For the longest of times, the discourse surrounding women’s rights has focused very much on its legitimacy more than its necessity. With the development of feminist activism, various levels of injustices faced by women – economic, cultural, social and sexual — have gained spotlight. One of the form of female, and by extension the queer, suppressions has been economic in nature, the repercussion of which can be evidenced in the cultural, social and sexual realm. Menstruation, a lived reality of most people with vaginas and a biological phenomenon that falls under the Right to Health, has not been spared being disenfranchised, either. This disenfranchisement has birthed, or rather unearthed, the discussions of period poverty. It shows how the access to a vital and most basic need, when taxed as a luxury, creates an economic divide in the society that affects its stakeholders in all spheres of their lives, with its major consequences seen in the already disenfranchised section. Access to basic hygiene then becomes a privilege enjoyed by the economically able people, and ceases to become a right an individual ought to have.
The economic market and presence of consumerism is established in a manner that seeks to capitalize on not just necessities of humans but also on their deep rooted insecurities, oftentimes birthing those said insecurities. The famously termed “Pink Tax” is an example of this, the term that sheds light on the added cost that accompany female-catering products that don’t differ greatly in function from male products. This could be anything from an extra cost on beauty products to an added “fat tax” on clothes designed for the female body of larger sizes. However, the sphere of clothing and beauty products don’t come under the matter of necessity the way menstrual hygiene products such as sanitary pads etc do.
The cost of being a menstruating individual surpasses the cost of bearing physical pains of menstrual cramps. In the Nepali context, a study shows only 15% of menstruating girls use sanitary pads while 83% are still using clothes and other unsafe alternatives. The major reason for this is the lack of affordability of sanitary pads. The minimum wage of a person employed in the formal sector is NRs 13,450 which is much more than the minimum wage of a person employed in the informal sector. A point to note here is that the majority of menstruating individuals are employed in the informal sector such as agriculture (self-employed) and at home services such as house-help etc.
Numerically, the average cost of a packet of sanitary pad is NRs 60, and the average consumption of pad per menstruating individual is one and a half packets, making the average cost of one cycle for one person amounting to Rs 192. Since the majority of households in Nepal consist of at least two generations of menstruators, the average cost spent on sanitary pads doubles. To add to the burden, Nepal taxes sanitary pads as luxury goods and taxes them with 13% VAT and an import duty of 15% as per Chapter 96 of Customs Tariffs 2019-20. This costs individuals an extra NRs 11,380 in their lifetime, just because of the VAT imposed. Nepal has a usage of around 160 million sanitary on an annual basis, out of which only 3 million are manufactured in Nepal. Even those manufactured in Nepal require raw materials that are again imported and bear the tax as required.
With every 1 rupee increase in the cost of pads, more and more individuals are distanced from being able to afford the pads since it then becomes an additional burden on their budget that can be neglected.
The data available only cover the population of menstruating girls and women and don’t account for transwomen and gender-nonconforming individuals. This is due to the societal stigmatization of queer population and reductive nature of surveys/researches conducted around the country. The need of the hour is to take the first step and subsidize menstrual hygiene products and remove the 13% VAT on them. Even the import taxes on raw materials required to manufacture period products need to be relaxed from extra taxation so as to promote a greater market for locally manufactured menstruation products.
Nepal is a country with prevalent social stigmas such as Chhaupadi and period sanctions. The lack of menstrual awareness, coupled with inaccessibility and unaffordability of menstrual hygiene products forces menstruating individuals to resort to using unsafe alternatives such as using dirty rags, dried leaves, soil, old clothes etc. This is especially harmful since it increases their chances of contracting fatal diseases such as cervical cancer and other reproductive tract infections.
Apart from the biological consequences, there are other repercussions where the menstruating individuals are forced to skip school during their periods, an average of 4-5 days a month. Given the conservative nature of our society that prioritizes household chores over education in many areas, and the existence of shame, embarrassment and stigma around period, girls are forced to give up on education early. The worst case scenario for these individuals is that they are forced into early marriage, taking away any chance of a better life away from them.
The patriarchal nature of Nepali society lays the onus of providing for the family upon the male member of the family. This establishes a power structure within the family which makes women dependent on the male members such as fathers and husbands. The lack of economic agency for women and menstruating individuals in turn prevents women’s issues from even coming forward, contributing to their further marginalization in laws, research and science.
Even when other alternatives such as menstrual cups and tampons exist, the societally constructed ideas of virginity prevent individuals from making use of these products. Menstruation already causes great psychological distress on individuals due to the embarrassment they are made to feel for menstruating or buying sanitary pads. Furthermore, menstrual cups require sterilization with hot water and the prevalent period sanction stops women from entering the kitchen, let alone carrying out the sterilization process.
How to end period poverty?
Local Awareness to help understand that period poverty is real through campaigns, rallies, petitions etc. The way out of “period poverty” relies mainly on government action of subsidization of period products and development of education curriculum that incorporates topics of sexual and reproductive health and sanitation. In Nepal, the absence of toilets in rural parts also contributes to furthering period poverty as menstruating individuals are barred from safe means of disposal of waste. It also increases their chances of contracting Urinary Tract Infections due to urination in open areas.
Tackling period stigma
When we talk about periods, and end the taboos surrounding it, we ensure that every menstruating individual is better equipped with knowledge regarding menstruation and have access to products that ensure their health and safety.
Education on sexual reproductive health and sanitation
Schools play a huge role in normalizing and educating individuals on the ‘what’ and ‘how' of handling periods. When both boys and girls are aware of every aspect of periods, the open discussions help bust the stigma that continues to surround periods. We need to change the ways non menstruating individuals are taught about menstruation. When men have decision making authority in a patriarchal society, it is imperative that they be aware of the nuances and necessities of menstruating individuals. Solving the shame related to periods isn’t the sole responsibility of period-havers. Non menstruating individuals are able to deconstruct the stigmas by being empathetic and aware of the shame we are forced to feel.
Menstruating individuals don’t just deserve these basic rights, they should expect it from their government. The government being the body responsible and equipped to solve these problems, must hold themselves accountable in scenarios of lax action.