Gone are the days in Kerala when menstruation was hush-hush. For many it might still be distasteful and gruesome to talk, but we are seeing a lot more men, and few women step into this bloody arena.
Aditi Mittal’s hilarious stand-up comedy on Sanitary Napkins and articles on menstrual cups have been making the rounds in media. Here is only an attempt to paint the whole picture.
Why menstruation conversation?
As women, we have been conditioned over the years to not speak – be it about what happens to our bodies or minds. Where it gets tricky is that our biology does not understand silence and expresses its discomfort in ways we cannot deal with in our bathroom seclusion. Our body functions transcend societal constructs of gender and propriety, thankfully. Menstruation is an innate cycle of life that requires basic understanding our anatomy and body responses. To avoid any distortion of reality, we have seen the ancients try in their best Brahmanical capacity to define the monthly cycle, like seen below;
Fortunately, a few scientific studies to shift perspectives have come up in recent decades, that attribute only as much importance to menstruation that it ‘asked’ for. Conditions like premenstrual syndromes (PMS), polycystic ovarian syndromes (PCOS), uterine infections and cervical cancers are now medically documented and treatable. Yet unless an illness is diagnosed, the daily ordeals of menstruation are still very much neglected.
Keep bleeding, love
From menarche to menopause, a woman may undergo around 450 periods in her lifetime, which is over 1800 days of bleeding (roughly 4.5 years). There are cramps, spotting, leakage and headaches, to cite the least problematic issues. Mood swings and lacklustre aside, current menstruation issues also pose health and environment issues that is complex.
The most widely used products that have been made available easily are disposable sanitary napkins (DSNs). They used to come in simpler forms, where the plastic could be easily stripped off from absorbent filling cotton inside, and disposed off separately. With all sorts of innovation that DSNs could have lived without, we now see compactly layered materials that can survive natural disasters themselves. Women who say no to DSNs get labelled as privileged elitists or tree hugging hippies, who if are incidentally unmarried or without children then also get looked down upon for not understanding ‘real women’ challenges. While I respect the roles we juggle and march on with, those are all choices we have made ourselves, in most instances. Such choices are sadly lacking in our market shelves.
Cups, pads and everything in between
Here is a short list of available product options for women, currently in markets and with online retailers.
Disposable Sanitary Napkins
- Use and throw convenience
- Readily available
- Competitively low prices
- If used for longer hours can cause itching and rashes
- Bad smell due to presence of toxic chemicals that mix with menstrual blood
- Disposal is very difficult, interlocked layers with body fluid cannot be separated and hence cannot be disposed with plastic waste or organic waste and ultimately end up in landfills/drainage system
- Toxic chemicals like dioxins are detected in some products, which is an endocrine disrupting hormone and persistent organic pollutant, with serious health effects
Biodegradable Sanitary Napkins
- Can be shredded and composted
- No toxics in contact with vaginal area
- Products still in innovation stage
- Weak supply chain
- Plastic material still has to be discarded separately
Cloth pads (stitched)
- No disposal issue
- Minimum toxic chemicals present
- Can be produced at home with sterile materials
- Has to be washed and dried in sunlight, or dried with dryers
- Needs proper maintenance to avoid leakages
- Socio-economic barriers and taboos prevent beneficial use for rural women
- Easily disposable
- Plastic components minimal
- Absorbs more volume of blood
- Limited availability in stores
- Health risk of Toxic Shock Syndrome due to absorbing nature of product
- Bleached cotton directly in contact with vaginal area
- Material made from sterile medical quality silicon with minimal chance of bacterial growth/infection
- Inert and doesn’t alter vaginal nature like pH
- Blood can be collected and emptied in latrine/wash basins in 6-10 hours
- Activities like swimming can be done without hassle
- Lasts with proper maintenance for 5-8 years
- High one time cost for buyers
- Not a profitable business model for producers
- Needs to be sterilized at least once in a cycle
- Stigma related to ‘hymen’ prevents unmarried women from using it
What is stopping us?
Limited awareness in these topics is a big challenge and formal spaces for women to express themselves openly is still absent, except in print media. However there a few Facebook groups that are only-women, like Sustainable Menstruation India, and Menstrual Cups, Cloth Pads (India), with membership of around ten thousand which takes questions and discusses menstruation matters. In open forums, we see often ironically, a lot of male-deniers who challenge the authenticity of cups or need for such spaces and often put women down for sharing their experiences so openly. On the other side, health practitioners, including women gynaecologists are still uncertain about the wide variety of latest trends and innovations in menstrual hygiene products and often give out inaccurate information to concerned women.
When a woman’s choice of a product has such immense consequence at a health, societal and ecological dimension, it fails me why we as a collective still ignore the need to demystify and remove the taboo around such conversations. Product availability and businesses are still predominantly a man’s world, which dictate the choices that we are given in terms of our bodies’ needs. For this to change, we women ourselves need to come forward, shed inhibitions (like how our uterine linings do with so much beauty every month) to engage and educate people around us. For as long as there is silence, there stands no hope for our collective futures.
References and more information:
- Why are we pretending that there isn’t a growing mountain of menstrual waste we need to deal with?, Nidhi Jhamwal, 9 January 2015
- Innovations in sanitation: the challenge of menstrual waste management, Michelle Baumgartner, 23 February 2016
- The Manly Guide to Menstruation, Mike LaVigne, 26 September 2016
- Sanitary Napkins | Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say, Aditi Mittal, 4 March 2016
- Masika, Eco Femme, 12 August 2014
- Junking the sanitary napkin, Cinthya Anand, 13 August 2016
- A Question for Women’s Health: Chemicals in Feminine Hygiene Products and Personal Lubricants, Wendee Nicole, March 2014
- Sustainable Hygiene, 2bin1bag (Website 2014)
- Period of Change, The Kachra Project (Website 2014)
Shradha Shreejaya is an ecologist and campaigner from ‘Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective’ and can be contacted here. The article was first published in Youth Ki Awaaz.