New sanitary pad tax exposes India's archaic period taboos

Many Indian women make do with little more than scraps of old cloth when menstruating, often risking their health, say aid workers.

Story highlights

  • In India, bangles are considered essential, but not sanitary pads
  • Most women use scraps of cloth, newspaper, ash, wood shavings, dried leaves, hay or even cow dung

Ira Trivedi is a best-selling author, journalist and activist. She lives in New Delhi, India. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Sanitary pads, an essential need for almost all adult women, have been placed in a non-essential tax bracket by the Indian government.

In a surprise move, the recently passed Goods and Services Tax bill -- which brings all of India under a single tax rate for goods and services for the first time -- placed sanitary pads in the lower middle 12% bracket.
    The 12% number is ironic, because according to a 2011 study by AC Nielsen, only 12% of India's 335 million adult women can afford sanitary pads.
    A 12% tax on sanitary pads is an improvement from the earlier proposal of 18%, but comes as a shock since sindoor-- the red powder applied to a married Hindu woman's scalp, bangles and bindis (the dot motif used to adorn a woman's forehead) -- has been bracketed as "essential" and therefore exempt from tax.
    Of the four tax brackets, the lowest 5% tax rate has been applied to items of mass consumption, while the highest of 28% to luxury items. Everything else is clubbed into the 12% and 15% brackets.
    NGOs and aid workers help women make clean and cheap sanitary napkins.

    Cow dung sanitary pads

    The Indian government's apathy and utter ignorance of women's health issues is deeply concerning.
    Most women in India (88%) still use scraps of cloth, newspaper, ash, wood shavings, dried leaves, hay or even cow dung -- basically the cheapest, most absorbent material that they can lay their hands on.
    Incidents of reproductive tract infections (RTI's) are 70% more common amongst women who do not use sanitary pads than those who do. Around 64% of gynecologists believe that the use of sanitary pads reduce the risk of cervical cancer, according to the AC Nielsen study.
    Furthermore, because of the immobility that using paper/cloth/cow dung imposes on them, it is common practice for girls to drop out of school for the week of their period.
    According to the AC Nielsen study, inadequate menstrual protection means that adolescent girls miss on average 5 days of school in a month (50 days a year).
    It is considered taboo for most women in India to work, visit temples, enter communal bathing areas or kitchens during their periods.

    Lack of awareness

    At the heart of the matter is the lack of awareness among both men and women.
    In 2010, the government launched the first phase of the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme (MHS) introducing subsidized sanitary pads called "Free days" priced at 7.50 rupees ($0.11) for a pack of six. Typically, sanitary pads cost between five rupees ($0.08) and 12 rupees ($0.20) each.
    The scheme failed due to irregular supply and quality of the pads.
    According to conversations that I have had with women in pilot villages of the MHS, the low quality of the government sanitary pads, meant that alternatives -- made with cloth, hay or even cow dung cakes -- were often considered more comfortable. Women also spoke of the problem of disposal of conspicuous sanitary pads.