In a very positive development, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used his latest Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort to talks about sanitary pads, thereby breaking a big taboo in Indian society. Modi highlighted his government’s efforts towards ensuring affordable access to sanitary napkins whereby the menstrual hygiene product was being given away at Re 1 to empower women. In fact, Modi stated that 6,000 Jan Aushadhi Kendras had provided more than five crore sanitary napkins to women in a short period of time.
The Prime Minister of the country using a big occasion to speak about such an important topic related to women’s sexual, reproductive health and rights is indeed refreshing. In doing so, Modi is taking on deep-rooted patriarchal mores in Indian society which have ensured that menstrual hygiene is not given priority. In fact, a patriarchal society has converted menstruation – a perfectly natural bodily process – into a weapon against women. Many myths prevail around menstruation and menstruating women are seen as unclean. Despicably, many menstruating women are still forced into seclusion huts during their periods and prevented from entering temples, kitchens and schools. In fact, a review of 88 studies published in March 2016 showed that not even half of all the girls the studies had surveyed knew about menstruation before its outset.
This silence around menstruation and women’s hygiene needs to be broken. It is a paradox that a patriarchal society expects women to be responsible for child bearing and child raising, but doesn’t care about women’s sexual and reproductive health. This is because the whole edifice of patriarchy is built upon power asymmetry where women are seen as inferior. This is then cleverly couched as a so-called natural social contract where women are confined to homes while men assume a dominating role in society. In the same vein, menstruation is used by a patriarchal society to deny women equal opportunities by portraying periods as a handicap. According to this patriarchal mindset, women can’t be dependable leaders, sportsmen, soldiers, scientists, doctors, etc, because they have monthly periods. This is of course total nonsense and just an excuse to undercut women.
Therefore, it is truly heartening to see Modi talk about sanitary napkins and highlight the importance of making them widely available. Ensuring menstrual hygiene and enhancing education about menstruation are key parts of empowering women. Modi has made a good beginning but he has his task cut out because large sections of his BJP and the RSS are steeped in patriarchal attitudes. If he can change their thinking and bring all aspects of women’s empowerment to the forefront of his governance agenda, then he deserves full credit on this vital topic.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.