Only in an ‘unseeing’ world would the judiciary need to set the government a deadline to do the obvious. The Supreme Court of India gave the Centre four weeks to finalise an optimum menstrual hygiene policy with focus on the distribution of sanitary napkins. The Chief Justice of India, D.Y. Chandrachud, further directed the government to set down a national model for the number of girls toilets per female population across government-aided and residential schools in the country. Menstruation is the reality for women of a particular age demographic, naturally involving a substantial percentage of half the population in the country. It is only now, over three quarters of a century after Independence, that India has come closest to even drawing up a menstrual hygiene policy. While advancements over the years, and expanding urbanisation, have brought menstrual hygiene products within reach of a larger group of young women, affordability is still an issue; access hurdles stand in the way of a wide swathe of women in semi-urban and rural areas. The evidence for this is apodictic: as per the latest National Family Health Survey-5 (NFHS), 73% of rural women and 90% of urban women use a hygienic method of menstrual protection. There was a significant improvement in the percentage of women aged 15-24 who use a hygienic method of protection during their menstrual cycle, this rose from 58% in NFHS-4 to 78% in NFHS-5, primarily sanitary napkins, cloth and locally prepared napkins. The survey also revealed the close link between education and preference for hygiene — women who have received 12 or more years of schooling are more than twice as likely to use a hygienic method compared to those with no schooling. An irrefutable link has been established between menstruation and dropping out of school, because of stigma, and patchy or no access to sanitation (in terms of access to products, toilets and water). That little has been done to address this all these years reeks of callousness.
The Centre told the Court that a draft policy had been circulated for comments from various stakeholders and that it would be ready in four weeks. A policy is only half a revolution; to complete the circle, it is crucial the government ensures access to affordable menstrual hygiene products for all menstruating girls, but also clean toilets and water wherever the women may need them. Besides, the policy should also cater to the entire lifecycle of menstruation, providing for the entire range of health and social sequelae that result from it. The government must see, cognise, and commit to serve India’s women.