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The Stained Sanitary Napkin Industry
Even after four decades prior to the introduction of sanitary napkins, the soaring prices, high level of tax and the hushed voices of women at the doorstep of medical stores, collectively paint the landscape of sanitation industry.
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As the market penetration of sanitary napkins is as low as 16 percent, it raises a question about the contemporary issues pertaining to the industry. Why since the last four decades has India been unsuccessful in growing one of their most potential markets?
As the world celebrates World Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28, the women of India have little to celebrate. Even after four decades prior to the introduction of sanitary napkins, the soaring prices, high level of tax and the hushed voices of women at the doorstep of medical stores, collectively paint the landscape of sanitation industry.
According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, about 58 percent of women aged between 15 to 24 years use locally prepared napkins, sanitary napkins and tampons. While about 78 percent women in urban areas use hygienic methods of protection during menstrual period, only 48 percent women in rural areas have access to clean sanitary napkins.
Low Market Penetration
While the sanitary napkin industry is growing at a rate of 21 percent, their prices are far from declining. According to Quartz, a digital news outlet, in 1996 a packet of 10 sanitary pads of Whisper was priced at Rs 38, Johnson and Johnson’s Silkdry at Rs 35. Presently, the average cost of one sanitary napkin is Rs 6.
The industry faces complexities at the ground level due to the stronghold of the social taboo attached to periods in India. In many parts of the country, women going through periods aren’t allowed in kitchen, temples and sometimes even their rooms. Also, women in rural areas have to take aid from cloth, dry leaves, saw dust among other things.
“Only 12 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads. The two factors behind the low sale of sanitary pads are firstly, the social aspect, the stigma attached to their usage and secondly, the fiscal attribute implying the women can’t afford the napkins,” says Congress MP Sushmita Dev who recently started an online petition, change.org to make sanitary napkins tax free.
Consequently, feminine hygiene and health care are among the least penetrated categories in fast moving consumer goods industry with the market penetration as low as 16 percent, according to the Retail Research by HDFC Securities. This level is much lower compared to other emerging markets like China and Thailand (50%- 60%), Indonesia (over 80%) and Kenya (30%).
“Low penetration of sanitary napkins to only 16 percent is because of the society's mindset towards this problem. We still believe this to be a pharmaceutical product and women still hesitate to add sanitary pads to their monthly grocery list, despite this being their most important monthly need. Forget shops, pads are still stored at hidden places in every home, as this is something not supposed to be seen in open,” shares Sarika Gupta, founder and facilitator of Safe-N-Happy Periods, a Navi-based organization that works towards educating adolescent girls.
Leaping into GST
The current tax levied on sanitary napkin is about 12 to 14.5 percent depending from state to state. In the recent budget, the government lowered the custom duty on two of the key raw materials for sanitary napkins by 2.5 percent.
“A woman's access to education, to live a life of dignity, to be able to able to work and engage with society should not be limited due to lack of access to sanitation and menstrual hygiene. Taxing women on essential commodities such as sanitary napkins is not the path to take to move towards,” says Trisha Shetty, founder and CEO of SheSays, a youth-led organization focused on furthering the rights of women.
While goods such as sindoor, bangles and condom have been declared tax free by the Goods and Services Tax Council, sanitary napkins are yet to witness such a transformation. According to upcoming GST, the sanitary napkins come under the second tax slab at 12 percent.
“To make the sanitary pads affordable is the real challenge. The government should make them tax free or impose a 5 or less percentage of tax. That is the only way it can reach the rural areas and urban poor. The 12 percent tax slab is a big blow to menstrual hygiene. It undermines the fundamental right of women, the right to life since so many women lose their life as they don’t get proper hygienic measures during their menstrual period,” says Sushmita Dev.
“Women empowerment has become more of symbolism today. The government has initiatives like Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao but this is not the way to ‘Beti Bachao’. I feel this issue hasn’t been properly deliberated upon,” she adds. Her petition change.org has received support from Women and Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi, Health Minister JP Nadda, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor among others.
While the government and NGOs have tried to make sanitary napkins more accessible and affordable, the fight against social stigmas and commercialization of the essential commodity is far from over. Till the day the rest 88 percent of Indian women have access to hygienic menstrual care and proper sanitary napkins, the struggle is not over.