Two weeks ago, a hashtag began going viral in India: #LahuKaLagaan. It literally means the tax on blood.
That would be India's tax on sanitary napkins — 12 to 15 percent on top of the 40 to 80 rupees (.60 cents to $1.25) for a package of eight. (Typically sold in an unmarked black plastic bag because India is not big on talking about menstrual topics.)
Cost is one reason that 88 percent of India's 355 million menstruating women do not use sanitary napkins. The other reason is that the pads may not be available where they live. The data comes from a study by AC Nielsen published last year in the International Research Journal of Social Sciences.
The Indian government is now developing a new system for the taxation of goods and services (GST). SheSays, a youth-led organization focused on furthering the rights of women, decided to take up the tax issue through a cheeky online campaign, featuring comedian/actor Mallika Dua and Bollywood celebs like Shenaz Treasurywala.
In a one-minute video, Dua sends a message to Finance Minister Arun Jaitley: "It's not like I signed up for a monthly blood subscription. It just happens. So why am I being punished for it?"
That video has had 1.8 million views since April 21.
The sarcastic tone of the campaign has resonated with Indian women — and men — who have been blasting Jaitley with messages about the taxation of pads. And it's creating quite a stir. That's exactly what the SheSays team was hoping for: not just a discussion about taxation but also opening up the discussion around menstruation.
"We at SheSays believe that it is every Indian woman's right to have the easiest access to sanitary napkins, which are essential for menstrual health and hygiene," says Trisha Shetty, founder and CEO of the Mumbai-based organization. "We are hence petitioning for sanitary napkins to be considered tax-free under GST."
All the noise online could have a real world impact. According to Shetty, SheSays has received a memo from the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare stating that the group's concerns have been passed along to the GST Council "for perusal." The next GST council meeting is scheduled for May 18 and 19. The new taxation policy will be rolled out by July.
Shetty wants to take it one step further. SheSays is also requesting that the central government and the government of the Maharashtra state, where the group is based, place vending machines that disperse inexpensive sanitary napkins in public toilets, government offices, and all government-funded educational institutions.
Meanwhile, some concerns are being raised about #LahuKaLagaan.
Amrita Saigal, co-founder of Saathi pads, a biodegradable sanitary napkin startup in India, is supportive of the campaign: "Removing the tax on sanitary pads will signal that the government supports access to basic human necessities."
But cost isn't the only problem, she says. "There is much more work to be done," she says. Sanitary pads are often not sold or distributed in rural areas. There may be no official waste collection system in a community to dispose of them. And menstruation is something India just doesn't like to talk about.
"Taboos around menstruation are so strong that many girls are unaware of what is happening the first time they get their period," she says. She wants to make sure that these issues don't get overlooked in all the talk about the tax.
Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, a Delhi-based social enterprise that repurposes donated cloth into napkins for women, is also concerned about the side effects of bringing down the cost of plastic pads. To date, Goonj has produced and dispensed 6 million pads made from recycled fabrics. They can be washed and reused.
"We welcome the move but with a cautionary note," he says, referring to the waste problem that could result if millions more women started using plastic pads. "We must give tax rebates only after considering this aspect. We don't want to create another bigger issue."
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers public health, international development and the environment. Reach her @esh2440