Shashi Tharoor’s Proposal to Distribute Free Pads Doesn’t Solve a Lack of Menstrual Rights
2018 was somewhat a milestone year for Indian women and their menstrual cycles. This was not because a genie popped up and made Shark Week easier, or even less stigmatized for us (oh how I wish!), but looking back, we did manage to get one thing right: collectively, as a nation, conversations around menstruation started. We talked about menstrual huts and the problems associated with them. We took the conversation right up to the Supreme Court of India and fought the ban on menstruating women entering the Sabarimala Temple. We even managed to get an obnoxious ‘lahu ka lagan,’ a tax on sanitary pads, scrapped!
Not to be ignored, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor introduced a private member’s bill called the Women’s Sexual, Reproductive and Menstrual Rights Bill in the Lok Sabha early this year. Through this bill, he aims to “emphasise on the agency of a woman in her sexual and reproductive rights and to guarantee menstrual equity for all women by the State.” In a piece defending his questionable statements on the Sabarimala issue, he also clarified that he, “do[es] not believe menstruation should confer any disability on women or restrict them from any position or activity,” further trying to highlight that he, in fact, is a good guy who cares for women and their menstrual rights.
While the bill is definitely a step forward in theory, it’s actually nothing more than just a symbolic gesture. Moreover, it fails to look at women’s menstrual rights in a holistic manner. The central argument or promise that the bill puts forth, with respect to menstrual rights, is that every public authority, as defined by sub-section (h) of section 2 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, will make available sanitary pads, preferably in the toilet for women, to be provided at no cost to individuals in the premises of the public authority. To further justify the thought behind this, he tweeted:
(3/5)The Bill mandates access to sanitary pads free of cost in govt schools and public offices for all women, acknowledging that menstruation is an essential involuntary bodily function & that questioning the absence of sanitary pads must become a societal norm and not a stigma.— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) January 6, 2019
The bill is no doubt a welcome effort to shake up the silence around menstruation in public policy. But there are some major problems with this ‘just give them free pads’ logic, highlighting how much we need to approach the topic with caution and preferably a lot more discussion.
The quality of pads provided will be constrained by the budget
As sanitary pads go, disposable ones are known to be a cocktail of synthetic fibers, plastic, artificial fragrances and gels – none of which are disclosed on the packaging in a suitable manner. With the bill’s budget constraints of only Rs. 100 crore per annum to finance this plan, it seems likely that the quality of pads will suffer.
Where are the bathrooms?
What the bill also fails to address is the fact that most women lack access to hygienic and safe toilets that are functional, with clean water and safe disposal of waste. Given this reality, especially when it comes to public infrastructure (the medium through which the dispersal of free sanitary pads is proposed), simply providing pads is not going to make much of a difference. Access to the product is a welcome and much needed step, but unless you provide the facilities to use the product properly, access results in nothing.
Related on The Swaddle:
A Cultural Obsession With Virginity Is Keeping Women from Using Menstrual Cups, Tampons
It’s not just women who menstruate
Many non-binary, gender non-conforming folks, and trans-men also menstruate, but have been side-lined in almost all approaches to ‘solving’ period poverty. When we talk about destigmatization, it is imperative that we take this into account. Side-lining equal stakeholders is not only unfair, but also tremendously unjust.
Is there a plan for disposing the pads?
We also need to factor in the impact of the products we choose, which extends beyond our bodies to effect not just the environment, but even the lives and dignity of others handling our waste. The last plan to sell subsidized pads by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare resulted in the roll-out of a chaotic action plan to manage menstrual waste. If the goal of this bill is to provide pads to people who need it, the responsibility of implementing solutions to dispose of them in an ethical way must also be accounted for.
No mention of plans to educate people about menstruation. What good are rights when you don’t know how to use them?
Today, the challenge has become about fighting against the popular narrative that exist in society around menstruation. We need to enable and support a substantial change in the way menstruation education is conducted in schools and colleges, and try to include not just students, but also those who interact with them on a day-to-day basis, too. Sustainable menstruation products also need to be introduced to young women across the country.
More importantly, the bill needs to put forward a plan for a larger educational campaign to destigmatize menstruation. While it is important that young girls learn why their menstrual rights matter, it is even more important to ensure that the people they are around, and the spaces they move in, do not continue to stigmatize menstruation. Access would mean nothing, if it does not translate into use because young women around the country are still hindered by the mindset that denied them their rights to begin with.
This bill is an important step in a country like India, but thrusting pads into women’s faces, without providing them the opportunity to make informed choices is not the correct remedy to one of the more serious problems women face today.