Are we a Period Insensitive society?

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With the current economic crisis in the country, consumers have seen nothing but overnight price hikes on every product. When everyone is striving to purchase essential items including milk powder and fuel Ceylon Today focused on a main product that holds stake on the reproductive health of 5.3 million Sri Lankan women.

Short supply and price hikes on sanitary napkins, pads and period products during this crisis have become an open secret. When discussing with consumers including housewives it was observed that sanitary napkin brands, both local and imported have sharply increased the prices within the last two months, so much so that, sanitary napkins have been pushed down as the last item on the list of last of essentials..

According to the Census of Population and Housing, Sri Lanka has 5.4 million households and 5.3 million reproductive women and girls between the age groups of 15-49 years.

Period poverty and the price hike

According to Advocata institute, Period poverty rate is 50% meaning, 50% of households with women of menstruating age do not report spending any amount of money on sanitary napkins, and when Ceylon Today spoke to research arm, Oxfam, Gender Coordinator Lakmini Jayathilake said the percentage would have hiked due to the current price hike and the hyper inflation Sri Lanka has been facing.

This shows that that 50% Sri Lankan women are prone to sexual diseases and infections that can be transmitted due to poor hygiene during their menstruation period and the said count has been increasing in the current time beam.

When talking to few customers Ceylon Today found out that the demand for popular Sanitary napkin brands have increased while the local products such as Eva, Aarya and Araliya, 20-piece packet which costs Rs 220 a couple of weeks ago has been upped to Rs 550. Imported brands which were Rs 360 too have been increased to Rs 450. Even ‘Lilly, biodegradable local product has limited sales online due to price hikes.

Taxing menstrual hygiene

The tax imposed on sanitary products had been reduced from imposed 52% to 42.88%. However, with 15% General Duty, 15% CESS, 10% Port and Development Levy (PAL) and the recent VAT increase from 8% to 12% has had no major impact on the prices.

Lakmini Jayathilake, Gender Coordinator, Oxfam expressed these sentiments.

“Though we celebrate these small victories, we will not stop until we reduce the taxes imposed on sanitary napkins to 0%,”

“No Matter how many researches, amazing projects and efficient policies were introduced, none of these will be effectively utilised, until the Government has a gender-friendly economic policy, which allocates funds considering the special gender sensitive needs,” emphasised MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, attending a policy analysis on taxing menstrual hygiene products by the study initiative of the Assisting Communities in Creating Environmental and Nutritional Development (ACCEND) Project, funded by the European Union and implemented by a consortium consisting of ADRA UK, ADRA Sri Lanka and Oxfam.

Removal of protective tariffs will result in reduced retail prices and cheaper products entering the market ensuring affordability and eliminate the trade barriers ensuring the free flow of imported products into the local market, which will open up the possibility of tapping into new markets that cater to the growing eco-consumer with products such as menstrual cups and sustainable sanitary napkins.

Period Insensitive Society

When speaking about sustainable alternatives such as cloth pads, as a society, Sri Lankan lavatory systems at public places and even schools indicate that we are a “Period Insensitive Society”. A recent discussion in a famous social media platform with regard to short supply of Sanitary had only a few comments to make on the issue in such insensitive and imbecile way that shows that the majority lack the knowledge of Sexual and reproductive health.

The said comments had ignorantly compared the women in the past and regarded them as healthy despite the fact of their using rags during their Period as opposed to the modern day women.

None of the said commentators were aware about the fact that many women had lost their lives during their delivery due to unhygienic practices, infections and other diseases; the result of using rags during Periods,

The commentators have related how women can stitch their own sanitary napkins from old cotton clothes, without considering the fact that the a school girl who would choose to attend school during the Period, if she wears an ordinary sanitary napkin according to standard recommendation, she will have to change it at least twice until she gets home. When considering many scenarios in schools we have found out that many schools do not even have the basic facilities to let them change the ordinary sanitary napkins and dispose them in an hygienic way.

In this scenario, changing cloth pads and washing them or disposing them in a proper method is out of reach. This can push many to follow unhealthy practices such as using the same cloth pad to seven hours or more which can lead to infected diseases. The durability of the ordinary sanitary napkin is sometimes questionable during the heavy flow, in such cases the cloth pad is a ‘user-unfriendly’ option. With stigma surrounded on menstruation, a red spot in a school girl’s uniform can bring her down to an embarrassing state where she can be humiliated in front of her whole class or school.

Ceylon Today also spoke to a couple of students who shared an uncomfortable scenario that many schools practise due to an archaic view.

“The usual ‘care and cleaning’ staff at our school who clean the toilets refuse to clear and clean the special bins kept for disposal of used sanitary napkins. They think that it is not a part and parcel of their duties and wait until the school authorities call Abans or the CMC to do the needful. As a result, these bins become full in a day or two and used sanitary napkins are stockpiled in every nook and corner of washrooms.

Students further noted that they have to go through traumatising experiences when trying to change their sanitary napkins when the lavatories are in such conditions.

“Some of my friends refuse changing their sanitary napkins until they go home. This can be very dangerous according to what we have been taught in school covering health and science. We can’t blame them though, because sometimes during the power cuts and water cuts school lavatories did not have any water and in such circumstances we were forced to withstand our natural calls until we get home,” she added.

With the current country’s state, working women and students have to spend hours in bus halts and railway stations which do not have proper lavatory facilities and in such a situation how could one rely on cloth pads as an effective option as these social media commentators portray.

Alternatives vs Myths

In such scenarios, we figured that many other countries have promoted products such as tampons and menstrual cups as an alternative, but with the social stigma and myths surrounding hymen and virginity that it remains ‘intact’ until it’s broken during vaginal penetration; which renders it a physical marker of virginity; which leads to the belief that the  hymen  provides physical ‘proof’ of sexual history; is the premise of  virginity  testing; has made these two products to have decent presence in the market. Even the products that are in the markets have only been advertising and catering to married women where even they have stigmas surrounding the affectivity of their sexual concerns when it comes to switching to tampons, or most effective alternative menstrual cups.

This is not a surprise when Sri Lankan medical sector refuses to conduct the Pap test (or Pap smear) which looks for  pre-cancers, cell changes on the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately, due to the Hymen and virginity-stigma. Even the doctors who practise this test question the marital status instead of the sexual activeness of the patient before recommending the said test. This has left us with a huge threat of undetected cancer patients, to keep up with a social myth.

Are we going to put the whole society in danger by trying to cater to social myths and ignorance in sexual and reproductive health as well as menstrual health? Or break the stigma and stand for the right thing, by demanding the government to remove taxation on sanitary products? Or switching to alternatives forgetting about social myths such as hymen and virginity?

By Nabiya Vaffoor