by Aarushi Nandi
Women form over half the population of the world and are still miraculously the ‘vulnerable minority’. Multiple problems arise due to this way of thinking but the most widespread, yet the most neglected one is the problem of period poverty. Period poverty refers to the state where a person is unable to access the essential commodities to complete a safe and healthy menstrual cycle. In a country where over one third of the Indian menstruating population lives in period poverty, it is astounding to see that even with progressing times, menstrual rights have not been established to protect them and their rights. Menstrual rights as a legal concept is not acknowledged in the country and it has had a devastating impact over the menstruating population. What many people fail to understand is that when the right to safe menstrual health is infringed upon, it doesn’t only hinder with their right to bleed safely but puts them a step back in their life in all arenas. It affects their right to education, right to employment, right to sanitation, right to health, right to not be discriminated against and in some cases right to live with dignity too. This makes menstrual rights an integral human right that deserves and needs to be recognised.
Proceed with caution, as this article discusses sensitive matters relating to ‘that time of the month’, famously known for its controversial relationship with patriarchy.
Menstruation or period, a word that has over five thousand euphemisms in over ten languages, masking a very important and relevant natural phenomenon. At any given time, around 800 million individuals menstruate around the world. Indian society, in particular, has an unusual reluctance to discuss the topic of menstruation in public forums. Although our society hasn’t shied away from raising the topic while imposing restrictions on menstruating individuals, there have been scarce comments and measures taken to discuss menstrual rights. It has also not found its much needed space in the daily conversations of life and in the academic discourses surrounding gender equality and human rights. Ignorance of this topic fatally injures not only women but also the already neglected non-binary genders.
However, this topic was brought back to the public’s attention by a recent public interest litigation (PIL) filed by law graduate Nikita Gore and law student Vaishnavi Gholave through advocate Vinod Sangvikar in the Bombay High Court. The PIL stated that since the Covid 19 pandemic hit the country, there has been total negligence towards management of menstrual health. The parties sought better implementation of the Menstrual Hygiene Management National Guidelines, 2015 and asked for sanitary napkins to be declared as an essential commodity and be included in the schedule of the Essential Commodities Act, 1955.
This PIL comes at a very relevant time and brings the topic of period poverty to the legislature and the executive’s attention.
Period poverty is a crippling, unaddressed problem that India has been facing for several years, but what makes it extremely important to discuss it now is the fact that the problem has worsened during the Covid 19 pandemic. Period poverty fundamentally is the problem of menstruating individuals not being able to afford proper, hygienic and safe menstrual products. The average person globally spends around 1,773 dollars on menstrual products throughout their lifetime. The average Indian person spends around 300 rupees every month and almost a lakh throughout their lifetime to access hygienic menstrual products. These numbers clearly depict the sad reality that an essential product such as a sanitary napkin is a luxury for not few but many. In a country like ours where 22.5% of the population belongs to the category that lives on less than 1.90$ per day, these prices are simply unaffordable.
One of the major reasons for this drawback is the loopholes in the state’s overarchingly mythical attempts to safeguard the rights of menstruating individuals. The state’s apparent ‘well implemented’ schemes, proved to be a major failure in providing sanitary and safe conditions for menstruating individuals to bleed especially during the lockdown due to the covid 19 pandemic. Further, there are no legal rights that ensure the protection of menstruating individuals and guarantee that they will have access to appropriate, sanitary and essential products required to have a healthy menstrual experience.
This paper, will hence, specifically focus on understanding how the failure of the Indian government to provide legal protection to menstruating individuals and recognize menstrual rights as a legal right has affected their lives.
In a recent event in Bihar, a schoolgirl was slammed by the managing director of Bihar Women Development Corporation, Harjot Kaur, on her request of supplying sanitary napkins to school girls for free or for subsidised rates. The girl asking for what she rightfully deserves was on the receiving end of a shrewd reply, where her demand for sanitary napkins was compared to demand for jeans, shoes and then condoms. The sheer necessity of the product was replaced by taunts of free goods.
This instance perfectly shows the ‘enthusiasm’ of the state officials and the government in maintaining a healthy standard of sanitation and protecting and upholding menstrual rights.
Even though the centre has managed to execute a few programs like the MHM scheme, it has two inherent faults. Firstly, the execution and secondly, the target group for the schemes. In regard to the execution, the poor management and implementation of the schemes are particularly a hindrance. The problem with the execution aspect is two fold, firstly the lack of availability and access to menstrual products and secondly, the lack of availability of sanitary conditions. Only 42% of Indian women use sanitary napkins, while 62% use cloth, sawdust, ash, grass and other unsafe materials.
Moreover, The schemes that are offered by the government unfortunately only cover girls within the age group of 10 – 19. Additionally, these schemes are only offered to girls that attend government-funded schools. This restricted supply of such essential necessities limits the opportunities for all women to be able to equally access menstrual products. Further, the schemes don’t cover girls that don’t attend schools and women above the age of 19. The schemes elicit such notions that these excluded categories of women are either not ‘worthy’ of being protected or somehow are assumed to magically receive the necessary menstrual products by simple god’s grace. The second fold problem is the lack of availability of sanitary conditions.
According to a recent report by Water Aid, 732 million people in India do not have access to a toilet, out of which 355 million women and girls live in households without toilets. Lack of access to toilets and handwashing facilities poses multiple problems. Firstly, they do not have access to clean water to wash their absorbents, if they use reusable materials such as cloth. Secondly, they do not have access to a private facility to change their menstrual absorbents as frequently as they should in order to maintain safe and hygienic conditions. Furthermore, these unsanitary conditions not only pose a challenge while these individuals are menstruating but pose a threat to their health in the future as well.
Lack of access to appropriate menstrual hygiene is the 5th biggest killer of women in the world. That is, globally almost 800,000 women die due to it. In India, 70% of reproductive health problems are attributed to poor menstrual hygiene. Additionally, nearly 60,000 cases of cervical cancer deaths are reported every year in India, nearly two-thirds of which are due to poor menstrual hygiene. Further, the static condition of these schemes is another matter of concern. There have been no updates or special concessions made to accommodate the changing circumstances. The increasing income inequality and inflation during the pandemic – made it even more difficult and impossible for people to resort to sanitary, safe and healthy methods to menstruate.
However, it is not all grim. Even though there are no proper, established laws that ensure people their menstrual rights, recent judgements passed by various high courts, sort of try to mend the lacuna. The Karnataka High court recently issued a statement emphasizing the government’s role to ensure the correct implementation of the SUCHI scheme. The Sabrimala judgment was another judgment that assisted in linking discrimination against menstruating women to infringing on her right to equality and right to live with dignity. The courts are slowly but surely leading the way to destigmatize the concept of menstruation. However, the enormous gap that is present due to the mis-implementation of schemes and lack of established laws, the menstrual rights of people in India are in extreme danger. Violation of menstrual rights not only infringes on their rights to access menstrual products and hygiene facilities but also contravenes their legally recognised rights to education, employment, to live life with dignity, to gender equality and to not be discriminated against. In order to combat heinous practices like menstrual exile that are deeply rooted in backward and unscientific reasoning, legally binding laws that enforce the practice of and maintenance of menstrual rights in all spheres of life and ensures the right to bleed safely, openly and proudly for all menstruating individuals.
Aarushi Nandi is a student of the B.A. – L.L.B. 2021 – 2026 batch of Jindal Global Law School. She is a passionate advocate for women’s rights, and loves all things equal, inclusive and diverse.