Growing up in India, I learned to treat menstruation and sexuality with shame and fear. Rejecting that which was natural and innate to me and women around me was considered normal and encouraged by society. Shouldn’t we have afforded these very important issues more respect? After all, we created one of the biggest populations in the world.
As a grown woman in my thirties now, I understand the various factors associated with being a menstruating woman. I can understand the financial, emotional, social, and environmental costs, and the payoffs such as equality for all, environmental and health benefits associated with affording women the respect that their individual bodies deserve.
GODDESSES THAT DON’T MENSTRUATE
Women, in general, are not treated as equals in India. They are either exalted to the level of goddesses – Kali, Shakti, Durga to name a few – or their needs are not primary and they are mostly seen as a burden on the family after birth.
Culturally, at the time of a girl’s marriage; her parents owe a huge dowry to the groom and his family. This is a big problem for millions of families that give birth to daughters. Women are seen as a burden, and men or boys are considered better because they bring in the dowry.
Hindus believe that if a person’s last rites were performed by their son, then they are one step closer to achieving salvation. Since 85% of all Indians are Hindus, importance is placed on having a boy child. As a society, India suffers from the ubiquitous male child preference syndrome.
India remains largely a patriarchal society and practices such as female infanticides and/or feticide, lack of education and opportunities, poor health and nutrition, and lack of financial resources for women are common.
Patriarchal ideologies, such as “the home is a woman’s real domain” and “marriage is the ultimate destiny” still persist. Matrimonial ads seeking fair-skinned, convent educated, same caste, slim and beautiful girls are indicators of India’s social stance on women.
Crimes such as rape, sexual harassment, molestation, gender discrimination, unequal pay for equal work and more are still rampant in many parts of India.
However, modern India has seen an increased percentage of literacy amongst women. Women, in general, are climbing up the social ladder. As a nation, it is making huge strides in empowering them.
There is a large number of professionally qualified women – doctors, engineers, surgeons, and scientists – in the work force in urban India. Feminists – both men and women – are coming out in the open to support women’s participation as an equal in the socio-political-economic-cultural domain. Several non-profits, such as SheSays, Goonj, Saathi Pads and more have come forward in support of women rights.
LET THERE BE BLOOD
Growing up in a middle-class joint-family with five to eight menstruating females at a time, we used waste fabric from clothing and bed linen old enough to be trashed. Affording that many sanitary napkins each month was out of the question, and thus, we resorted to using the cheapest available alternative.
These used “repurposed waste cloth pads” found their way to the refuse basket – called haudi in common parlance in many parts of India. These haudis are commonly found outside the back of most homes.
Stray animals and street-urchins could be seen scavenging through the bin every now and then. Once, one of our pet street-dogs, Lucy, dug out a nondescript item from the garbage and sat chewing and gnawing at it on our front porch, to the utter dismay and embarrassment of the females of our household. Lucy had to be shooed away by my grandfather—the proverbial patriarch of the family. He then proceeded to dispose of the item of her admiration––the humble, soiled “repurposed waste cloth pad”.
All the females were rounded up and an earful was delivered. After all, menstruation is something to be rendered invisible, not to be “gnawed on happily” on the front porch!
Across India, the use of “repurposed waste cloth pads” is more rampant than we can imagine.
Menstruation is a natural phenomenon, and might seem trivial in some parts of the world… but not in India. It’s a window into how India treats its women. We don’t recognise menstruation as anything at all. It is a non-issue, a non-topic, not worthy to be considered in any way. It is a burden on society in many ways – financially, ecologically and socially. It turns out to be a burden on the pocket and the environment, necessary and unavoidable.
In July 2017, India implemented a new system of taxation. Sanitary napkins are now taxed at 12%. The tax has been reduced from the original 15%, but urban India still isn’t happy. Taxing pads and tampons is against human rights because menstrual products are a necessity, just like food and medicines.
Fundamentally, this is a human rights issue: Millions of Indian women do not have access to clean, affordable and ecological means to menstrual hygiene, and cannot afford to buy sanitary products.
A 2012 study, “Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right”, undertaken by AC Nielsen finds that affordability is the biggest factors that discourage Indian women from using pads. 70% of Indian women said their family cannot afford to buy pads.
