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EarthDay2020: Women Have The Power To Save The Planet Each Month!

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Different menstrual hygiene products used widely
Are we making informed, environment-friendly choices when we opt for a menstrual product?

Environmental protection, reproductive health and sustainable development are often viewed in silos or as agendas opposed to each other. This Earth Day, we ask, can these goals be achieved simultaneously? Reusable menstrual products, such as the menstrual cup, are environment-friendly, economically viable and beneficial for women’s health. So, if we can end period poverty and achieve sustainability simultaneously, why has this not happened yet? This article discusses the resurgence of reusable menstrual products, their environmental, economic and health benefits, and how they can be mainstreamed.

Whilst reusable menstrual products have been in the market for 100 years; many are unaware of their existence. The menstrual cup, for instance, was first prototyped in the 1860-1870s and later patented by America actress Leon Chalmers in 1937. Since the early 2000s, it has been commercially sold by various companies, yet never taken centre-stage. Perceptions around such products are changing. As the BBC finds, the popularity of reusable menstrual hygiene products is on the rise with google searches increasing as seen below.

Moreover, sales of brands, like the Moon Cup, have increased by 98% over the last five years. Nonetheless, the market remains small, with only 2-3% of women using reusable menstrual products in America. With the average woman using more than 11,000 pads or tampons in her lifetime, we fail to discuss the approximately 100 billion menstrual hygiene products disposed of annually. The growth of environmental awareness has been a contributor to the rise in reusable products. Moreover, many have opted for cups due to cost-effectiveness or health benefits. As the founders of Moon Cup state, women have started embracing a “safer, greener and cheaper” period.

A Safer Period

Despite taboos around insertable products, menstrual cups contain safer ingredients. In a 2011 study, 91% of women who tried them said they would recommend them to their friends. Furthermore, it offers convenience, with one cup being used for up to 12 hours, longer than pads or tampons. This makes them suitable for women in rural areas who may be living “with no toilets, electricity or running water” as stated by Vanessa Paranjothy, founder of Freedom Cup, an initiative for which she has been awarded the Commonwealth Youth Award for Asia. Beyond safety, perhaps the biggest concern for users is using an unfamiliar product. To this end, there are various sites which educate women on trying menstrual cups for the first time.

A Greener Period

The increasing concern for the environment is driving the uptake of menstrual cups. As the UNEP finds, an estimated 15 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions are generated annually from manufacturing disposable menstrual products. Additionally, an estimated 12 billion pads and seven billion tampons end up in landfills yearly. Individually, this amounts to a carbon footprint of 5.3 kgCO2 per person.

Low-density polythene used in pads and tampons is particularly damaging for the planet. This has harmful effects on oceans. For example, a recent report found that disposable menstrual products are the fifth most common type of waste washing up on beaches. Reusable products are indeed, a key solution. For instance, as the diagram below shows, one menstrual cup could save over 2,500 disposable pads and tampons.

Source: OrganicCup

A Cheaper Period

In many countries, the “tampon tax” means women face expensive periods. Despite the recent abolishment of the tax in India, products remain unaffordable for many. As the founders of the Freedom Cup state, menstrual cups “help women living in the Third World, who cannot afford sanitary products.” Such projects currently distribute free cups to underprivileged women via their sustainable business model. Beyond the direct price, disposable pads also contribute to additional costs like lost schooling or earning less money whilst women are on their period. The menstrual cup helps with this, allowing women to be outdoors and active, without the need to use the bathroom frequently.

Lastly, the menstrual cup aids average working women who spend thousands on pads and tampons over the course of their menstruating life. A typical menstrual cup costs between ₹300 to ₹1000 in India, which can be used for up to 10 years, this breaks down to less than 25 INR per period. Despite these arguments, the question remains, why has the menstrual cup not taken off?

Barriers To Adoption

Disposable menstrual products are produced by a $6 billion industry. Profit motives mean companies are unlikely to shift towards reusable products. Some companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble argue shifting consumer behaviour is extremely difficult. In reality, revealing the reusable counterfactual to their customers is going to disrupt the traditional business model. For instance, big market players have stifled any competition faced, making it hard for small reusable products companies to scale-up.

Next, there is a cultural taboo. Despite attempts for popularisation and advocation by health professionals, menstrual cups remain unpopular due to their internal and reusable nature. Moreover, many women develop brand solidarity in their teenage years, and this is something that may be hard to change.

Representational image. Photo Credit: Michelle Tribe/Wikimedia Commons.

Girls continue to do what their moms or friends have done. There is a learning curve, as most girls are also not taught about reusable products in schools. This could improve with more awareness. Some organisations are holding events, like a recent event on Venice beach, in California, USA, highlighting pollution through disposable menstrual products.

Despite efforts, there is polarisation of views around reusable products. In the West, reusable products have obtained a “cult-like” status with popularisation amongst fringes of the ecofeminist movement. In developing countries, it is predominantly championed by NGOs and viewed as something that is suitable for women in poverty. It is conceded that reusable products are not going to be a solution to everyone’s needs.

For instance, the founders of the Moon Cup suggest it may not be suitable in rural contexts where women do not have adequate sanitation facilities since menstrual cup reuse requires clean water. Nonetheless, the popularisation of reusable products, like menstrual cups, requires awareness and adoption at large. Here is how you can take action:

  1. Be a responsible buyer: Consumers need to be mindful when purchasing products. What are the plastic ingredients in your pads and tampons? Whilst menstrual cups are not for everyone, there is a spectrum of sustainable products available like reusable or cotton pads. Why not get acquainted with and try a reusable product?
  2. Make reusable products mainstream: Ecofeminism is not just a western concept. Use of reusable products requires breaking cultural taboos. Peer effects are an important starting point in changing attitudes too. Social media can be a powerful channel to promote “eco-friendly periods”. Why not share your experience with friends?
  3. Petition for systematic change: Consumer uptake needs to be complemented by top-down change. The disclosure of harmful plastic ingredients in pads and tampons is important in spearheading change. “Greenwashing” is often used by producers to keep consumers at bay. Various petitions calling for mandatory disclosure and the provision of plastic free-alternatives. Why not sign a petition and take action online?

In the early 90s, a third of menstrual product inventions were made by women, a disproportionate number, compared to patent statistics of the day. Today, too, women can lead a revolution by using and promoting sustainable, reusable menstrual products. When planetary problems seem very big, a small step this Earth Day can be taken by every woman around the world.

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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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