In recent years, there has been a monumental shift in the fight for menstrual equity with the elimination of taxes on feminine hygiene products in many countries, aiming to make menstrual products affordable.

However, the global landscape still paints a grim picture marked by low usage and restricted access, with approximately 500 million women, girls, and menstruating individuals experiencing period poverty worldwide.

The world witnessed a global wave of tax-free initiatives for menstrual products, with Kenya eliminating Value Added Tax on sanitary products in 2004, followed by 17 other countries, including India.

The central argument was that reduced taxation would naturally lead to lower prices, making it easier for consumers to access these products. Yet, real-world case studies indicate that achieving this outcome is unpredictable.

In countries like Australia, removing GST from menstrual products led to reduced consumer costs, largely due to a robust legal framework within the retail sector. In contrast, VAT exemptions on sanitary pads in Tanzania did not yield the same results as 90 per cent of product sales in the country occur through small shops with significant price variations. Similarly, India and Bangladesh have experienced inconsistent or no reductions in prices.

Tax initiatives

India abolished taxes on feminine hygiene products in 2018. Despite this progressive step, research shows that several adolescent girls and women across communities continue to face persistent challenges in accessing and affording these products.

Firstly, GST exemptions on sanitary pads lowered prices, but local manufacturers, lacking input tax credits, found it economically unviable to produce them at lower costs. Secondly, many adolescent girls remain unaware about menstruation until they experience their first period.

The level of education also contributes to this awareness: stats reveal that exclusive use of hygienic methods during menstruation is four times higher among women in rural India with higher education (62 per cent) than those without education (15 per cent).

Regional disparities further compound the issue, with rural areas less likely to opt for menstrual protection than urban areas. A cross-sectional study published in BMC Public Health, conducted among adolescent women in rural India, revealed that women in the wealthiest quintile were four times more likely to use hygienic methods than those in the lowest quintile.

Meanwhile, in urban slums, many were able to afford only one sanitary packet per month priced at ₹30-35, which is insufficient for adequate menstrual management (Indian Journal of Gender Studies).

While government schemes like the Scheme for Promotion of Menstrual Hygiene (2011) aim to provide six sanitary napkins at ₹6 through ASHAs in villages, urban poor lack such support.

The Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi Pariyojana (2019) offers low-cost sanitary napkins in urban areas, but ASHA distribution networks are more extensive in rural areas. While the scheme represents progress, attention must be given to programme awareness, especially in areas lacking ASHA-like facilitators.

Socio-cultural barriers

Lastly, deep-rooted socio-cultural barriers persist, as menstruation is often associated with the notion of being impure in many parts of India. With 70 per cent of mothers considering menstruation ‘dirty,’ crucial conversations with daughters get hindered (MoHFW data).

The Covid pandemic exacerbated the issue of menstrual inequity. A study by the IIM Ahmedabad, revealed a concerning 27 per cent reduction in the consumption of safe period products in areas with strict quarantine measures compared to others. In rural areas, this reduction was 33 per cent.

Menstrual inequity has far-reaching consequences. While use of hygienic practices by women increased by 20 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-21, the proportion using unsafe methods decreased by 13 per cent in the same period. Around half of Indian women still use unsafe products such as rags, old cloth, ash, sand, etc to manage menstruation, which poses a direct risk of reproductive and urinary tract infections.

The road to menstrual equity is long, and it’s evident that a multifaceted approach is essential

It emphasises the need for making menstrual hygiene products more accessible and affordable, and breaking the pervasive silence surrounding menstruation.

Choudhry, Debapriya and Khanna are with Sambodhi Research