Going Beyond Whispers

Menstrual taboos have thwarted any healthy discussions around producing and disposing of sanitary napkins in an ecologically sound way

Lily Tekseng Delhi 

Arunachalam Muruganantham, more popularly known as the man who wore sanitary pads, was the primary focus of the 2013 documentary film Menstrual Man, a favourite subject for newspapers and magazines all over the world. 

Muruganantham’s obsession with sanitary napkins started many years ago in rural Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, when he found his wife collecting dirty rags to use during her menstrual cycle. The alternative to that, i.e., commercial sanitary napkins such as Whisper would mean foregoing the money for milk in Muruganantham’s family. Since then, Muruganantham has dedicated his life to finding a low-cost model of producing sanitary napkins. His quest was deemed weird and unbecoming by his family and village, who decided to ostracise him. Even his wife, the prime mover of his interest in the subject, went against him after he started collecting used sanitary pads from students for experiments, enquiring from random women in the village details of menstruation. Muruganantham drew everyone’s ire when he started wearing the pads himself, with an artificial bladder containing animal blood to simulate the process of menstruation.

Today, Muruganantham’s company, Jayaashree Industries, provides low-cost sanitary napkin-making machines to rural communities. His machines have been installed in 23 out of 29 states in the country and are run by local women with minimal skill.

In his ambition to cure India of its menstrual shame and the consequent sanitary implications, Muruganantham admits that the biggest challenge is people’s mindset. Taboos related to menstruation are projected on women, and their bodies, at a very early age. Menarche-related rituals in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh can vary from dietary restrictions on eating coconut, milk, ghee, certain fruits, jaggery, sesame and meat. It is also often accompanied by seclusion and confinement of the girl for a certain number of days. In Assam, an elaborate ritual is strictly followed by families with daughters. Based on the astrological charts, the advent of puberty for a girl means being quarantined for a certain number of days, avoiding males, avoiding cooked or processed foods, eating the four elements of the cow once (including cow dung), a ritual bath to be finally married to a banana tree, and so on.

Menstruation taboos have an elaborate traditional logic of pollution and purity and dominate much of a woman’s life. During menstruation, a woman loses access to most things: cooking, the kitchen, washing, interacting or sharing a bed with a man, touching pickles, watering plants, entering temples or even washing her hair. A woman is considered impure during menstruation and can contaminate anything she touches. Irrespective of geography, women across the country observe some form of the superstition in varying degrees. This approach to menstruation marked by a sense of shame makes it difficult for people to discuss a natural biological process openly, contributing to the lack of information for older women as well as pre-pubescents.

The flawed economics of the sanitary napkin market also means that various multinational companies like Hindustan Unilever, Kimberly Clarke Lever, Proctor and Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson price their products at a rate that makes this essential product available only to certain sections of  society. Combined with the sense of shame and the lack of low-cost sanitary napkins in the market, women resort to using dirty rags, newspaper, leaves, cotton, husk and even ash. This has serious implications on women’s reproductive and overall health, making them vulnerable to urinary tract infections and cervical cancer. Also, lack of private toilets causes women to wait till night time to go and change, which makes them highly vulnerable to violence and inattentive to hygiene. Most girls also miss school during menstruation, or drop out of school after puberty. This affects a country’s economic productivity severely.

And even where there is satisfactory menstrual hygiene management, there is the issue of shame. Sanitary napkins are rarely/never sold without being wrapped in a brown paper bag or old newspaper. In schools, the chapters on reproduction and female anatomy are either skimmed or ignored completely. The possibilities of discussion are limited — whether it is about necessary hygiene, cheaper sanitary napkins, or a more environment-friendly alternative. Various private and government initiatives are actively pursuing awareness and access programmes. However, there is still very little being done to deal with the latter. A 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, “Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right”, reported that only 12 per cent of women use sanitary napkins in India — a seemingly small number but, according to studies, the lot will consume 21.3 billion sanitary napkins in their lives. The implications of this are far reaching both in terms of the impact on the environment and health.

A standard sanitary napkin goes through an extensive process of manufacturing which entails extended use of harmful chemicals such as dioxin, synthetic fibres and petrochemical additives for bleaching the pulp used in the sanitary pad white for purely aesthetic reasons. Cotton is a water intensive crop and a great amount of fertilisers and pesticides are used to grow it. Most menstrual hygiene options in the market are disposable. Used tampons and sanitary napkins are hard to classify into either dry or wet waste, and are non-biodegradable. Disposal is almost impossible through incineration (which is another cause of major environmental pollution) and therefore they are often dumped in landfills where they remain undecomposed for years, or are thrown in the ocean. The ‘flushable’ sanitary napkins and tampons also do not decompose easily either and instead clog drains and remain in the septic tank for years.

In July 2013, residents of a  locality in Pune protested against the dumping of used sanitary napkins in their neighbourhood. Since then, there have been many other reports of garbage collectors complaining about carelessness shown in disposing of used sanitary napkins. The problem extends to diapers as well. Contaminated by faeces and blood, it puts garbage collectors and communities living close to dumping grounds under serious health risks. Anecdotal evidence also points to the hazards of using menstrual sanitary products since they contain asbestos and dioxin. This makes a female user prone to Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS), cervical cancer, bacterial infections, discomfort and irritation.

In the rush to provide menstrual sanitation to women across the country, the preferred model has been to provide access to cheaper sanitary napkins roughly similar to the ones made by the multinational companies. However, the call for healthy and environment-friendly alternatives is also gaining ground across the world and closer home. Organisations like SWaCH Coop (a collective of ragpickers/waste collectors and other urban poor in Pune) have been pushing manufacturers to assume a more proactive role for domestic disposal of sanitary napkins, i.e., providing the buyer with disposal options. Women and companies around the world have begun seeking greener alternatives. Some of the options available are organic tampons that are 100 per cent biodegradable and contain no polypropylene shell or viscose coating, washable sanitary pads and diapers, and menstrual caps made of either silicone or latex that can last for 10 years and have no health risks or possibilities of being extensively disposed. Granted that here in India we are still aiming to provide safe menstrual hygiene to every woman in the country, but some of the alternatives may well be relatively more cost-efficient and less damaging.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: OCTOBER 2014