Menstruation in India: A Hushed Word
When a girl says “Red Wedding” she’s not referring to a wedding of a red theme, or when she says “Code Red,” it’s not like she’s a detective or something. Women of India can be found using such terms daily; these are merely the substitutions for the hushed word “menstruation”.
One would wonder why the phenomenon of menstruation is frowned upon or stigmatised to the extent that its utterance is inscribed as a deliverance of an enormously prohibited, ill terminology.
From households to educational institutions and workplaces, menstruation is strictly muted; it implies restricted mobility of women from religious places and the kitchen, due to the social taboo and myths of being “unholy” and “unclean” when a woman is on her period. These circumstances amplify the silence around the impact of period poverty and thereby reduce any room for discussion.
The Situation of the Menstrual Products
In the late 1980s through 1990s, numerous methods were employed by the majority of Indian women to tackle menstrual blood. Rags were made out of used sheets, towels, or clothes and fastened around the waist with the help of drawstrings to collect the menstrual blood. As for the Rajasthani desert region of Jaisalmer, fine sand was used in a rectangular pocket to act as an absorbent.
In the pursuit of concealing the menstrual clothes away from men’s gaze—since it was considered impure and dirty—it was often deprived of sunshine which made them even more prone to bacteria and germs. Furthermore, there weren’t any restrooms or private toilets specified for women, so basically they would change their menstrual fabric twice a day, at dawn and evening behind the bushes thus compromising their health and safety even more.
There was a breakthrough in menstruation management in 1989 with the emergence of Whispers sanitary disposable pads which ensured comfort, protection from leakage, and an increased capacity to uphold menstrual blood. This caused about 50% of urban Indian women to adopt this method instead of menstrual clothing.
In the same year, the revolutionary Arunachalam Muruganantham saw his wife using rags for menstruation and kicked his way toward innovating a new design for sanitary pads. For two years he tested various materials and eventually came across the right ones; however, he wasn’t able to process them for another four years. At last, he was successful in inventing the easy-to-use machine for the manufacture of sanitary pads which was comparatively cost efficient than the imported machine.
The imported one cost about $5,00,000, while his prototype cost only $950. He sold it to various schools and groups of women so that they could make their sanitary pads; he sold about 1300 machines to 27 states. Thus bringing in a revolution in rural India. From 2005 to 2010, disposable sanitary pads were easily available at grocery stores. MITU foundation started distributing sanitary pads as there were reports of women missing out on school due to no accessibility to menstrual products
Government in Action
Menstrual health was not a priority at the federal level. The Government of India’s programs in 1992 concentrated on topics that were driven towards a certain goal such as family planning. Menstrual health received attention in the Reproductive and Child Health Programme (RCH) in 1997, but it was not fully addressed since it was not part of a larger goal.
Two pioneering organisations in the NGO sector, Child In Need Institute (CINI, founded in 1974), and Chetna (founded in 1984), initiated to include menstrual health as part of reproductive health (RH), utilizing the “Life Cycle Approach” to include all stages of a woman’s reproductive life. Through partnerships with the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, the government’s flagship sanitation initiative, Nirmal Bharat Yatra, included menstruation management as a component of the sanitation agenda in 2012.
The concept of providing packets of sanitary napkins to every teenage girl in government schools was quickly adopted by the state governments of India. In several Indian states, this program is still ongoing today. Around 48 percent of women in rural regions use sanitary napkins, compared to about 77 percent of women in urban areas, according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 study.
The disposable sanitary pads might seem welcoming because of being more reliable and easy to use than traditional methods, but they wreaked havoc on the disposal of menstrual waste. Each sanitary pad is made up of 90% plastic and then there’s packaging and adhesives too; each is equivalent to 4 plastic bags. Assuming that about 8 sanitary pads are used per menstrual cycle, it will make up to 12 billion pads disposed of per year.
Furthermore, it should be remembered that each used sanitary pad takes 500-800 years to decompose. The fate regarding the disposal of used sanitary pads whirls around them ending up in the nearby water bodies to the localities, being burnt up, or filling landfill sites. All of these acts as a blockage to sustainability and creates an environment hostile to living organisms.
Although the garbage pile is a real and quantifiable issue, rules are still ambiguous. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCD) has made it obligatory to divide used napkins and other sanitary goods into biodegradable and non-biodegradable parts. However, the CPCB notes that according to BioMedical Waste Management Rules 2016, objects contaminated with blood and bodily fluids, such as dressings, cotton, lines, dirty plaster casts, and bedding, constitute bio-medical waste and should be ignited, microwaved, or autoclaved, to kill microorganisms.
The proper way to deal with the disposal is to incinerate the waste at a temperature greater than 800 degrees as per the WHO guidelines. Burning plastic polymers like disposable pads would release asphyxiant and irritant gases otherwise. The government of India, however, has installed cost-efficient incinerators at multiple schools and women’s complexes which burn the waste at a much lower temperature than required thus generating harmful gases such as dioxin which can spread to faraway regions and cause impairments in the immune system.
Beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes of Indian society related to menstruation often deprive Indian women of being aware of their menstrual health or having an understanding of how their body works. According to the report, 71% of girls have zero knowledge regarding the subject of menstruation until they have their first menses and the primary source of menstruation education is their mothers who’ve internalised the stigmatisation of menstruation enormously.
