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“Cleaning Sanitary Napkins Is Even Worse Than Cleaning Shit”

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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.

How often do you think of the consequences of the way you dispose of your menstrual waste? The disposal of menstrual waste for many people ends at dustbins inside homes, workplaces, educational institutions, and other environments they might be present in. However, the disposal of menstrual waste much like other waste follows a chain that goes beyond your disposal of the waste into a dustbin.

The chain starts from our homes to collection centres and then to incinerators, landfills, or processing units just like for any other type of waste. However, the menstrual waste contains bodily fluids which make it biomedical waste. India does not have a standard disposal method for menstrual waste, so menstrual waste is disposed of along with the solid waste. This means that the waste has to be segregated from the rest of the solid waste.

This segregation rarely happens at home, leaving sanitation workers to do the job manually. This means that they are exposed to biomedical waste that we generated and conveniently disposed of.

A landfill

So Who Picks Up After Us?

Of the 1.2 million manual scavengers in India, about 95% to 98% of them are women according to a report by the Economic and Political Weekly. The feminization of the job is because employees often take advantage of the vulnerability, and the disadvantage women face in a patriarchal society- the minimal access to power. It is also no secret that manual scavenging jobs are done by Dalit women and women from marginalized communities. They get paid extremely low. They also are not given other jobs in institutions or workplaces because of caste and gender discrimination.

In my school, the sanitation workers would often complain to teachers about the disposal of disposable sanitary pads in the bathrooms. Many menstruators would dispose of the pads directly in the dustbins or flush them down the toilets.

These were not wrapped or put into a bag before disposal. This meant that the workers had to often manually pick them out to segregate it from the rest of the waste. If the pots were clogged because of flushing pads, they had to unclog them, having to at times pick out pads from a toilet. Most of us ourselves feel dirty or disgusted with our own blood. The plight of the workers, therefore is unimaginable.

domestic worker with a mop in her hand on a backdrop of menstrual cup with blood

Health Risks And Stigma

The documentary Kakkoos directed by activist Divya Bharathi covers various aspects of manual scavenging ranging from intersections between caste and gender in manual scavenging work in India and the health risks workers face with little to no aid by the government.

The acid makes my throat and uterus hurt. We are unable to pass urine at times,” says a woman manual scavenger in the documentary as she explains the plight of several other women who work with her. Many of these women expose themselves to human and biomedical waste. A waste that we create and look away from. All this without any safety gear.

I do not eat on days I clean household garbage,” says a woman manual scavenger in the documentary while talking about segregating disposable sanitary napkins from household waste. Another worker says, “My child will not take food from my hands.”

The Prohibition of Employment does not cover manual segregation of menstrual waste as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. The documentary shows heart-wrenching visuals of manual segregation of this waste by women as the narrator says,

Cleaning the toilet is the main job for women. Because that is the lowest grade job in scavenging. Nobody talks about clearing the napkins. It’s even worse than cleaning the shit. It stinks worse than direct shit. They do not give them any safety tools, and the 2013 Act does not consider their work under manual scavenging.”

Litter Piles

One common disposal method I witnessed growing up was litter piles. Most sanitary pad varieties used are made of cellulose, super absorbent polymers (SAP), plastic covering, and adhesives/glue; many of these components do not decompose easily and remain in the environment (polluting soil and water sources).

These piles would thus contain menstrual waste in the open. Dogs and other animals would often tear these, littering the surroundings, and since they would use their teeth to tear the pads, expose themselves to pathogens and infections. Chewing waste can also choke them.

I grew up in Dehradun, where waste segregation is still not practised. According to a Hindustan Times report of 2018, 21% of wards in Uttarakhand still do not have a 100% door-to-door collection of solid waste, and the state is among the worst in waste processing. Disposal of menstrual waste disposal in the city therefore becomes a matter of even greater concern with many people still dumping their waste into piles in their surroundings.

Menstrual waste is our bodily waste. Then why should it have to be cleaned or segregated by one community or gender? These are questions we must ask ourselves every time we throw away a pad unwrapped or flush it down the toilet.

The Red Dot campaign launched in Pune in 2018 can be adopted to help sanitation workers to identify menstrual waste. The bag or wrapping containing menstrual waste needs to be marked with a red dot to help a worker recognize what the waste contains. Waste disposal does not end at dustbins and landfills. It ends at the adoption of an informed and safe disposal method. The responsibility to make choices that do not lead to waste generation or lead to minimal generation is on all individuals, including non-menstruators. How often will you think about the way you dispose of your menstrual waste now?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Bidisha was selected in’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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