Menstrual health and hygiene is one of the most crucial yet unfortunately ignored issues in India. Much of this silence on menstruation and its related issues can be credited to India’s social norms that treat menstruation and menstrual blood as something ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’. Furthermore, there is a lack of focus on menstruation as being anything beyond a ‘women’s issue’- when it ticks off every checkbox in the list to be perceived also as an issue of health, poverty and mental health.
This lack of attention to menstruation and its related issues also finds its way in the realm of public policy. Menstruation in India has seen several shortsighted policies and schemes that have achieved limited success and have often not been gender inclusive or sustainable in nature.
Thus, considering the importance of a policy discourse around menstruation, this article will be exploring India’s most pivotal attempts so far at a comprehensive menstrual policy. The article will then shed light on certain shortcomings of these policies and will provide certain three policy recommendations that can lead to safer and sustainable menstrual practice for India’s motley of menstruators.
India’s attempts at menstrual policies: What went wrong?
India has seen several ‘attempts’ at state and centre level menstrual policies in the recent years. While these policies are progressive and a step in the right direction towards menstrual equity, they have faced roadblocks due to lack of funds, problems with implementation and the shortsightedness of their goals and their expected impact.
For instance, the Shuchi scheme was enacted in 2013-14 and was aimed solely at the subsidised procurement and distribution of sanitary napkins for school going girls aged between 10-19 years of age in remote or rural areas. The scheme further aimed at ensuring full attendance of girls in schools by providing safe and hygienic toilets as well so that girls would have a place to change their pads (Mehta, 2021). While these policies cover certain relevant and appropriate facets of menstrual health, they also gloss over plenty of related issues and key concerns. Firstly, the scheme, being aimed at school going girls that are very new to menstruation, does not cover anything about the biological process of menstruation or what to expect from it. There is no elucidation about how to even use the sanitary napkin being handed out to the girls either.
Further, several schemes after this continued their unilateral focus on distribution of pads for school going girls- such as The Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram or The Menstrual Hygiene Scheme. Though these programs are much needed, they left out girls (and menstruators on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum) that are not in school and faced further disruptions due to the pandemic that resulted in the closing of schools. Schools were the place where most of the girls could gain access to pads so closure of schools meant that many girls were left with no choice but to revert back to using unhygienic period products (Kumar, 2020).
Another landmark menstrual scheme was the Janaushadhi Suvidha scheme, aimed at providing women with oxo-biodegradable sanitary napkins at the cost of Rs. 2.5/per pad through 3600 such janaushadi kendras across the country (Agrawal, 2019). While the scheme definitely takes into account the need to make sustainable menstrual products accessible to menstruators, the reality of its implementation tells a different story. There is limited advertising done for the scheme, meaning that most menstruators aren’t aware of it and those that are aware are hesitant to buy products from there due to concerns about the product’s quality.Furthermore, the pads under the scheme all come in one size- which is not suitable for menstruators who might require pads in different sizes ( like L, XL or XXL) and might have heavy flow. There are also disruptions in regular supply of pads to the kendras, leading to the shutting down of Janaushadi kendras in Delhi.
Finally, India’s largest government program to tackle menstrual taboos (an otherwise absent issue from most other policies) was under the banner of the Swacch Bharat Abhiyaan (SBA). The SBA aimed at singularly tackling menstrual taboos and menstrual poverty by providing sanitation infrastructure,information about and access to menstrual products and by creating awareness about the biological process of menstruation and proper menstrual waste disposal (Manorama & Desai, 2020).
While these are progressive steps, they do miss the mark in one crucial way- they do not take into account the socio-cultural roots of menstrual taboos. Menstrual taboos and customs are not just related to lack of information about the biology of menstruation, but are shaped and propagated via religious and socio-cultural networks. A policy cannot be expected to tackle taboos without acknowledging its roots and cultivating a unique strategy to dismantle them. Furthermore, the scheme does not take into account the sheer mental strain on adolescents upon their menarche, which is treated as the transition of a girl into womanhood. The scheme mentions no initiative to help young menstruators in gaining confidence and repairing their relationships with their bodies, thereby ignoring their psychological well-being before, during and after a menstrual cycle, especially the menarche (Manorama & Desai, 2020).
India’s menstrual policies have a track record of being non-sustainable and short sighted- in terms of their sole focus on girls and distribution of plastic menstrual products and their excessive focus on menstrual hygiene instead of menstrual health. These misplaced priorities reflected in India’s menstrual policies have created room for certain key policy recommendations and insights that can possibly steer these policies in a gender inclusive direction
Considering the urgent need of a menstrual policy, there are several key insights and facts that Indian policymakers must keep in mind while they deal with this issue ( hopefully at least the majority of them will be menstruators themselves). Firstly, the key fact to remember is that menstruation is not a gendered process- not only women menstruate. In fact, not all women menstruate either and trans men, intersex people and non-binary people are some of the many non-women menstruators whose existence is often not even included in statistics regarding menstruators. Furthermore, non-women menstruators face a myriad of issues that are unique to their experiences and identities. For instance, trans men who menstruate face the issue of no available dustbins in men’s washrooms which they can use to dispose of their menstrual waste. Many trans men menstruators state experiencing gender dysphoria when they have to shop for period products that are advertised as items of ‘feminine health and hygiene’ (Frank, 2020). Also, men’s washrooms function as places where even the sound of opening a pad can incite hateful comments or violence from other cisgender men present. Pads are very loud to open as there is multiple peeling and tearing required, which can attract attention (Frank, 2020).
