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Beyond The Paradigm Of Sanitary Pads

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The pitch goes a notch lower as whispers and hushed voices take over. It’s as if they know even the walls have ears. Euphemisms colour the conversation, lest god forbid, someone should find out they are bleeding red. This He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named treatment of menstruation is intersectional with health and the implications of such social norms could make one shudder.

India exemplifies the absolute lack of relation between educational status and menstrual taboos. For a girl on her period, the family becomes a microcosm of exploding discrimination. Don’t touch the utensils, don’t enter the temple, don’t even enter the house; don’t do anything the patriarchal legacy would expect from a girl child. The more concerning acts are the practice of outhouse-living and lavatory exclusion in some communities. The bodies of menstruating women are seen as harbours of impurity. They are removed entirely from the house and made to live in a shed under all weather conditions with lesser supplies than an under-prepared camp-site. In others, menstruating women and girls are banned from using the same bathing space as their non-menstruating family members. How many families can afford two bathrooms to honour this ritual and ensure hygiene during periods? Actually, how many families can even afford one?

One of the biggest causes of infection and disease during periods are the products used to manage them. For the most socially marginalised section of females and their menstrual needs, archaic customs rule their world. Women who use dry leaves, sawdust among other things, are at the risk of nasty bacterial and fungal growths. They also possess less-to-no knowledge and awareness about menstrual health, safe products and treatment of diseases. But that does not mean that they all need sanitary pads.

Granted that only 12% of menstruating Indian women have access to sanitary napkins. But what is so great about them anyway? The political economy of sanitary pads is in direct conflict with the traditional Indian methods and the GDP of the country. Modern, rampant advertising and liberal thought about rural backwardness tips the scales in favour of sanitary napkins. But as research from the ground shows, rural Indian women prefer cloth pads, and for more reasons than one. They face a fraction of the recurring cost of sanitary pads, they are environment-friendly and women experience lesser instances of rash and irritation. Some even simply enjoy the fact that they don’t have to interact with a male seller to purchase them and face socially-induced stigma. For those women further away from modernisation, using nothing is the way to go. They prefer to let the blood flow like it was meant to and occasionally wipe it off to stay comfortable.

Where the graph is changing is among the school-going girls and women in rural India that exercise some semblance of movement autonomy. They are switching to sanitary napkins for less hassle and ease of disposal. Where they lose out, though, is the increasing cost and improper knowledge about the optimum use of sanitary pads. They keep them on long enough to become perfect beds for infections.

The question then is that what is the priority when talking about menstruation and Indian women? Is it the agenda to increase sales of sanitary pads under the guise of rescuing ignorant rural women? Or is it the provision of a safe, healthy product, no matter what that product is? As more and more urban women are turning to cloth pads that are adapted to their needs, the world before and beyond sanitary pads is worth a deeper look.

The idea is to not treat periods as the white man’s burden and start civilising menses with revolutionary western means. Aping the west has backfired for the country by historical proportions, case in point being the various trickle-down health welfare schemes that haven’t seen beyond second-tier cities. There is no all-purpose ready remedy. Targeted interventions catering to the communities’ felt-needs serve as a better method of tackling downstream causes. For communities that have conventional social-norms, strategies need to accommodate them and promote acceptable and safe products. If history is any proof, forcing pads down their throats will backfire, just like mass sterilisations did.

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  1. Birju Kumar

    Thanks. It raises pertinent question of hygiene, social taboo,affordability, culture etc etc. But I could not find any proposed corrective measures to it . And can you trace the evolution of menstruation hygiene/use of sanitary pads/other alternatives in other countries preferably subcontinent .This may help in general awareness and adopting innovative measures.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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