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Here Is The ‘Period’ical History of The Making of Modern Sanitary Products

Probably the most prevalent menstrual hygiene product seen in use in recent generations has been the sanitary pad. It is available today in various sizes, fragrances and even for different times of the day, but the sanitary pad underwent evolution over centuries, with numerous failed experiments that ultimately led to its present form. Similarly, the existence of menstrual products other than pads too can be seen, even in the past.

  • The Earliest Period Tracker:

The “Ishango Bone” is many-a-times correlated with being the first tracker for the menstrual cycle. It is questioned to be a ‘basic calendar that may have been used to track the lunar phase in relation to the female menstrual cycle.’ Claudia Zaslavsky, an ethno mathematician in her contribution to the New Mexico State University newsletter on ethnomathematics elaborates upon the same. She builds upon the research done by Dena Taylor in an article of hers entitled “The Power of Menstruation.” 

Mathematical Treasure: Ishango Bone | Mathematical Association of America
The Ishango Bone. Representative image only.

Dena wrote the article keeping in mind her book, Africa Counts Number and Pattern in African Culture. The bone is described as an artefact that found its way into mathematical history books. Discovered in the 1960s on a lakeshore in Zaire, after dating was done on it twice, it was said to be 20,000 to 25,000 years old. It was originally described as a record of prime numbers and doubling, but it was later discovered that it represented a 6-month lunar calendar. Dena figured that no one would need a lunar calendar other than a woman keeping track of her menstrual cycle. This was contested and it was said that agriculturists were the first ones needing such a calendar, but usually, women were agriculturists at that time, while men went hunting. 

Another similar bone is the Lebombo bone. It may have been used as an early “tally stick” by the Paleolithic man from the Upper Paleolithic age onwards. Made from wood or animal bones, they too could be used for documenting time-flow, annual cycles, or even for creating some form of calendars. There are other similar bones seen in history that are hypothesized to have had relations with tracking the menstrual cycle

Nowadays, of course, there is a wide availability of period tracker apps with no need to look at incisions on bones. 

  • Clothes and Rags: 

4th century AD Hellenistic Greece brought with it Hypatia, a prominent philosopher from Alexandria known for overcoming sexism in her society. She is credited with having thrown a bloody rag at a male admirer to get rid of him. This shows that the usage of rags to collect menstrual blood was prevalent then. “On the rag” is also a term commonly used in lieu of menstruation. Before the disposable pad was invented, most women used rags, cotton, wood pulp or sheep’s wool in their underwear to stop the flow of blood. Even rabbit fur and grass was used. 

A Brief History Of The Menstrual Period: How Women Dealt With Their Cycles Throughout The Ages
Representative image only.

Sand, filled inside cloth and used as a sanitary pad was a phenomenon seen in China decades ago. In India, sadly the phenomenon of using such materials that may be harmful in the long run is seen even in the present day, due to rampant poverty and lack of awareness regarding the availability of safe, sustainable methods. 

  •  Menstrual Belts, Aprons and Bloomers:

Clue, a company behind a popular period and ovulation tracker app discusses the usage of menstrual belts in history. The initial menstrual belt was introduced by Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner, a black self-taught inventor, whose patent was denied due to her being black. 

Menstrual products were marketed door-to-door during the 1870s, with products like “Ladies Elastic Doily Belt” appearing in catalogues. This was silk and elastic belt to which a pad could be attached. Acting like a girdle, it went around the waist and met at the centre between the legs. The pad would be attached to the loops of the belt. The product was not very useful though, since the pad kept shifting. 

Period aprons emerged in the 1850s and were creative at best. The idea of putting a thin layer of rubber between the underpants and the outer garment was an extension to the concept of “bloomers” that were being seen in the 1800s. The term bloomer is derived from a nineteenth-century garment worn by American women’s rights activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer. These bloomers (underwear lined with rubber/rubber pants) were supposed to be self-adjusting, snug and reversible, according to an ad from the time, which also appears in Clue’s menstrual history article. Still, there is a high chance that these were hardly comfortable, after all, it was rubber and blood together. 