Only 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women use pads. Over 88% of women resort to unsanitary alternatives such as cloth, ash, husk, sand and leaves. These women often suffer infections and other diseases due to poor menstrual hygiene.
It is estimated that 23% of all adolescent girls drop out of school after their first period and the others miss about 50 days of school per year due to inadequate menstrual information.
Enter SheSays, a non-profit bringing women’s issues to the front lines. SheSays insists that it is every Indian woman’s right to have access to pads, which are essential for menstrual health and hygiene. Therefore they have petitioned for pads to be made tax-free.
The organisation started a tongue-in-cheek online campaign with the #lahukalagaan (literally translates to, the tax on blood). In a one-minute video, actor Mallika Dua sends a message to the Finance Minister of India, Arun Jaitley, “It’s not like I signed up for a monthly blood subscription. It just happens. So why am I being punished for it?” That video has had almost 2 million views since April 21.
Sushmita Dev, a Member of Parliament (MP) from the Silchar district, requested Jaitley to make pads tax free. Dev started an online petition on change.org back in March, which received over 250,000 signatures. There has been a considerable noise online about the new tax on pads. Some are asking for pads and tampons to be offered free of cost.
Normally, pads, menstruation, sex, periods, and pregnancy are topics to be discussed in hushed tones, but this is the Urban India that talks openly about periods and pads and the hygiene needs of women. They have brought the discussion of providing every woman access to pads and menstrual health and hygiene out into the open.
However, these urban feminists, politicians, women rights groups, and social outfits aren’t talking about the gigantic environmental threat the mountains of menstrual waste will create. They have taken up the new tax as a debate of human rights, but have disregarded the effects of plastic waste on the environment.
AFFORDABILITY VERSUS SUSTAINABILITY
As mentioned by Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a social enterprise in India , commonly used pads are 90% plastic. CSE estimates that 432 million pads are disposed every month, and that these non- biodegradable soiled napkins stay in the landfills for about 800 years.
Once the commercially available pads are made cheaper or free of cost, their use is expected to go up by many folds. But are we as a nation willing and capable of handling the resulting menstrual waste? Aren’t our resources already pressed with the ever-increasing population’s demands?
India is a developing country and one of our ills is the management of waste. Urban areas in India have sprawling and stinking waste dumps, called Katta in the local parlance in many parts of the country.
These huge mountains of waste have become landmarks for people and scavengers alike: Scavengers such as vultures, eagles, crows, and mice amass alongside these grotesque, noxious heaps of trash. These rancid sights can be seen and smelled from miles away.
Such dumps leak harmful chemicals into the soil, making the ground water unfit for human or animal consumption. The nearby land is rendered infertile and rather toxic. They are a dangerous necessity to human existence. The only way we can live with them is by slowing down the growth of these putrid monsters; by minimising our non-biodegradable trash, including menstrual waste.
According to Saathi Pads—a biodegradable pad producing venture in India, “The average woman adds 23kg of plastic waste to the landfills from commercially available pads in her lifetime. In 2016, there was 150,000 tonnes of sanitary pad waste in India.”
At that rate, Indians will soon be smothered by mounds of menstrual waste.
THE WAY FORWARD
The need of the hour is two pronged: One, to provide menstrual hygiene products easily, and two, for these products to be environmentally friendly.
We must provide millions of Indian women with “green” choices to pads and tampons. We as a nation must push for menstrual cups, cloth pads or biodegradable alternatives.
One alternative is reusable pads. Indian non-profit, Goonj, repurposes donated cloth into reusable pads that can be washed and reused.
They have dispensed 6 million pads made from recycled fabric till date, as stated on their website.
Then there is the Saathi-Pad that claims to be 100% biodegradable. When trashed, it will degrade within six months. There are several other “green” alternatives every responsible society must look into.
Together, as a nation of educated and informed individuals, we can allow menstruation the respect and consideration it deserves without harming the environment or our pockets.
Let’s get millions of Indian women affordable pads to save their silk sarees, Gucci pants and khadi-cotton dresses from menstrual stain!
Let’s not become a land of kattas: A toxic, putrid, uninhabitable, wasteland.
Let’s allow everyone a right to health and a clean safe place to live in.
Let’s be smart and green and kind and just.