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Sustainable Menstruation: The Big Elephant In The Room

I don’t really know if you grew up as an Indian tween or teen during the late 90s. Well, I vividly remember those ads which tried hard to brush over hygienic practices during menstruation. Yet they chose to maintain the hush-hush tempo of a very natural life process by deeming it for “Un dino mein (During those days).” The voice over, all the more, used to protect the so-called sanctity of menstruation, by specifically hushing the tone of this phrase. Right from using those choicest privy phrases then, to hurling commercials featuring models pulling off trekking expeditions on their period now.  Sigh. I swear, sanitary pads have come a long way. PERIOD.

Disposable sanitary napkins, beyond the shadow of any doubt, have made many of our lives lighter (pun intended). There have been several mums who switched to the revolution in order to make the most ‘awaited yet icky transition phase for their daughters hassle-free.

You’re all set, carrying the pads well in advance as you expect your monthly visitor, and thank yourself for that when you suddenly start chumming elsewhere but home. So you hail this spongy pad as that heavenly bit of convenience you tuck in your underpants. To be honest, I’m also that person who has had problems with the pharmacist smothering the pack of these pads with at least two covers of newspaper and a black plastic bag.

Thankfully, things are changing pretty fast in metro cities like Bangalore, where I live. It’s a heartening thing to see girls and women asking for a pad loud enough that the pharmacists now don’t depend on their coy body language or lip movements as their cue to give it to them. Phew!

And that prompts me to talk about some really dark facts about our menstruation and pads, particularly in India.

Do you know what made that girl in one of those ads dry out an entire swimming pool with her pad? (I know you’re just about to bash me left and right, assuming I took it for real!)

Do You Know Where Your Sanitary Pad Goes After You Dispose It?

Unfortunately, in India, the entire task of scavenging is manual. Right from the door-to-door collection of garbage to the segregation and the final dump/incineration or any further processing. Almost none of the scavengers even wear masks and gloves. Neither do we segregate our waste mindfully into wet, dry (including plastic discards), abandoned fabric and biomedical waste.

Biomedical waste is how the government guideline classifies things such as sanitary pads, used earbuds, blood-soaked bandages, and condoms. Because, all of our body fluids or refuse when dealt with bare hands or are dumped into landfills, open doors to life-threatening infections and diseases.

What Can You Do To Make Your Pad Less Hazardous?

Flush it down? No! You’d never ever want to call a plumber someday to clear the blockage down your commode after that, would you?

Burn it? Most of these commercial pads contain crazy chemicals in the name of ‘absorbent gel’ and bleach, which release carcinogenic toxins and vapors into the air when burnt. The same goes with incinerators that often lack the infrastructure to neutralize and reuse the harmful by-products from incineration. This, practice is, though, followed in many foreign countries quite discriminately under a controlled, systematic environment; which makes sense.

None of them really resonated with the smart and responsible version of you. Right?

Then, How Do You Get Into Sustainable Menstruation?

I’d press over the word “THINK”!

Wash the used sanitary napkin under running water to rinse it, and squeeze it. Alternatively, you could disintegrate the pad to strip it completely from the net-woven plastic covering. All you’d be left with is the cotton; wash it & squeeze the water out. Dispose the plastic parts into the plastic garbage bin/bag. There’s perhaps no need to make room for disgust as it is your own blood. Pack it into at least two newspaper layers of cover and either mark it with a red cross, or put this into a separate pink or red coloured bag. Make it obvious for the scavengers to identify this as biomedical waste.

So, before your pad becomes a dreaded vehicle of infections to somebody at the other receiving end, you’re clearing it up.

There are a few sanitary pad manufacturers which produce 100% biodegradable pads. Meaning, they easily decompose upon burial or incineration, and hence, do not contribute to environmental waste.

When it comes to menstrual alternatives, the concept of reuse and recycle seem to be terrifying practices by those women who don’t use sanitary pads to deal with their periods. We, particularly, refer to the rural women population who’ve always seen menstruation through the stigma of shame, isolation, a bad omen, impurity and what not. The very beautiful natural process that makes you able to have your offspring is considered evil. Menstruation faces the level of disgust that even shit stops feeling filthy or denigrated.

Appallingly, like we’ve heard lately, these women use dirty cloths even unworthy of becoming hand mops. Many of them resort to cement bags, rags, hay and every wacky thing you couldn’t imagine of tucking into your underwear. If it’s a cloth, it doesn’t see the sunlight when put for drying.

There are various affordable brands of reusable cloth pads available online today. These are crafted to resemble the design of the conventional sanitary napkins, can be maintained well if washed with utmost care and hygiene. These cloth pads too boast of good absorbency and placement. However, they need to be washed with warm water and be dried in the sun.

Menstrual cups, are also popular today when it comes to sustainable menstruation. Many of my friends have taken to the switch quite positively despite the various apprehensions surrounding the usage of menstrual cups. And, most women who have used them have quite a lot of good things to say. Now, wouldn’t you want to help yourself into a much cleaner environment, while not compromising over your health?

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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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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