[A very large percentage of young women do not have access to a hygienic method of menstrual protection, and the request made by the student was a valid one. I write in Women's Web.]
At a workshop on Empowered Daughters, Prosperous Bihar, a student from an economically marginalised family asked Harjot Kaur Bamhrah, Managing Director of Bihar’s Women Development Corporation whether it was possible for the Government to give sanitary pads to students of government schools.
Instead of acknowledging the very valid demand, the IAS officer responded by saying that there was no end to such demands. She went on display her utter lack of sensitivity by arrogantly adding, “Tomorrow you will say the government can give jeans pants too. And after that why not some beautiful shoes? Eventually, when it comes to family planning you will expect the governemtn to give you family planning methods and condoms too. Why is there a need to take everything for free?”
As a senior IAS officer, Ms. Bamhrah should have refrained from insulting the student who made a perfectly valid request, especially at a workshop presumably organised to ‘empower’ young women. More importantly, as the government officer in charge of implementing schemes for women and children in the state, she should have been aware of the ground reality.
As per a 2014 report nearly 23 million girls drop out of school annually due to non-availability of sanitary napkins and/ or lack of awareness about menstruation practices. The sure shot way to empower young women is through Education, and providing sanitary pads and safe toilets is one way of ensuring students aren’t forced to drop out of school after attaining puberty.
The statement made by Ms. Bamhrah also displayed her sheer privilege.
While most of us live in cities where you can easily purchase sanitary pads from groceries and pharmacies, the distribution network often doesn’t extend to rural areas. In most villages, even of you can afford it, you cannot just walk into a store and purchase sanitary napkins. According to the National Family Health Survey, 2015-16, the percentage of women in the age group 15-24 years who use sanitary napkins is 58% in urban areas and 48% in rural areas. This clearly shows that a very large percentage of young women do not have access to a hygienic method of menstrual protection, and the request made by the student was a valid one.
This is just the tip of the iceberg that considers sanitary napkins a non-essential item…
Though Ms. Bamhrah, IAS, on account of her gender and the position she occupies should certainly know better, she is not alone in considering sanitary napkins an non-essential item.
The recent floods in Pakistan affected over 33 million people, of whom nearly 7 million have been internally displaced. While humanitarian organizations swung into action to deliver food, water, medicines and other essentials to the people in relief camps, the women soon realised that the relief packages didn’t include sanitary napkins. When they understood the issue, women and women’s groups swung into action and started mobilizing and distributing sanitary napkins to the women in relief camps.
When a few women took to social media to raise funds for this, they faced an immediate backlash from men who decided that sanitary napkins were not ‘essential goods’ and that relief organizations should concentrate on food, water and medicines only.
Some of the statements made by men showed how little they understood the issue, on which they had such a strong opinion. They said things like-
“Why do women need sanitary napkins? They can use a rag or something.”
“The women can sit in a corner and the shalwar will soak up the blood. Pads are not essential.”
“In case of emergency like flooding etc, women can endure with blood & without fear of infection etc. Women are biologically equipped to deal with that. Where people are dying food/water is most important things. Napkins can wait…”
Some even came up with dubious statements like “During situations of stress, the pH of the urine changes, and this temporarily stops menstruation”.
Needless to say, most of the people had only a vague understanding of the physical and psychological issues around menstruation, yet, they felt they were competent to declare that sanitary napkins were not essential items, and therefore their distributions should not be prioritised.
Ideally, all relief kids given to families with women who are menstruators should include sanitary napkins, but people seemed to have an issue even with women raising funds for procuring and distributing sanitary napkins to the flood affected women!
Yet, sanitary napkins are a genuine need. During the Kerala floods some of my colleagues were involved in supplying food and other materials to the people in relief camps. While they were grateful for the support, a few women took the female colleagues aside and whispered that they desperately needed sanitary napkins for themselves and their daughters. When they received them, they were extremely grateful, because some of them were so embarrassed of their blood-stained clothes, they didn’t even want to go to the toilets for fear that someone may see them and judge them.
Lack of sanitary products and toilets reduces access to public spaces
Seeing how aggressively some people declare that sanitary napkins are not an essential item, I often wonder if denying sanitary napkins to women is a way of reducing their mobility.
There is immense stigma associated with menstruation, and unless she has a fool-proof menstrual product, a women will not go out in public during her periods for fear of potentially exposing herself. Restricting access to sanitary napkins keeps them bound to the house for a few days every month, and this would affect their education, employment prospects and their participation in community activities.
It does not take genius to understand that in order to increase public participation of women, it is imperative that sanitary napkins be provided to women who either do not have access to them or cannot afford to purchase them, and sufficient awareness created on usage and safe disposal of these products.
That is the main reason why it is so distressing to find women in positions of power being so insensitive and ignorant about the challenges faced by women.
However, I do hope that after this controversy, more people will understand some of the challenges faced by women and girls, and display greater sensitivity towards finding solutions that work.