It was a special day. The family was setting off to the temple to celebrate an important milestone in their child’s development. Then the mother ruined the occasion with news that threatened to bring misfortune onto the family. Her husband was furious and slapped her.
Her crime was that her period had started.
Most men and women in this part of South India believe menstruation is, at best, disposal of “waste blood” and at worst a punishment – god’s way of keeping women under control. Women are forbidden to cook or do other housework while they are menstruating and are expected to stay in their rooms. Schoolgirls miss lessons because of the practical difficulties of dealing with a period without proper sanitary facilities at school.
Then there is the business of hygiene and disposal. Most women living in poverty in remote rural areas and slums cannot afford – or get hold of – sanitary towels. Some use old rags, washing and drying them secretly and therefore not always as thoroughly as they would like – which can lead to reproductive tract infections. Some use nothing at all. And of course, few have the luxury of bathrooms with lockable doors, or of municipal refuse collection and disposal.
According to a recent report by A C Nielsen and the charity Plan India, only 6% of the country’s 496.4 million women use hygienic sanitary napkins (compared to 96% in the United States) and reproductive tract infections can be 70% greater among those who don’t – i.e. 94% of Indian women.
I was told the opening story in February this year by Bouvana, a woman who works for social enterprise, Eco Femme, near Pondicherry in South India. I was there with Pepal, an executive development programme that brings for-profit and not-for-profit organisations together to work on social issues in India and Uganda.
Eco Femme makes brightly coloured, washable, durable yet biodegradable sanitary pads designed to be comfortable, practical and – this may surprise you – beautiful. This is important, explains Eco Femme founder Kathy Walkling, as it encourages women to think of this as a natural, positive process, not something to be ashamed of. And women can hang the brightly coloured rectangles of cloth up to dry along with other clothes and no-one need know what they are for.
Kathy, an Australian living in India, started making the pads for herself. Then friends asked her to make some for them. Word spread and the idea emerged for local women to produce them for a wider local audience and so enable them to earn a living as well as solving their (and their neighbours’) menstrual hygiene problems.
Bouvana (left) with Mary Kay, a participant of the Pepal Innovation in India programme.
Bouvana herself originally used rags, and later moved on to disposables. Now she now uses only the Eco Femme washable pads and educates other local women on feminine health and hygiene. Her colleagues are also educating local men about menstruation.
Others are also seeking ways to help Indian women cope with periods in health, comfort and dignity. A Muruganathan from Coimbatore has developed low tech production units so that poor women in remote or slum areas can manufacture and sell degradable, disposable sanitary pads to women in their local communities more cheaply than commercial brands. And the Indian government too is rolling out a programme distributing free or cheap sanitary napkins to adolescent girls in various districts.
Bouvana tells her 22-year-old daughter about the benefits of Eco Femme’s pads but, like many of her upwardly mobile generation, she prefers branded disposables. Ironically, while well-heeled inhabitants of the West are giving up the convenience of disposables to ‘save the planet’, millions of Indians just moving up into the middle class are rejoicing at being able to afford disposables at last.
Hopefully, their priorities — as well as those of millions of disposable users worldwide — will eventually shift to solutions that are both natural and beautiful.
Post by Sabita Banerji.