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Do You Know What’s In Your Sanitary Pad?

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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.

A serious blotch is caused on the ‘Swachh Bharat Mission‘ as the use and throw nature of sanitary napkins that have plastic as an essential ingredient fills the sewers, landfills, and water bodies. The readily available pads have a long journey, and the problems caused by them are manifold.

sanitary pads in the market

Manufacturing

There are five layers in a sanitary napkin:

  • The cover stock
  • Acquisition and distribution layer
  • Absorbent core
  • Back sheet
  • Siliconised paper

The raw materials required usually include cotton, paper pulp, rayon etc. The key component of the napkin is its absorbent layer; the efficiency of the pad is determined by this layer’s absorbent rate. The wood pulp used in the making is mostly imported, therefore increasing the overall price.

As of 2018, sanitary napkins are not required by law to disclose their ingredients on the packet. In order to make it as leak-proof as possible, a lot of plastic goes into it. Polypropylene or polyethylene is used as the base. ‘Wings’ that attach to the underwear are also made of plastic. All this is yet followed by two layers of plastic packaging. On the brighter side, Prakash Javedkar said that from 2021, manufacturers would be mandated to provide biodegradable bags for disposal of each pad.

Consumption:

After production, sanitary napkins hit the market racks for consumption. According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-2016, roughly 36% menstruators use sanitary napkins. That counts to about 121 million people. A lot of hygiene guidelines need to be kept in mind while using them. Micro-organisms tend to multiply in moist and warm conditions. This can lead to vaginal infections, rashes etc.

These napkins come in direct contact with the vaginal area. Since the napkins are laced with dioxins, petrochemicals, and fragrances, skin may get irritated when it comes in contact with it, and this can act as a direct route to the person’s reproductive organ. Livemint. Imagine if our own sanitary napkins can be so harmful, how hazardous can be working around someone else’s.

Disposal:

Sanitary napkins are classified as biomedical waste due to the presence of blood. However, the debate around it still persists. According to the Solid Waste Management rules of 2016, every waste generator must segregate waste into three types- dry, wet and domestic hazardous waste. But there is no uniform way in which these pads are identifiable. Collectors are then forced to separate them from other wastes, putting them at risk to infections like HIV or hepatitis.

Every bit of waste is valuable to waste pickers. When it is not identifiable, they do a fine job of opening it, and separating each part into different materials because that is how scrap dealers buy it,” Suchismita Pai, outreach manager at SWaCH told Huffpost India. “Opening sanitary waste is disgusting, and an assault on their dignity and health without any financial gain.

On top of this, most of the sanitary napkins are non-biodegradable and can take around 600-800 years to decompose. Count the number of sanitary napkins you use in a cycle. That multiplied by 12 and then by 121 million is the total number of pads India alone is consuming.

Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India states that there are three main concerns to management of on compostable menstrual waste in India-

  • Lack of adequate disposal and treatment options leading to unsafe management of the same.
  • Many menstruators don’t have access to many waste management options.
  • A dearth of access to disposal options may force menstruators to stick to other unhygienic practices.

Some of the ways in which menstrual waste is managed are as follows:

  1. Incineration: Here the waste is combusted to reduce its volume and is converted into relatively harmless gasses and incombustible solid waste, for example, ash. The risk lies in the fact that if incineration occurs in conditions where waste is not properly segregated or when the temperature is lower than required, toxic gasses may be released. Because of the poor quality of incinerators used in India, health risks are massive.
  2. Deep burial: Used for non-plastic sanitary napkins, here the material is put in the burial pit and is covered with soil or sand without exposing to open air.
  3. Burning/flushing: In areas where there is a lack of waste collection facilities, or sometimes out of ignorance too, menstruators flush their used pads or bury them in a pit. The gel and plastic in the pads clog the drainage lines eventually burdening the manual scavengers.

While talking about non-biodegradable waste, Pai said, “They end up in a landfill because they can’t be recycled easily. We are fighting for extended producer responsibility to ensure that they are disposed of properly and to find a way of recycling them.

India still has no standardised system of menstrual waste management. The only immediate resort to this can be efforts on an individual and community level while waiting for the authorities to put their promises into actions.

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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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