Despite the growing dialogue on the topic, in many societies, talking about periods still makes people turn a shade of red that matches the bloodbath between women’s legs once a month. We’d apologize for the violent imagery, only it’s time we stopped apologizing for a basic bodily function. In India especially, there exists an overpowering silence around this natural female process, cloaked in shame and a lack of awareness.
Combine that with a lack of education, proper infrastructure and all-round information about their own body’s development, and the onset of menstruation is a traumatic experience for countless young girls and women. Problems arise regarding feminine health and hygiene, and increase daily with women lacking access to proper knowledge; the expensive sanitary pads in the market and dysfunctional toilets, if any at all.
The bloody menstruation taboo is slowly but surely being broken the world over. WaterAid’s alternate world of Manpons; a hilarious video game where you throw tampons at your enemies and run (if only we could do this in real life), and Rupi Kaur’s incredible take down of Instagram with her artistic photo series depicting the realities of a woman’s period; several new innovative and well-intentioned projects, products and stances are coming up more and more across the globe and things are beginning to change in India as well.
A wide number of projects and initiatives have been launched that are changing behaviours and mindsets, and making a difference one sanitary pad at a time. Women and young girls are taking a stand against menstruation-related sexism, informing the ill-informed, the government in Bihar is providing sanitary napkins free of cost to girls in government schools, and now women (cue a shocked gasp) are even touching pickles! Women in rural areas are being educated about hygiene and the natural menstruation process; awareness campaigns are doing their bit disseminating much needed information to men and women, even tutoring them on how to talk to their children about the topic.
We’ve assembled some great work being done in India by people who have made it their duty to increase accessibility to good sanitation facilities, provide details and facts regarding hygiene and menstruation, and better the menstrual health management products while keeping the deteriorating environment in mind.
I. Menstrupedia | A multi-purpose ‘book’ that’s educating all kinds of women about their own bodily processes
There’s no conversation on this topic without mention of this initiative. What Aditi Gupta started as a classroom project soon turned into a full fledged online guide with information regarding all things menstruation-related. And Menstrupedia has developed into an enjoyable, interactive and user-friendly website, with colourful comic strips created based on real life experiences and scenarios tackled by young girls and women the world over, especially in the Indian context. Along with her college classmate, and now husband, Tuhin, Rajat Mittal and Dr. Mahadeo, Aditi promotes awareness about menstruation and its related bodily changes in girls, the changes in boys during puberty, and proper dietary practices; wishing to break the silence that prevails around a common and natural bodily process. The Menstrupedia book is being used to educate young girls across social classes and state boundaries about their own body, even seeing customers from various nations abroad. In the style of a comic book, the story is simple yet relatable. Over 1000 copies of the book have been sold since September 2014, with bulk orders from schools and NGOs, and it’s now available in Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi as well.
II. Blood On My Hands | A documentary by Anandana Kapur, Manak Matiyani and Surabhi Saral
Blood On My Hands is a 30 minute documentary by Anandana Kapur, Manak Matiyani and Surabhi Saral, which looks into the ‘secret’ of menstruation and the various myths and practices that encompass it. Dominant in India is the notion of ‘pollution’ and ‘purity’ that is brought into the context of menstruation. For example, that a menstruating woman is ‘unclean’ and ‘impure’ who can affect the ‘purity’ of the men around her. Through interviews and personal stories, the documentary film highlights the abundant misinformation that exists across various sections of society.
“It’s like a whole new existence,” the documentary suggests. Young girls are separated from the rest of the family, locked in rooms, not allowed to touch closets, clothes and, most absurdly, pickle because it’s believed it’ll get spoiled. Young girls and women are alienated and forced to deal with their struggle and confusion on their own.
“Nobody hides tissues when they have a runny nose… people don’t get conscious when they have a sneeze coming on and public outbursts are casually blessed. The same is not there of periods.” You can view the full documentary here which has been made available on Youtube by the Public Service Broadcast Trust.
III. The Menstrual Health Hygiene Management Lab at the Great WASH Yatra | Spreading awareness through multiple mediums
The Great WASH Yatra unfolded as a giant carnival in 2012, with bright lights, colours and music at every corner. The underlying narrative being addressed behind the fun and games is proper practices regarding hygiene and sanitation, and to spread awareness through engaging mediums. The travelling event’s hosted by Wash United in partnership with Quicksand, with interactive educational games and communication materials inspired from pop-culture, like Bollywood and Cricket, to draw the attention of people.
