Women, Explore Your Options For Menstrual Hygiene

Posted by Shradha Shreejaya in Menstruation
February 15, 2017

Gone are the days in Kerala when menstruation was hush-hush. For many it might still be distasteful and gruesome to talk about, but we are seeing a lot more men, and a few women step into this bloody arena. Aditi Mittal’s hilarious stand-up comedy on sanitary napkins and articles on menstrual cups have been doing the rounds in the media. This article is an attempt to paint the whole picture.

Why Talk About Menstruation?

As women, we have been conditioned over the years to not speak – be it about what happens to our bodies or our minds. What gets tricky is that our biology does not understand silence and expresses its discomfort in ways we cannot deal with secluded in our bathrooms. Our bodily functions transcend social constructs of gender and propriety, thankfully. Menstruation is an innate cycle of life that requires basic understanding of our anatomy and body responses. To avoid any distortion of reality, we have seen the ancients try in their best Brahmanical capacity to define the monthly cycle.

Fortunately, a few scientific studies to shift perspectives have come up in the recent decades, attributing only as much importance to menstruation as “asked” for. Conditions like premenstrual syndromes (PMS), polycystic ovarian syndromes (PCOS), uterine infections and cervical cancers are now medically documented and treatable. Yet unless an illness is diagnosed, the daily ordeals of menstruation are still very much neglected.

Keep Bleeding, Love

From menarche to menopause, a woman may undergo around 450 periods in her lifetime, which is over 1,800 days of bleeding (roughly four and a half years). There are cramps, spotting, leakage and headaches, to cite the least of all the problems. Mood swings and lacklustre aside, current menstruation issues also pose health and environmental concerns making the matter more complicated.

The most widely used products that have been made available easily are disposable sanitary napkins (DSNs). They used to come in simpler forms, where the plastic could be easily stripped off from the absorbent filled cotton inside, and disposed off separately. With all sorts of innovation that DSNs could have lived without, we now see compactly layered materials that can survive natural disasters themselves.

Women who say no to DSNs get labelled as privileged elitists or tree hugging hippies, who if are incidentally unmarried or without children, then also get looked down upon for not understanding “real women” challenges. While I respect the roles we juggle and march on with, those are all choices we have made ourselves, in most instances. Such choices are sadly lacking in our market shelves.

different products used during periods by women.
Image credits: Flickr/Elisabeth Steger

Cups, Pads And Everything In Between

Here is a short list of available product options for women, currently in markets and with online retailers.

External devices

Disposable Sanitary Napkins

Benefits:

  • Use and throw convenience
  • Readily available
  • Competitively low prices

Issues:

  • If used for longer hours can cause itching and rashes.
  • Bad smell due to presence of toxic chemicals that mix with menstrual blood.
  • Disposal is very difficult, interlocked layers with body fluid cannot be separated and hence cannot, be disposed with plastic waste or organic waste and ultimately end up in landfills/drainage system.
  • Toxic chemicals like dioxins are detected in some products, which is an endocrine disrupting hormone and persistent organic pollutant, with serious health effects.

Biodegradable Sanitary Napkins

Benefits:

  • Can be shredded and composted
  • No toxics in contact with vaginal area
  • Eco-friendly

Issues:

  • Products still in innovation stage
  • Weak supply chain
  • Plastic material still has to be discarded separately

Cloth pads (stitched)

Benefits:

Issues:

  • Has to be washed and dried in sunlight, or dried with dryers
  • Needs proper maintenance to avoid leakages
  • Socio-economic barriers and taboos prevent beneficial use for rural women

Insertion devices

Tampons

Benefits:

  • Easily disposable
  • Plastic components minimal
  • Absorbs more volume of blood

Issues:

  • Limited availability in stores
  • Expensive
  • Health risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome due to absorbing nature of product
  • Bleached cotton directly in contact with vaginal area

Menstrual cups

Benefits:

  • Material made from sterile medical quality silicon with minimal chance of bacterial growth/infection
  • Inert and doesn’t alter vaginal nature like pH
  • Blood can be collected and emptied in latrine/wash basins in 6-10 hours
  • Activities like swimming can be done without hassle
  • Lasts with proper maintenance for 5-8 years

Issues:

  • High one time cost for buyers
  • Not a profitable business model for producers
  • Needs to be sterilized at least once in a cycle
  • Stigma related to “hymen” prevents unmarried women from using it

What Is Stopping Us?

Limited awareness in these topics is a big challenge and formal spaces for women to express themselves openly are still absent, except in print media. However, there are a few Facebook groups that are only-women, like Sustainable Menstruation India, Menstrual Cups and Cloth Pads (India), with membership of around 10,000 that are taking questions and discussing menstruation matters. In open forums it is ironic that a lot of male-deniers make their way into these groups challenging the authenticity of cups or the need for such spaces and often put women down for sharing their experiences so openly.

On the other side, health practitioners, including women gynaecologists, are still uncertain about the wide variety of the latest trends and innovations in menstrual hygiene products and often give out inaccurate information to concerned women.

When a woman’s choice of a product has such immense consequence over health, society and environment, it fails me why we, collectively, still ignore the need to demystify and remove the taboo around such conversations. Product availability and businesses are still predominantly a man’s world, which dictate the choices that we are given in terms of our bodies’ needs. For this to change, we women ourselves need to come forward, shed inhibitions (like how our uterine linings do with so much beauty every month) to engage and educate people around us. For as long as there is silence, there stands no hope for our collective futures.

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Image credits: Flickr/cheeseslave

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