On Menstrual Hygiene Day, it’s time to think of women like Vasundhara who has never seen a sanitary pad in her life

While menstrual activism is absolutely essential, it’s time to use walk-around strategies instead of shouting hoarse from rooftops.
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"No, I have never used a bathroom in my life. And I do not know what that is (on being shown a disposable sanitary napkin). When I am menstruating I can clean myself only before sunrise and sunset.’- Vasundhara (name changed)

Vasundhara was literally skin on bones. A landless labourer, she looked like she was in her mid-forties. But on probing it was clear that she was in her early thirties. Poverty and malnutrition made her look older than her age. She had a son that was married.

She, her husband, son and daughter-in-law all work in the fields as agricultural workers. The lady who took me to this little hamlet near Puducherry explained that Vasundhara is not paid any wages, but given place to stay and food to eat. It has been always this way through generations. Her feet were cracked to an extent that it resembled jagged ridges. She refused to sit with me on the floor on the grass mat, and talked from a distance. The class boundaries were firmly set in the distance that lay between her and me.

As we celebrate menstrual hygiene day, it is perhaps an appropriate time to think of women like Vasundhara. The latest National Family Health Survey IV points out that 62 percent of young women in India use cloth for menstrual protection. Is that a problem? Well certainly not, if the cloth is clean, and dried in sunlight. However, given the taboo around menstruation women usually neither use clean cloth, nor can they put out their menstrual wear out in the sun. So, what’s the alternative?

On the one hand there are activists like Arunachalam Muruganantham (Padman) who come up with low-cost disposable sanitary napkins (DSN). On the other hand, there are Governments that run programmes to give free DSNs to girls in schools.

Would these be effective ways to ensure menstrual health of young women? To answer this, one needs to understand what happens to DSNs (Disposable Sanitary Napkins). Disposal methods include burying in soil, burning them or throwing away as waste. Such waste, if not properly treated, can lead to contamination of water and food, and consequent health hazards for the community. It goes without saying that sewage disposal and treatment is not exactly at its peak efficiency in geographies that are inhabited by the under-privileged like Vasundhara.

Let’s now assess the ingredients of these disposable napkins. There is a plastic cover that might take 500-800 years to disintegrate when it goes to landfills. If they are burnt at low temperatures without using incendiaries that use the recommended temperature levels, the fume is carcinogenic.

So it turns out that the 62 percent using cloth is not the main issue. In fact, government programmes that promote DSNs might be counter-productive for both mother nature as well health of the community that have to deal with improperly disposed menstrual waste in soil, water and air. The more meaningful strategy might in fact be working around the taboo.

Ecofemme (EF) in Auroville is a social enterprise that I have worked closely with for an academic project; and they have adopted a multi-pronged strategy to deal with the dual challenge of protecting planet and people. Firstly, they designed menstrual pads that looked like handkerchiefs when put out to dry in the open, hence avoiding the stigma around sun-drying in public view. Secondly, workshops targeting adolescent girls are offered so that they understand and develop healthy respect for the amazing gift that a female body is. Thirdly, with every pad sold to an affluent woman, a pad is gifted to an adolescent girl in rural India.

What was amazing about EF’s strategy was that they did not fight the stigma head-on, but found an easier and more acceptable hack to address the issue. They used the power of design thinking, and mechanisms to generate empathy among affluent women and educational workshops to achieve their target behaviour of menstrual hygiene among young adolescent girls and women.

While menstrual activism is absolutely essential, maybe it’s time to use walk-around strategies instead of shouting hoarse from rooftops. After all stigma is not something that can be easily addressed. May be it is time to use such ‘shadow’ framework to do good for the world, where your eventual goal is something greater than what is immediately apparent to your target audience.

The question that we have to ask ourselves on a day that is earmarked for menstrual hygiene is whether our programmes on women’s health can positively affect Vasundhara, both in the human and planet avatars.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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