Over the last year, Congress MP Sushmita Dev, and many others have taken part in campaigns to make sanitary pads tax free or, at least place them in a lower tax bracket than the current 12%. Even as these appeals seem to fall on deaf ears, numbers from the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey – 4 reveal that 62% Indian women between the ages of 15 to 24 use cloth as protection when they menstruate. The survey covered 244,500 women across all states and union territories in India.
The figures further revealed that 58% women in the age bracket between 15 to 24 used a hygienic form of menstrual protection. It is not clear, however, how many women who use cloth while menstruating are also using it in a hygienic manner.
It is also noticeable that the incidence of sanitary pad usage is lower in rural areas and among those from Scheduled Tribes. 71% women used cloth in rural areas as did 75.4% of those belonging to Scheduled Tribes.
Other patterns as quoted in the survey were:
- Women with 12 or more years of schooling are more than four times as likely to be using a hygienic method as women with no schooling (81% versus 20%).
- Women from the highest wealth quintile are more than four times as likely to use a hygienic method as women from the lowest wealth quintile (89% versus 21%).
- 48% percent of rural women use a hygienic method of menstrual protection, compared with 78% of urban women.
The numbers reflected similarly for states in the south as well.
In Andhra Pradesh*, “56% use sanitary napkins, 43% use cloth, 12% use locally prepared napkins, and 3% use tampons. Overall, 68% of women age 15-24 use a hygienic method of menstrual protection.”
In Kerala*, “48% use cloth and 85% use sanitary napkins, 6% use locally prepared napkins, and 1% use tampons. Overall, 90% of women age 15-24 use a hygienic method of menstrual protection.”
In Karnataka*, “56% of young women use cloth, 45% use sanitary napkins, 24% use locally prepared napkins, and 8% use tampons. Overall, 70% of women age 15-24 use a hygienic method of menstrual protection.”
In Telangana*, “60% of women age 15-24 use sanitary napkins, 33% use cloth, 18% use locally prepared napkins, and 3% use tampons. Overall, 76% of women in age 15-24 use a hygienic method of menstrual protection.”
In Tamil Nadu*, “65% use sanitary napkins, 32% use locally prepared napkins, 16% use cloth, and 1% use tampons. Overall, 91% of women age 15-24 use a hygienic method of menstrual protection.”
Kerala and Tamil Nadu have the most impressive numbers when it comes to hygienic forms of menstrual protection being used. As the national numbers indicate, there is a clear relationship that and levels of education, living in urban areas (and possibly having better access) to sanitary products.
And while products are cloth are considered environmentally friendly as compared to disposable sanitary napkins, Dr Pushpalatha, a gynaecologist and volunteer of the Green The Red collective, which promotes sustainable menstruate hygiene, also pointed out, “Disposable products also contain chemicals that several women are allergic to and which can be potentially carcinogenic. In fact cloth is a perfectly safe option but the shame attached to menstruation and cultural taboos often lead to its unhygienic maintenance.”
When women used unhygienic methods of menstrual protection, it can adversely affect their reproductive health. For instance, studies have shown that not only does the shame and inconvenience of not having proper menstrual hygiene products can force young girls to drop out of school - according to a study by Rutgers, an advocacy organisation for sexual and reproductive health, 23% girls listed menstruation as the main reason for dropping out of school.
The Rutgers study also had slightly different, but alarming numbers - 89% women used cloth for menstrual protection and 60% of them changed it only once a day. This would make them prone to infections.
This is not to say that reducing tax on sanitary pads will solve the problem of access. When TNM spoke to Sushmita Dev, she agreed. However, she said that it wasn’t possible for her to petition the Finance Ministry about raising awareness, she could only try to make sanitary pads – one of the hygienic menstrual products – more affordable.
Despite the Change.org petition on the same issue getting over three lakh signatures and plenty of social media traction, sanitary pads remained in the 12% tax bracket. Even in November last year when GST rates were revamped and items like deodrants, detergent, shaving and after shave preparations have become cheaper, sanitary napkins did not.
The government, meanwhile, has defended their unwavering stance on taxing menstruating women for a natural process they do not have control over. An official in the GST Council told Hindustan Times that 12% GST was maintained because the polymers used in making these pads and disposable tampons attract a higher GST rate of 18%. This made it difficult to reduce tax on the finished product without adding additional financial burden on the producers. And while a company could claim refund on the unused tax credits, it could be a time-consuming process.
*Respondents may report multiple methods so the sum may exceed 100%