no control over. Yes, we are privileged, because apparently basic health and hygiene is a luxury.
(This article has been written by Dr Ishmeet Nagpal and Amrita Brahmo, with helpful inputs from Meenal Gandhe and Dr A L Sharada. Dr Ishmeet Nagpal is the Advocacy and Communications Manager at Population First, while Amrita Brahmo is an intern, Meenal Gandhe is a programme manager and Dr A L Sharada is a director at Population First.)