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Going Green on the Red

Why using bio-degradable sanitary napkins and other eco-friendly sanitary products is imperative.

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A colorful printed cloth hanging on a clothesline outside a house. Among the other clothes left to dry, it doesn’t stand out at all. An average passer-by may not even realize that he is looking at a cloth sanitary napkin. These sanitary napkins come in a wide variety of sizes and colors, based on your requirements. The release of the movie ‘Padman’ did create a stir within the masses, yet the topic of menstruation did not gain enough momentum to make an impact wide enough. Patriarchy and illiteracy have created a terrible combination, which has led to misinformation and superstition. Rural women are unfortunately the worst affected. They sleep in sheds, away from home and are excluded from most activities. Even in an urban setting, educated women still continue some of these practices, under the pretext of ‘Indian culture’. This much-needed conversation still remains under the ‘wraps’, just like sanitary napkins are sold.

Although awareness is important, a very different conversation must start taking place sooner rather than later. Each year 9000 tonnes of sanitary waste is produced in India. Each sanitary napkin takes 600-800 years to decompose. That is because they are made of a non-biodegradable material. Most of these soiled sanitary napkins end up in landfills, only about 2000 sanitary napkins are disposed of after segregation into biodegradable and non-biodegradable components. Although Bio-Medical Waste Handling Rules say that all items that are contaminated with blood should be incinerated, sanitary napkins cannot be disposed of in that manner. On incineration, sanitary napkins produce toxic fumes as they are primarily made of plastic. Besides that, a lot of women tend to flush their napkins down the toilet. The napkin inflates, blocking the underground drain. A manual scavenger would have to enter the drain to remove the napkin, exposing him to harmful toxins. This napkin then enters water bodies and contaminates them.

Slowly, a revolution is coming to rise. People have started manufacturing and propagating alternative products like menstrual cups and cloth pads. Most NGOs distribute them in rural areas to make a difference. Not only are these methods eco-friendly but they are also extremely economical. Affordable sanitary napkins are 300 rupees for a years’ supply, whereas a packet of cloth pads costing 300 rupees can last up to two years. Although it may seem similar, cloth and cloth pads are very different. Cloth tends to lump up, causing rashes and extreme discomfort; whereas cloth pads are designed smaller and are easier to wash. Along with that, cloth pads have a leakproof layer at the back, which a rag cannot provide. Besides, cloth pads will never be flushed down the toilet, as people simply don’t flush clothes down the toilet.

There are also multiple brands that sell ‘bio-degradable’ sanitary napkins. Which are of two types, according to Priyanka N Jain, Founder, Hygiene and You and SochGreen. “One type is completely natural but they’re very poor in quality and are non-absorbent.” The second type is not completely bio-degradable, just the top layer is made of bamboo. Such napkins take upto three years to compost in very specific conditions. Besides that, the consumer tends to use more of these, as these napkins are average in performance.

Cloth pads on the other hand, are made of terrycloth and bamboo. They have a leakproof layer, and are hypoallergenic. These pads don’t stain for long periods of time. Cloth pads don’t have a bad odour to them either. Unlike what is commonly believed, bad odour doesn’t stem from the blood itself, but from the combination of discharged blood and chemicals in disposable napkins. They also happen to be inexpensive, in terms of the benefits they provide and their sustainability.

A menstrual cup does require a lot of upfront investment, in terms of a low-income household. But one menstrual cup can last 5-10 years, making it a cost-effective option. Sindhu Naik, co-founder of the collective ‘Green the Red’ said, “I donated menstrual cups to the housekeeping staff in my building, and the first thing she said to me the following day was, ‘I’m saving 60 rupees every month.”

Green the Red has a campaign dedicated to promoting the use of cloth pads and menstrual cups called the ‘Cup & Cloth Campaign’. They ‘cup’vert people in the rural areas by speaking to midwives and auxiliary nurses in public health centres. Who in turn talk to Asha workers, once they are comfortable with it they suggest it to women in villages. “We also have Whatsapp support groups for new ‘cup’verts, to encourage them to start using the menstrual cup,” Sindhu Naik said. “For those in rural areas, the Asha workers do the job of a support group”, she continued. Dr Geeta Bora, founder of the Spherule Foundation said, “We recommend cloth napkins to school-going girls.” Although it is environmentally friendly, it will take a long time to change the mindset of people regarding these methods, she also said. Dr Bora thinks that the revolution should not just involve women but men too, she believes that educating men is an important step of destigmatizing menstruation. “Women in rural areas have to take their husband’s permission to visit the gynaecologist or go for health camps. Even in many good, private schools we go to, they exclude boys from the talk,” she said.

In Chikkaballapur, Karnataka, 600 women and girls switched to eco-friendly menstrual hygiene products. “It was a natural choice for them, these products had long term affordability and they didn’t have to worry about burning or burying it,” Sindhu Naik said, talking about one of her experiences.

In urban areas, women have started becoming more responsive during such workshops since the past year and a half. Priyanka Jain said that through her experiences she realized that more people have started calling in for workshops after active coverage in conventional media. Her sessions aren’t as challing as they were before, people are more willing to make the switch. For her, a positive session is when she manages to make a sale immediately after her workshop ends. She has also experienced the exact opposite where women come to workshops, giggle and go back home, resuming their lives with no impact whatsoever.

Women in rural areas are more willing to adapt to these alternative methods of hygiene, especially since they find it so economical, Naik said. “For the rural and urban poor, the economics of buying a cup upfront is difficult, but if a discount or an instalment plan is worked out, they are happiest to switch,” she continued. There are a few hindrances though, as many women are hesitant of inserting objects into their vagina. “There are different definitions of virginity,” Dr Bora said, with regard to this mental obstacle.

The menstrual cups are made of medical grade silicone, which is hypoallergenic. Cloth pads are made of poly cotton, which makes it leak proof and banana fibre, which make it absorbent. These are hypoallergenic, and if maintained properly, will not cause any bacterial, fungal or yeast infection. Unlike the regular disposable sanitary napkin, which is made of plastic, cloth pads do not cause rashes either.

The icing on the cake is that these cloth pads can be stitched by the women in villages themselves. “We tell them where they can get a poly cotton layer, and we teach them how to stitch it, making these women self-reliant,” Sindhu Naik said.


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