Therefore, Indian menstrual policies must take into account the diverse needs of equally diverse menstruators and must actively use gender inclusive language when referring to menstruators. Furthermore, any policy involving distribution of menstrual products must take into account the gender and sexual identities of the menstruators and their comfort with using the product in private and public spaces.
Secondly, the Indian menstrual market is dominated by the disposable sanitary pad- which is readily available in shops, easy to use and financially cheap as well. As stated before, sanitary napkins are the product used most often in government schemes for distribution and subsidisation- thereby creating a worrying future pattern of accumulation of more plastic menstrual waste. A sanitary pad is not only made of 90% plastic, but it takes anywhere between 500-800 years to decompose and accounts for 113,000 tonnes of waste in India’s landfills (DTE, 2021). There is little to no district or state level system in place for segregation of menstrual waste and disposal of it would require using incinerators- which are costly and the environmental impact of its fumes is not yet documented (DTE, 2021).
A recommendation would be to look into more sustainable menstrual products and tie up with small businesses and nonprofits that promote their usage. There are not only several organisations working towards creating natural and biodegradable pads, but also other sustainable products like menstrual cups or tampons. Menstrual cups in particular are a one- time heavy investment, after which they can be used for 8-10 years. This is the product that should definitely be subsidised and distributed as a part of government schemes and programmes. For instance, in Alappuzha,Kerala, the municipality took the initiative to distribute 3,000 menstrual cups in the wake of a flood in the region. The initiative saw 95% acceptability of the product amongst the recepients and is an experience that greatly reduces the burden of menstruation (Rajagopal, 2019). Planned sessions and curriculum need to be formulated to educate both privileged and underprivileged menstruators in schools, colleges, workplaces, homes etc. about the benefits of a cup and how to use it.
Lastly, a major issue with Indian menstrual policies so far has been the unilateral focus on distribution of disposable sanitary pads. While distribution of disposable sanitary pads (the most easy to procure and use among menstrual products) is an effective and immediate solution, it is also temporary and should only be a component of a comprehensive menstrual policy. Distribution of disposal pads must also be accompanied with sessions on debunking menstrual myths, societal norms about menstruation, teaching proper way to dispose of menstrual waste and building relevant infrastructure such as toilets with water supply. Information needs to be provided to menstruators regarding different menstrual products that exist and how to use such products so that menstruators can make an informed choice and pick a product that suits them the best. A menstruator’s context, current comfort level, sexual identity and financial capability are factors that influence which menstrual product suits them best and an imposition of disposable pads robs menstruators of that right to know their options and make an informed choice (Mahajan & Muralidharan, 2019).
It is commendable that state and center level policies have emerged in recent years that aim to bridge the menstrual poverty gap and change people’s perceptions on menstruation. However, distribution of menstrual products- that too of plastic made disposable products is not just a hazardous environmental crisis in the making, but an attempt at robbing menstruators of their right to make an informed choice about which product suits their needs and circumstances the most. A more intersectional approach to menstrual health policies by tailoring them to account for the grievances and experiences of non-women menstruators and shifting the focus from distribution of disposable pads to raising awareness about sustainable menstruation and how to maintain menstrual hygiene throughout a menstrual cycle will lead to more positive, safer and hygienic menstrual experiences amongst India’s motley of menstruators.
Agrawal, S. (2019, June 12). Janaushadhi Suvidha scheme: A look at the challenges it faces a year after its launch. The Indian Express. Retrieved November 18, 2021.
DTE (2021). India’s landfills add 113k tonnes of menstrual waste each year: Report. downtoearth.org. Retrieved November 14, 2021.
Frank, S. E. (2020). Queering Menstruation: Trans and Non-Binary Identity and Body Politics. Sociological Inquiry , 90(2).
Kumar, S. (2020, November). Menstrual health in India needs more than just distribution of low cost sanitary pads. Observer Research Foundation. Retrieved 2021.
Mahajan, T., & Muralidharan, A. (2019, August). The Focus of Menstrual Hygiene Needs to Move Beyond Just Sanitary Pads . The Wire.
Manorama, S., & Desai, R. (2020). Menstrual Justice: A Missing Element in India’s Health Policies. The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies, 511–527.
Mehta, A. (2021). ‘Provide Separate Toilets, Sanitary Napkins To Adolescent School Girls’: Karnataka High Court To State Govt https://thelogicalindian.com/gender/karnataka-high-court-shuchi-scheme-28028. The Logical Indian.
Rajagopal, S. (2019, September). Menstrual cups: A revolution in menstrual hygiene. The Hindu.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.