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“The amount of dirt I have to see; I skip my meals on most days”

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This post is a part of Periodपाठ, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz in collaboration with WSSCC to highlight the need for better menstrual hygiene management in India. Click here to find out more.

The Adi Ganga running down South Kolkata’s Tollygunge area, an essential water channel, has now turned into a toxic sewer due to untreated waste discharge. The air around it is unbreathable. People pinch their noses tight when crossing it.

I have witnessed this since childhood, and nothing has changed. Solid waste management is a huge issue India grapples with. Sanitary work follows an exploitative caste hierarchy in this country that finds imposing inhumane working conditions more convenient than pragmatic policies.

What Are Pads Made Of?

They’re made of Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP), and Polyethylene (PE) is used for the waterproof back cover. What keeps it dry is the polypropylene sheet. It comes packaged in non-biodegradable plastic. So, most pads you wear are made of 90% plastic containing carcinogens.

Tampons have plastic covers, applicators, and strings. Many have a thin plastic-layered absorbent. While both are unsustainable, a packet of pads equals to five plastic bags. The hush around periods has led to increased packaging and consequently, increased plastic. Additionally, we buy and dispose of them in black plastic bags.

It’s time we consider sustainable alternatives like menstrual cups, biodegradable pads, cloth pads, and more. The government launched biodegradable Suvidha pads at ₹2.50 per pad to be available at Jan Aushadhi stores, but most stores have dwindling stocks revealing inadequate implementation.

Not A Threat To The Environment Alone

Menstrual waste is plastic and biomedical waste. The presence of blood makes it biomedical waste implying that it should be treated before disposal, regularly collected and incinerated; far from what happens.

Burning garbage heaps on roadsides is a common sight. Incineration is a regulated process to burn waste in enclosed spaces at specific temperatures high enough to burn toxic chemicals and prevent them from dispersing into the atmosphere. If burnt under 800°C, plastic releases toxic pollutants like dioxins which are carcinogenic. Even after incineration, plastic doesn’t completely eradicate as highly toxic ashes require disposal too, so all of our sanitary waste ends up in landfills.

Under the Solid Waste Management Rules, pads are classified under domestic hazardous waste, so they are disposed of with household garbage. This poses a massive risk of fatal disease contraction for workers who collect and segregate waste and those who come in direct contact with sewer waste due to the illegal practice of manual scavenging.

Sanitary napkin manufacturers have the sole responsibility to provide a cover for the pad to be wrapped in before disposing of it with dry waste. In places with the absence of waste management facilities, people often burn, bury, or flush used pads. Sanitary napkins make up 45% of menstrual waste. MHAI also reports that 13% of menstrual waste is thrown in ponds, rivers, wells, lakes and roads, 10% in toilets, 9% burnt, and 8% buried as of 2018.

Issues Of Improper Disposal

  • Sanitary workers do not have adequate protection or health checkups.
  • Irresponsible, unscientific disposal leads to groundwater and surface water contamination. Workers cleaning clogged sewers come in direct contact with toxic waste and human excreta. Despite the 2013 Act prohibiting manual scavenging and rehabilitation of workers, the practice continues.
  • Diseases can spread through animals who come in contact with the waste.
  • Upon several instances, I’ve been unable to use my university washroom because of pads left open inside dustbins and floors. Toilets with proper water and disposal facilities was a demand that somehow never got fulfilled; moreover, a large part of it depends on users.

I got talking with a worker at our washroom one day. There was no water in the washroom, so we both waited. She said, “The amount of dirt I have to see; I skip my meals on most days.” I’d given her my number and asked her to take photographs of the condition and report it to the person concerned. But the complaints go unheard she said.

I never got to meet her again for a follow-up. When I took it up with a professor, I was asked to find out who to write a letter to for this and I never could. A letter was needed even to fix a broken fan in our classrooms, and naturally, the action was never prompt.

Policies In Recent Years

Revised Solid Waste Management Rules 2016: The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) revised Solid Waste Management Rules in 2016. A 2015 directive reads:

  • Of 143499 MT/day of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), only 38771 MT/day is treated, and most of it is being disposed of unscientifically causing a public nuisance.
  • State municipalities still allow unscientific disposal. They have failed to obtain SPCB/PCC authorization as needed under MSW rules. Both Kolkata and Howrah municipal commissioners received directives on immediate approval with annual reports, proper waste segregation, collection, transportation, and disposal.
  • Urging waste segregation at the source level, i.e. our households so as to not put workers to threat.
  • Providing personal protection facilities, checkups and immunization to workers.

Red Dot Campaign Pune 2017

SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling), Pune, started the Red Dot campaign in collaboration with PMC, as a response to the 2016 MoEFCC directive by which sanitary waste should be disposed of in clearly marked bags. SWaCH urges people to dispose of menstrual waste wrapped in newspapers marked by a red dot so that workers opening up packets while segregation are spared direct contact.

As of January 2020, MoEFCC Union Minister Prakash Javadekar said the Centre would make it compulsory to dispose of sanitary pads in biodegradable bags to be provided by manufacturers.

Choose your menstrual product wisely and next time you think of tossing it into the bin, remember there is a bigger chain that begins with how you choose to get rid of it.

The author is a part of the current batch of the #PeriodParGyan Writer’s Training Program

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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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