  • The Sanitary Pad:

Nurses were the first ones who thought about using sanitary pads, seeking to stem the flow of blood especially while on the battlefield. These pads were made using wood pulp by French nurses. Soon after, commercial manufacturers adopted the idea to form the first disposable pads in 1888 called the ‘Southball pads.’ Johnson & Johnson in 1896 introduced the ‘Lister’s Towel: Sanitary Towels for Ladies’ along the same lines. 

The closest resembling sanitary pads to what can be seen today were Kotex pads, introduced in 1921 in the United States. Kotex means cotton texture (co-tex = Kotex) and were inspired by super-absorbent bandages made with a cotton-acrylic blend which were used for wounded soldiers in World War I. These could also help with tackling menstrual flow. Even so, they were either too expensive for most of the population or the taboo surrounding menstruation did not enable them to be bought easily by women, who had to end up dropping money in jars and collecting the pads from a box without interacting with the mostly-male shopkeepers. 

In India too, the practice adopted by shopkeepers of putting sanitary napkins in black bags before handing them over to the customer evidently shows that the taboo has ceased to disappear even today. While we may have evolved in terms of products, the general mentality largely remains unchanged in the country.

  • The Racism Aspect:

As mentioned, Mary Beatrice Davidson Kenner was denied the patent for the sanitary menstrual belt. This was only because of her race. Even when she was trying to make lives simpler for fellow women, her patent got rejected because of her being black. 

Kenner was a born inventor and used to come up with ingenious ideas ever since childhood. Children of her age drew aeroplanes and sports cars while Kenner made plans for a convertible roof that would go over the folding rumble seat of a car. Once she saw water dripping off a closed umbrella and onto the door, and came up with a sponge tip that could be added to the end to soak up the rainwater. She even drew up plans for a portable ashtray that would attach itself to a cigarette packet. An inventive spirit was always within her.

After shifting to Washington DC at age 12, she started roaming around the halls of the United States Patent and Trademark Office to find out if someone had beaten her and led a patent for an invention first. Years later, she was extremely excited when she was approached for the menstrual belt patent, but the company representative, after meeting her and realising that she was black, went back to New York (from where the company operated) and told her that they were no longer interested.

Thankfully, this did not deter her spirit. With time, she filed 5 patents, more than any other African-American woman in history.

  • Entry Into India:

According to Scroll, the first advertisement of Southball pads was said to be released in 1889 – but it featured in the Times of India as early as 1885. This shows that early forms of pads were probably available in the Indian market too since they were being advertised. Initially distributed to Calcutta, Bombay and Poona retailers and mentioned on the seventh page of the newspaper along with other health-related articles and advertisements, it asserted its role as a “medical product.” At the time, the pad was not being marketed as a necessity but as a source of comfort and hygiene.

Before 1947, such ads were mainly for the European and Anglo-Indian population. By 1954, an Indian Kotex advertisement sought to create an association with the Indian “modern women” too. Ads were not just seen for Southball or Kotex. Sanitary napkins were also produced by the organised sector in India, but their advertisements are found in Times of India from the third quarter of the 20th century. Examples would be Gandhar Enterprises (from Allahabad in 1975), Softouch (Ahmedabad, 1981) and Carewell (Chandigarh, 1992). 

The napkins were accompanied with belts which implies that they would particularly be suited to women wearing petticoats and salwars. The introduction of adhesives to napkins by the 1990s also indicated changes in the use of underwear, supplemented by a 60% growth rate. With the coming of liberalisation, the sanitary pad consumer base started growing like never before, with new brands like Whisper, Stayfree and more. Still, there was a need to spread awareness and expand the consumer base beyond the usual buyers. Therefore, aggressive campaigning came to the forefront. Schools, doctors’ chambers, free samples, door-to-door selling and home-delivery helplines were used to promote and cut across societal distinctions. 

Nonetheless, sanitary napkins and other menstrual products are still out of reach for the larger Indian population to date. 

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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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