For centuries, women have fashioned receptacles from locally available absorbants to soak up menstrual discharge. Softened papyrus was used by women in ancient Egypt, while in other parts, materials like wool, paper, vegetable fiber, grass, animal skin, and moss were used to create makeshift tampons and pads . However, over the years, unfounded fears, social taboos and misconceptions have greatly hindered the ability of women to articulate their menstrual needs.
Soft cotton is probably the best absorbent of menstrual blood. In India where menstruation is taboo, the clandestineness with which women labour to conceal their period works against the humble home-made cloth pad. “Cloth has far more outreach since it has been a traditional solution. But the problem is that cloth pads are not managed well”, says waste management aficionado Hamsa Iyer. Unlike the rest of the laundry, menstrual cloths are not hung out in the open to dry under the sun. Most often than not, they are left in dark, unfrequented corners of the house; spots sought out by disease-causing germs. This routine of ‘rinse, risk, and repeat’ has been responsible for a culture of menstrual ill-health for a vast majority of females cutting across geography and religion.
A more recent contributor to the downfall of cloth pads was convenience. Priyanka Jain from Hygiene & You, an awareness creation and personal hygiene business platform, rues that most mothers view periods as ‘dirty’ and do not want to burden their daughters with washing soiled menstrual cloths. “Mothers want to make it convenient for their daughters and choose disposable pads in place of home-made cotton pads without any hesitation”, she adds.
The hygiene revolution – Disposable sanitary pads
Women-unfriendly infrastructure greatly impeded hygienic menstruation, and as the risk of contracting infection due to improper handling of menstrual cloths remained high, inventors of the age proposed disposable sanitary pads as a remedy. Lister’s Towels surfaced in the United States in the 1890s, but the overwhelming public modesty of the era prevented them from becoming a commercial success . The idea scored wider acceptance a decade or so later. Corporations manufacturing sanitary pads played the convenience card in addition to the hygiene one to woo the urban woman. Not surprisingly, disposable pads remain one of the most preferred female menstrual hygiene products across the globe till date.
The government has been supporting and advertising the use of sanitary napkins in a big way. As part of its efforts to improve reproductive, adolescent and child health in rural areas, the Union government has consistently come up with schemes promoting menstrual hygiene through Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and health workers. Rural women can now procure SHG manufactured napkins ‘Freedays’ from ASHAs during monthly meetings at Rs. 6 for a pack of six.
This is no doubt, a positive sign. The downside here is the utter disregard for the environment. “If only a quarter of India’s menstruating adolescent girls used disposable pads, 90 million would be disposed or burned every month alone”, contends women-led social enterprise Eco Femme. Once discarded, there is absolutely no way in which the constituents can be reused or recycled. This element has brought the entire disposable strategy into question, nurturing a new class of eco-warriors batting as much for the environment as hygiene.
Revolution reinvented – Ecology and economy
The availability, sustainability and economic viability of safe re-usable alternatives are often omitted from mainstream menstrual hygiene propaganda. Eco Femme's experience in and around the Auroville bio-region reveals that most school students use disposable sanitary pads mainly because they are provided free of cost by the government .
The back-to-the-basics wave propagated by today’s eco-conscious lot has revolutionised the menstruation discourse, focussing both on ecology and economy. Environment consciousness and long-term eco-viability are the movement’s core propellers. Waste management enthusiast Malini Parmar says different women react to different pitches. “The eco-conscious ladies would do it for the environment; the chic-factor might appeal to the upper-middle class woman, while the compelling math would influence the poor more than anything”.
The most popular options are the reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups. Battling old demons, reusable cloth pads are making a comeback in urban areas, although their popularity is greatly affected by the fact that they are not available over the counter in many stores. Auroville-based enterprise Eco Femme produces and sells washable cloth pads. The group has been advocating for non-polluting menstrual practices and training facilitators to promote healthy and environmentally sustainable menstrual practices. They have been actively promoting sustainable menstruation through their Pad for Pad initiative, focussed on imparting menstrual health education to girls from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The initiative has reached out to 3,650 girls and distributed 13,676 pads free of cost, so far .
Problems of information and reach plague the adoption of menstrual cups as well. Made of medical-grade silicone, these reusable cups catch the menstrual blood once inserted into the vaginal canal and offer near-zero leak protection. While the cups may seem like complex contraptions, users swear by the cups’ comfort. They come in a range of sizes to fit all body types and can be reused for a minimum of 7-8 years, making them one of the most sustainable options available. Sustainable Menstruation India and several other online groups buzz with activity; users sharing experiences, clearing doubts and suggesting best-buys. But there is very little information available about these cups outside the digital space and the fact that they have to be inserted into the vagina does not bode well for the cups. “All you need is an open mind and a better understanding of the female anatomy”, asserts Priyanka. Though the initial investment is slightly high, the cup pays for itself in the long run. “A menstrual cup can cost anywhere between Rs 700 – Rs 1000. This is a one-time investment for a period of 10 years or till the cup loses its elasticity. On an average, a woman will spend Rs. 1000 – Rs. 2400 annually on sanitary pads. It's massively cost effective”, points Hamsa.
The new wave’s rise fits neatly into the uber-influential social media era. Online fora, blogs and discussion platforms bring alive the various facets of hygiene. From sharing experiences to suggesting eco-friendly and cost effective solutions, these virtual arenas have taken it upon themselves to spread the good word, one period at a time.
1. People for periods - Past, present, periods
2. Eco Femme - Pad for pad report 2015-16