In some rural areas in India, some women don't have the money to buy themselves sanitary pads or even clean cloth to soak up their periods. Instead, they resort to padding their underwear with soil or even ash. Our Observer spoke to some women who carry out this dangerous practice every month. 

The Indian government rolled out a fiscal reform at the end of May this year that added a tax to certain products based on their usefulness, called the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Sanitary pads were placed in the category of "luxury goods", which comes with a 12 percent tax. Sanitary products are also classed as luxury goods in other countries such as France and the United Kingdom, where they are taxed at 5.5 percent and 5 percent respectively.

The new announcement was met with outrage. Feminist organisations pointed out that other goods such as condoms and other contraceptives were not taxed. Suhsmita Dev, a Congress MP, launched a petition against the sanitary products tax, which gathered 300,000 signatures.

On social media, Indians started using the hashtag #LahuKaLagaan (tax on blood).


"Women put soil in their underwear"

Our Observer Amir Abbas is a 21-year-old history student who first learnt about the situation through the hashtag. He joined Video Volunteers, an organisation teaching reporting skills to communities to encourage citizen journalism and communication skills. He then did a report with four colleagues on how menstruation is dealt with in rural parts of the country.

Video Volunteers is an Indian platform for citizen journalism, which trains volunteers in journalistic skills.

We went into different villages in Bihar province. On the ground, the problem was far worse than we had imagined. We saw that not only are women using old scraps of cloth, but they're also using soil, dust or ashes. They put soil in their underwear, sitting directly next to the skin. Because of this, they get infections or uterine cancer.

For very poor women, buying a pack of sanitary pads means the entire family going without food for seven days. Most of them don't have the money to even use cloth, because they only have two or three items of clothing. For them, fabric is precious and rare.

A packet of sanitary pads. Screen capture from the Video Volunteers report.

In India, one sanitary pad costs between five and 12 rupees a pad, or about 0.07 to 0.15 euros. This cost can be prohibitive for some Indian families.

"Women are seen as impure when they are
on their period"

In Bihar, there are lots of stories about women who died because of vaginal infections caused by these kinds of practices. In our report, we interviewed a doctor who is very concerned by this situation.

In the report that our Observer worked on, the journalists ask this doctor, "What are the advantages of using sanitary pads?" The doctor S. M. Shabir replies, "They are going to prevent vaginal infections and infections of the uterus."

If there are lots of cases of infections, it's because of the patriarchal mentality in the country. In India, women are seen as impure when they are on their periods. They almost never talk about their periods to their husbands, who generally think that their wives are dirty during this part of their cycle. In lots of families, they are forbidden from cooking, touching vegetables in brine, even from hugging their children. Going to a temple or religious place is also forbidden.

"It is strictly forbidden for women to enter during menstruation. They are requested to maintain the saintliness of temples," says this sign hung at the entrance to a temple. Photo published in 2012 on the blog of a Danish expat in India

"My mother told me that I had to use scraps of cloth during my period"

Amir filmed the report with four other colleagues: Zafar Iqbal, Navita Devi, Tanju Devi and Guddi Kumari. Kumari is a young woman living in Sitamarhi in the Bihar province, and she told Amir about her own experience as a woman growing up in a rural and impoverished part of India.

When I was younger and I got my period for the first time, I didn't understand what was happening. I was scared to tell my mother that I was bleeding, so I decided to hide it from her. I then spoke with a friend who told me what to say to my mother, and I worked up the courage to do it. My mother told me that I had to use bits of cloth during my period, which I did. I used to hide it from everybody and keep it in a dark, secret place so no one could find it. It was only much later, when I came into contact with certain organisations and activists that I found out that sanitary pads are meant to be used for your period. After using them I realised that a bit of cloth is not a good alternative. 

Rags used by women to soak up their menstrual blood, here drying outside. Screen capture from Video Volunteers.

Only 12% of women have access to sanitary pads

According to a study published in 2011, only 12 percent of Indian women have access to sanitary pads during their periods. The study says that the remaining 88 per cent use "shocking alternatives like un-sanitised cloth, ashes and husk sand". Genital infections are 70 percent more frequent for these women. And for the majority of them, 70 percent, the main obstacle to using sanitary pads is their prohibitive cost.

Article written with
Liselotte Mas

Liselotte Mas