“When G Talukdar came back from school in February one day, the 18-year old from Silcoorie village of Assam felt her stomach abnormally swollen. She had no idea that a parasite had been damaging her intestine. In April 2017, Talukdar died because of an unclean cloth she had used as a replacement for a sanitary napkin, a common practice across the country,” read a report by Down To Earth.
This could have been a preventable incident if only we could have been able to provide her with access to chemical-free sanitary napkins, a menstrual cup, or tampons. She had made the mistake of using an unclean cloth, a mistake that cost her her life. This is one example amongst thousands of how people suffer due to the effects of ‘period poverty.’
‘Period poverty’ implies a state of paucity or unavailability of sanitary products and other hygiene-related essentials, like clean toilets and water, often due to monetary constraints. In India, I feel that the entire population that menstruates falls victim to it. Yes, some have to face harsher circumstances compared to others, but all of us have battles to fight in our own right.
Despite being part of the basic grind for women, menstruation is still pronounced as being a ‘burden’. Ignorance, particularly, in the case of periods can be fatal, owing to the secrecy and stigma around periods. By virtue of it being a ‘taboo’, it ends up reinforcing patriarchy in society.
Sexual and reproductive health are matters that are often kept away from the public discourse. It is said that about 71% of girls in India are unaware of menstruation before they get their first period. ‘Shame’ was probably one of the many intertwining causes that led Talukdar to seek materials that were detrimental to her health.
According to the National Family Health Survey (NHFS, 2015-16), 42% of Indian women lack access to hygienic means so as to manage their menstrual cycles. One important factor is the lack of easy access to toilets, and the second is related to access to menstrual hygiene-related products.
Regarding the latter, many people, as a result of economic distress and unavailability of appropriate absorbents, are compelled to use unorthodox and dangerous materials like ash, newspapers, rags, dried leaves and husk sand, grass, and more. Even with access to toilets under the ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’ questions arise over cleanliness, access to water, and proper sewage connection.
If we carefully examine the Solid Waste Management 2016 rules, we shouldn’t even be disposing of sanitary waste as we currently do. Disposal of menstrual waste is as difficult as procuring menstrual products.
An individual who has to deal with periods ends up leaving a huge carbon footprint. The dialogue on disposal of sanitary waste is equally important as the access to sanitary napkins. Commercially-marketed sanitary napkins and tampons are a health hazard in the making.
These intimate hygiene products are made using plastic and other chemicals. For example, the market giants wish to substitute the natural odour of the vagina with scents of flowers and mountains, which is done through chemicals.
There is a gel used in pads, that supposedly locks the ‘unnatural’ and ‘appalling’ natural odours using synthetic fragrances as well as chemicals including dioxins, herbicides, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
Apart from the inability of pads to decompose for hundreds of years, there is an indirect environmental concern as well. Stagnant menstrual blood can accumulate bacteria such as Escherichia Coli which can reach groundwater deposits and seeps into the soil. Therefore, alternatives to the current pads and tampons are crucial.
In the ‘menstruation discourse’, we tend to forget one important factor—water. The International Bill of Human Rights does not recognise water as a human right, although much later it was debated on the global forum. In the context of India, the right to water is indirectly protected by the Constitution under the ‘Right to Life, Basic Necessities’ and the ‘Right to Health’.
Water isn’t only necessary for the economy, but also the survival of humans, especially women. WaterAid published a report that noted that annually, illnesses related to lack of water, basic sanitation, and hygiene were responsible for the deaths of almost 8,00,000 women around the world.
As ‘day zero’ is fast approaching, water-rationing will not be a far-fetched reality. When there is a scarcity of toilets clubbed with a decreasing supply of water for washing oneself, and with cloth pads being used by menstruating people, there is a significant chance of catching an infection.
The most common diseases that occur due to an absence of menstruation management can range from dermatitis, bacterial vaginosis (BV), urinary tract infections (UTIs), which can be fatal for our organ’s daily functioning. Many infections can make one more susceptible to cervical cancer.
The theme for this year’s Menstrual Hygiene Day was ‘It’s Time For Action’, to stress the importance of good menstrual hygiene management. However, I see no will amongst the people to take action on this pressing matter, which needs to be addressed and fast.
Yes, in today’s time we have many choices, but are they the best? Are they the most inclusive? Can cloth products be the answer to our problems? Many claim menstrual cups to be one of the more cost-efficient options, which may cost you anywhere around ₹300 to ₹1,500. These cups are reusable, eco-friendly. But how many people can really afford to invest in this? We need to keep in mind that India’s significant percentage of the population struggles to make ends meet.
Despite menstruation and menstrual products being a necessity to invest in, this cup will be perceived as an ‘indulgent’ financial burden. Many are forced to buy the cheapest available option. Aren’t we too elitist to claim menstrual cups are the best way forward?
The organic and biodegradable menstrual hygiene products that are in the market are also way more expensive. Another option is that of using cloth pads, but many worry about the hygiene aspect of it. When it comes to affordability, disposable pads tend to cost way less than the cloth pads or other ‘eco-friendly’ products.
Keeping this all in mind, we need to innovate and come up with smart and safe products for the masses. Realistically, disposable sanitary pads are here to stay until we find another option, which is why we should make sure manufacturers take responsibility for its disposal-extended producer responsibility.
Another aspect we must look at is privatisation, commercialisation, and commodification of the water sector, which is a threat to human rights. Lastly, an attitudinal and behavioural shift in menstrual discourse by the masses is required so that we can ‘normalise’ and talk about reproductive and sexual health and hygiene.
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.