There are over 355 million menstruating women in India out of which 121 use disposable sanitary pads; the rest mostly resort to traditional methods of ash or cloth pads with a minute fraction opting for tampons or menstrual cups. There are many factors that limit the utilisation of products such as tampons or menstrual cups.
According to the reports in Karnataka, 64.4% of women use sanitary pads compared to 1.7% of tampons and 0.3% of menstrual cup utilization. In 2015, disposable sanitary pads had the highest share in the market of INR 9 billion, increasing by 15% per year, thus reflecting how the culture of disposable sanitary pads is accelerating. This, however, means a significant abundance of menstrual waste hazardous to the environment and health.
Pad Effect and Green Menstruation
A campaign called #ThePadEffect aims to promote menstruation that is sustainable and reduce hundreds of tonnes of sanitary trash thus evolving “green menstruation” which is the concept or idea of solving the problem of menstrual waste through managing menstruation using products that are biodegradable and environmentally friendly.
These products cover a wide range including menstrual cups, reusable cloth pads, organic cotton-based pads, and menstrual panties. All of these products are sustainable and create up to 0.6% of waste compared to a single plastic pad. Poonam Kathuria, founder member and director of the society for women’s action and training initiative, suggested to Lakshmi Murthy to design a sanitary pad for the rural women of India in 1998.
In 2000, Lakshmi Murthy designed a reusable cloth pad with hold-up straps for rural women which was called lace wala kapda or lace walla gaba by adolescent girls. Over the next 5 years, these pads were distributed among 1000 adolescents; girls were taught to make them in the workshops. Through the National Rural Health Mission, the government improved health programs.
Menstrual hygiene was added to the list of duties for Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) employees, greatly enhancing management and awareness. Ms Murthy’s team participated in the ASHA training, and as part of this program from 2005 to 2010, they instructed 800 ASHA employees in the State of Uttarakhand on how to make pads using the lace walah kapda start-up kit.
By 2010, she had started efforts of designing a better cloth pad, launching “Uger Cloth Pads” with the support of NGO Jatan Sansthan. In short, with the collective effort through Eco Femme and Uger, the problem of menstrual waste and the health hazard of contact with the gel and polymer-based products were minimized to a huge level.
Goonj, an NGO initiated in 2005 aimed at providing clean cotton cloth, launched “My Pads” which were made of semi-cotton and cotton clothing through a program: Not Just A Piece Of Cloth. It targeted rural and urban women of humble economic backgrounds, solving three obstacles, namely access, affordability, and awareness. Its simple design and easy application made it a reliable and preferred product for a huge mass.
The design studios Thoughtshop Foundation in Kolkata and Vikalpdesign in Udaipur were constantly creating educational and training materials specifically for reproductive health, giving the industry resources to advance their work on menstruation. In 2014, a Facebook page named “Sustainable Menstruation in India” began and is currently constituted of 12,000 women who are creating awareness and bridging the gaps of communication regarding sustainable menstrual practices.
About ten years ago, the non-profit “SheCup” pioneered the menstrual cup business in India. They decided to solely sell the cups through e-commerce websites since at that time there wasn’t much of a market for menstruation cups. “Stonesoup”, another organisation working for sustainable menstrual products launched in 2015 in Bengaluru, used WhatsApp to escalate its campaign across the country.
Whatsapp groups were monitored by Stonesoup to sell cloth pads and menstrual cups and to guide new users about their application. Boondh, a social enterprise that sells menstrual cups as a substitute for sanitary pads, has worked systematically to remove the taboos associated with menstruation in a campaign called the “Crimson Wave” which aided in constructing a broad accepting perspective through the medium of art.
Compared to 2019, there are currently numerous cloth pad manufacturers. Menstrual hygiene management (MHM) activities and interventions are supported by several corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. One such project is “Spark Minda”, which supports reusable goods.
Moreover, there is “Green the Red,” a nationwide initiative started by eco-warriors to promote and raise awareness of sustainable menstruation products. They make effective efforts to close the knowledge gap between providers and customers in the Indian menstrual health sector by educating consumers.
Despite these efforts, there is still a desperate need for empowerment, acknowledgement, engagement, encouragement, and education of an ever-growing Indian population where 355 million women are menstruating. There had been a surge in the adoption of sanitary pads in the 2019-2020 government data as compared to the data of 2015-16 for women aged between 15 and 24.
In Bihar, there was an increase of 27.8%, in Assam of 21.5%, in West Bengal of 28.1%, in Maharashtra of 18.7%, and in of Andhra Pradesh 17.6%. It is the need of the hour to eliminate taboos connected to menstruation and have open discussions with an emphasis on sustainable menstruation.
An engaging approach of the government along with more awareness campaigns and segregation of menstrual waste can prove to be a game changer where women would be educated regarding their bodies and the eco-friendly choices they have about menstrual products. Moreover, an increased say and magnified inclusion of well-informed women in the decision-making process could result in the laws being more effective concerning menstrual management, disposal and hygiene.
Although menstruation is a biological phenomenon, it requires to be dealt with an approach focusing on its systematic, analytical, biological, social, and economic spheres, thereby policymakers should know how to come across a dynamic and practical solution. Various mediums such as art, literature, social media, etcetera can be employed at the same time. India should do what it can for green menstruation because a greener India is a viable India.
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