It may be exasperating for Indians that health is intimately connected to the body. Women are not supposed to speak about their bodies, especially about occurrences linked to reproduction, or, put in embarrassingly everyday terms, sex. Suppression means shame, fear, guilt and, most dangerously, ignorance, all of which became associated with menstruation and the urgently whispered instructions and warnings that traditionally accompanied a girl’s experience of entering puberty. Times may have changed, but old habits die hard. Besides, for the huge proportion of the underprivileged, times have not changed that much, even with access to television. Such a culture would produce a government that naturally forgot about women’s needs, or even about the essential hygiene that would protect them during their vulnerable period. There were sanitary napkins in the market for those who could afford them, although buyers could be made to feel deeply uncomfortable — ashamed — when these were first being sold. And those who could not afford them could make do with whatever came to hand, as long as these, and the condition of the women, remained hidden from the public eye. And if they suffered from infections, that was one more thing to keep silent about till the suffering abated or, sometimes, it got too late.
So the Union health ministry’s programme to make sanitary napkins available to 1.5 crore girls in 20 states at one rupee each is truly welcome. Seventy per cent of Indian women cannot afford to buy napkins, and over 88 per cent use unhygienic alternatives. The study which gives these findings also shows how poor protection during menstruation causes girls to drop out of school, presumably in a state of vulnerability and fear, or leads more often to monthly absences going up to five days, to loss of working days for older women and to rampant infections. The government is at last making a start; it is hoped that this programme will be widened to include below-poverty-line girls and then women in every corner of the country. Since it did not have any problem selling a very affordable condom all over the country, there is no reason for the programme for sanitary napkins to fail. But what will remain an area of concern is quality: the government is expected to show its newfound concern for women by the materials and technology it uses.