Let us face it, talking about menstruation and related issues is still a taboo in South Asia. You invariably get a shocked eye or a raised eyebrow if someone brings it up casually. It is a culture in this part of the world to wrap the sanitary napkin packet in a newspaper or put it inside a dark bag when you purchase it from the medical store.
When I started my periods, sanitary napkins were hard to get even in Kathmandu. Luckily, my mum used to DIY pads for my sister and me at home with cotton, a sheet of plastic, and a gauge. I have hardly used recycled cloth for my periods and I have never felt so lucky. I have heard dozens of embarrassing stories of my friends and sisters who used cloth pieces during periods and got infections or leakage/staining.
I think it was 1998-99 when some companies started importing the pads from India and that is when I started buying them too. For many years, I bought the packets as if I was transporting something illegal inside a wrapped newspaper or a black plastic bag. With time, I asked them not to wrap the pads in anything as I felt it was as normal as people buying diapers.
More than 20 years have gone by and women and girls in Nepal are still struggling with access to menstrual products. It is not a new thing to read that thousands of Nepali girls still skip school due to periods or lack of sanitation in school. Every year many I/NGOs are working with communities in awareness-raising regarding hygiene and use of menstrual products.
Last week, once again, the whole tax issue on sanitary pads surfaced. They already attract 15 percent customs duty and 13 percent Value Added Tax. Now the news was that an additional 10 percent is to be imposed on the old sum. According to the Inland Revenue Department, Rs 342.31 million was collected on 1.17 billion worth of sanitary napkins imported last year. Whereas the world is working to make these products accessible to each and every girl child and woman for free, our own government is shamelessly increasing the taxes.
Let us do some math. If a girl has her first period at the age of 11 and each year she uses 15 packets of sanitary napkins, considering today’s per packet price of Rs 215, she is spending Rs 3,225 a year. And keeping the price constant for another 35 years (which is not possible but I do it here just for the heck of a general calculation), she will be spending approximately Rs 112,875 only on the pads.
Apart from all these expenses, the inaccessibility of the product, and the stigma regarding periods, in the past couple of years the issue of sanitary pads piling up in landfills and the time they take to decay has also become a matter of concern. To address that, the west has come out with an amazing invention called the menstrual cup: a magical invention that has undoubtedly revolutionized the whole idea of having periods and handling them. The price of a silicon cup, just a touch bigger than the size of an espresso shot glass, ranges from $10 to $45-50 and it has a 10-year recycling life.
Personally, I have been using the cup for over four years and have been recommending it to my friends. I started using one while I was struggling to recover not only from my endometriosis cyst surgery but also from the tampering that my body had to go through due to the surgeon’s negligence. (That is another story that can separately fill a whole page.) My periods were pretty heavy and I was not confident enough to go out using a napkin because I thought I would stain.
The menstrual cup did give me confidence, and it is easy maintenance in the western world where you have access to clean drinking water even from your taps. Here in Nepal, we are still fighting for a separate washroom and clean sanitation, forget clean water to wash your cup every time you dump blood and reuse it. So, ultimately, the menstrual cup can be considered a luxury item that is only useful for women who can afford to buy mineral water every time when she is out and can thus wash her cup for reuse.
So, at the end of the day, the incompetent government should open its eyes to consider rebating the taxes, even if it cannot make the sanitary pads completely tax-free. Women and girls (who are going to be your future vote banks) are half the population and their basic needs should be taken seriously.
They are already cursed to be born with a vagina in this part of the world and the government is not making it any easier.