Sustainable menstruation
While repurposed cloth is panned by proponents of disposable sanitary napkins, sustainable menstruation campaigners call it an ideal menstrual hygiene product.
Pic courtesy: Eco Femme

When a short documentary on menstruation won an Oscar, many deliriously tweeted that this is going to start conversations on menstruation. Most didn’t know that these conversations have already begun and have evolved into sustainable menstruation initiatives in rural India, the very setting that forms the backdrop of the film Period. End of Sentence.

These initiatives are not at all like The Pad Project featured in the documentary. That’s not just because they refuse to present disposable sanitary napkins (DSN) as an instant panacea that can cure everything from period poverty to menstruation taboo. 

Forget DSN, many of them don’t think that peddling sustainable menstrual hygiene products, even the ones they make, is important. Instead, they prefer that women make an informed choice after awareness sessions.

Hold on. That is not a cryptic reference to a ‘class’ where women are patronisingly ‘taught’ about what they need to do. It is a two-way exchange, even as these sessions tell menstruators what disposable pads, repurposed old cloth, tampons, menstrual cups and reusable cloth pads can do to their body, environment and pockets. Here, the educators learn too.

“We are not there to tell them how to manage menstruation. From their grandmothers’ times, women have been managing it on their own. There are communities that practise free bleeding. There is nothing wrong with that. Our approach is to talk to them about reproductive health, sexually transmitted diseases, child birth and various trauma associated with it. During these sessions, we also understand what the existing practices and beliefs associated with menstruation are,” says Smriti Kedia, Strategy and Execution, Uger Project, an initiative of the Rajasthan-based not-for-profit Jatan Sansthan.

These organisations advocate for the reuse of old cotton cloth. That’s revolutionary, especially as proponents for DSN have been presenting cloth as the villain in all menstrual hygiene stories. DSN cheerleaders continue to quote a 2010 survey conducted by AC Nielsen for Plan India, which found that only 18% women have access to sanitary hygiene. The survey completely ignores cloth as a menstrual hygiene device. Following the release of the National Family Health Survey-4 results in 2018, newspaper headlines read “62% young women still use cloth”, as if that in itself is an unhygienic practice. In the documentary, Arunachalam Muruganantham, the inventor of the low-cost pad making machine, without citing any source, claims that less than 10% women use sanitary napkins.

While these statistics stubbornly run repurposed cloth down, sustainable menstruation campaigners call it an ideal menstrual hygiene product. It is affordable, widely accepted and has zero health and environment costs. But in the end the decision is made by the women. Typically, most women slowly amble towards cloth pads, after a product analysis session in which they are trained to critically evaluate various choices available, says Kathy Walkling, co-founder of an Auroville-based not-for-profit Eco Femme.

Eco Femme's ‘Pads for Sisters’ initiative (Pic courtesy: Eco Femme)

Menstrual hygiene education is at the heart of all Eco Femme initiatives, including ‘Pads for Sisters’, which aims at offering reusable cloth napkins at subsidised rates to women who cannot afford it otherwise. The number of rural women who adopted cloth pads through the Pads for Sisters programme has seen a slow but steady increase. Last year they sold about 20,000 pads, while this year in the first quarter alone they have sold 28,000 pads under the programme. Many women, who would have developed rashes because of the use of disposable sanitary napkins and who would have faced difficulty during the disposal phase, become cloth pad users after the sessions, according to Walkling. These sessions may take several hours to several days, but the educators would never instruct women what to choose. “That would be an insult to their intelligence,” says Walkling.

The campaigners were asked what if many women say there is no water to wash menstrual cloth. Each one we spoke to, including Uger which works in water-scarce Rajasthan, said that, barring women in a few desert areas, most didn’t cite water as their main challenge.

“A bigger problem was the taboo surrounding menstruation. Women shied away from drying their washed menstrual cloth in the sun,” says M Banu Chitra founder of Thoo(i)mai, based in Tamil Nadu. Their name signifies a determination to fight the taboo, she says. While ‘Thooimai’ means purity in Tamil, ‘Thoomai’, a word many would rather whisper, means menstrual blood.

Since the launch of Thoo(i)mai in 2015, Banu Chitra has travelled across Tamil Nadu taking with her information on menstrual hygiene as well as her personal testimony for cloth pads. She herself was a DSN user. In 2014, after emerging from an abortion and depression, she came across articles which said that sanitary napkins could cause grave health problems. She learned stitching her own cloth pads from a collective that promoted sustainable living. After experiencing pleasanter periods with lesser irritation and rashes, she sounds convinced about the ill-effects of DSN.

Conversations, reinforced by such conviction, are also able to address larger issues like girl children dropping out of school. “It is not periods that prevent girls from an education. It is patriarchy. When a girl starts to menstruate, some communities see them as a potential bride. Child marriages are rampant. When they say menstrual blood is bad and just viewing it can make the husband blind, the root is in patriarchy. Do you think a sanitary product alone will ensure that a girl gets her education?” asks Smriti Kedia.

Involving men in menstruation is one way to smash patriarchy. Browsing through Uger’s online photo gallery, one finds men huddled together stitching pads. Half of their trainers are men and it is compulsory for all male members of the project to learn how to make Uger pads. One-third of their training sessions are for the men in the villages they visit.

Men stitching pads as part of Jatan Sansthan's Uger project (Pic courtesy: Jatan Sansthan)

These initiatives literally walk extra miles to reach out to women. Magalir Mattum, based in Tamil Nadu, offers free cloth pads to women living in tiny scattered villages in Thiruvalloor district. Each village would be 5 km away from its nearest neighbour, sometimes 10 km away from a bus stop and 20 km away from a retail store. Its founder D Priya says, “I believe that cloth pads should be given free of cost, as reproductive health is a birth right. We have come across women resorting to unhygienic practices as they cannot afford to keep aside 10 ps for their menstrual needs. Once, a woman shared that she had been washing and reusing disposable sanitary napkins. That’s why we give them cloth pads for free. They can use it for at least 12 cycles. After this, we replace it.”

These campaigns find it difficult to convince governments, as most are more inclined to promote DSN. But consistent dialogues have helped start many sustainable menstruation initiatives. The Department of North East Region with IIT Madras, Jatan Sansthan and Eco Femme have launched cloth pad production units in all eight North Eastern states.

But there is a lot more that the government has to do if it is indeed serious about menstrual health, says D Priya. “To begin with, are there toilets every 10 km? Are there enough women’s health centres?” she asks.

After learning about these wonderful initiatives, one cannot help think of Period. End of Sentence. as a shallow narrative. How snugly it fits the pitiful trope of sanitary napkins saving the day for poor women in rural India. Before another tweet shames a menstruator for using cloth, let’s steer this conversation in the right direction.