Big Story 10

India's women dismiss promise of free sanitary pads as 'election gimmick'

NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian women dismissed a pledge by politicians to give them free sanitary pads as an election gimmick on Thursday, although it signals growing concern over the challenges around menstruation.

The promise - ahead of a vote in the southern state of Karnataka on Saturday - follows the release of Bollywood’s first film on menstrual hygiene in February and similar pledges by political parties in other recent local elections.

“They probably thought that like the movie, this is another agenda item that will be popular and will woo the common public,” Sulagana Chattopadhyay, a voter, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the state capital Bangalore.

“Without clear plans on infrastructure and implementation, I’m skeptical and feel it’s an election gimmick. But even if 10 percent benefit, then that will be great.”

Indian women face many challenges when they have their periods, especially in rural areas where a lack of awareness and affordability mean many end up using unsanitised cloth or rags, and increase the risk of infections and disease.

The movie “Padman” - which depicts one of Hindi cinema’s most popular action heroes, Akshay Kumar, wearing a sanitary pad - has generated debate over the taboo subject in India.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has vowed to give free sanitary pads to students and the poor, and to fix the price at 1 rupee (1 U.S. cent) for all women if voted to power.

The Congress party - which governs the state - has promised free pads to students in government colleges and to scrap the current tax on them.

Campaigners say it is important to make pads more widely available as girls are often forced to stay at home during their periods because they cannot afford them, while also facing stigma and a lack of toilets in schools.

Surbhi Singh, founder of Sachhi Saheli, a charity which raises awareness on menstrual health, said the pledge was “laughable”.

“The national government is charging 12 percent tax on sanitary napkins and (lists it) as luxury item,” she said.

“Why don’t they remove that first?”

Only 18 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads, Bollywood’s Kumar said on Twitter on Thursday, in support of a campaign by Niine Movement, an initiative promoting menstrual hygiene.

“Every female has the right to manage her period safely and with dignity,” he said in a statement.

($1 = 67.2400 Indian rupees)