A part of the six sections of the carnival, The Menstrual Hygiene Management Lab provides a safe space for women and girls to freely discuss topics related to menstruation and feminine hygiene without shame or fear of judgement. They were given the opportunity to make sanitary napkins out of recycled cloth themselves. The lab created a platform for discussion and the dissemination of information which is otherwise unavailable to a lot them. Behind the carnivalesque lies an important message being driven home with fun gaming experiences and interactions. The campaign travelled to 5 states and is said to have reached close to 230 million people.
IV. Arunachalam Muruganantham’s Jayshee Industries | Creating low-cost sanitary napkins
‘Menstrual man’ Arunachalam Muruganantham created low-cost sanitary napkins that can be made and used by women in rural communities. His $500,000 worth enterprise Jayashree Industries operates from a small room in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, and is said to have created over a 100 different brands of sanitary napkins in various states; with names like Mother Care, Softex, Relax, Touch Free, Be Free, Rosy, and Real Free, many having regional names as well to make them more relatable to women of that region. Muruganantham took on the mission to create low-cost sanitary napkins and to educate women about good feminine hygiene after learning from his wife that she uses one piece of cloth, which she keeps washing, for months at a time; buying expensive sanitary napkins wasn’t on top of her grocery list. Muruganantham realised that for something that’s used so often, and that’s just stuffed with cotton, they weren’t affordable for majority of the female Indian population.
In a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in 2015-2016, it was recorded that approximately 70% of girls across India had no knowledge of menstruation at the onset of menarche. With the help of Plan India, AC Nielsen conducted a study ‘Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right’ in 2010 which claims that only 12% of the approximately 620 million women in India use sanitary napkins, 93% of women in rural areas are the majority non-users.
This paints a rather grim picture of female healthcare and Muruganantham has taken a step for its improvement in his own way. Jayashree Industries manufactures machines that are used to make the sanitary napkins, which are then bought by women from various villages, increasing the employment in the area and in the process getting more and more women to switch from rags,sand, straw, paper and even ash, to using hygienic sanitary-pads. According to Muruganantham, close to 8,000 women have been employed so far in various regions, and more than 3 million women having realised the ease, comfort, necessity and hygiene of pads and have shifted to its usage. Accorded recognition among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World 2014 for his accomplishments, Muruganantham’s sanitary pads cover all needs when you’re sailing the red sea.
V. Aakar Innovations
Producing and distributing India’s first compostable sanitary napkin, Aakar is a hybrid social enterprise, comprising of Aakar Innovations and Aakar Social Ventures, started by Jaydeep Mandal and Sombodhi Ghosh. Like Arunachal Muruganantham, they too designed a machine to produce low-cost sanitary napkins for economically disadvantaged women. Their Anandi pads are made using raw materials from agricultural waste, such as banana fibre, bamboo and water-hyacinth pulp. Aakar Innovations and Aakar Social Ventures together empower women to make and distribute affordable sanitary napkins themselves, and spread awareness stressing the importance of hygienic practices. Compostable Anandi pads cost Rs. 40 and the non-compostable pads sell for Rs. 28, both for a pack of eight.
Following the motto ‘for the women, by the women’ Aakar has decentralized the production power, giving it to those who need the product the most. Sources of income have been generated, and environmental and menstrual awareness in rural communities is being raised; over 12 production units exist across state lines. “Workshops are regularly conducted in villages. We invite doctors and healthcare workers to give talks about the importance of ecological and hygienic menstrual practices. We build the centres in a village, train & work with women to establish their own independent enterprises that will serve to provide the solution directly to their families and neighbours. It goes without saying that this method creates an uncanny support structure that empowers the organization from within,” states Mandal in an interview with NGO Barefoot College. Furthermore, he says, “600 rural women will now have sustainable sources of income while equipping and improving the lives of 150,000 women & girls with an ecological alternative [...]”
VI. Not Just a Piece of Cloth initiative by Goonj
Not Just a Piece of Cloth was a program set into motion ten years ago by Anshu Gupta, the founder of Delhi based Goonj. The organisation uses cloth collected from donors which are then used to make sanitary-pads for women in rural and remote areas of the country. MY pads, as they are called, are biodegradable, affordable (Rs. 5 for a pack of five pads) and reusable. The pads are distributed to young girls and women who can’t afford to buy or use any other safe and hygienic alternative. But the aim of the project is not just the distribution of clean cloth pads, the process opens up a dialogue to address healthy menstrual hygiene practices as well.
According to a report by WASH innovations, Goonj has made and distributed 30 lakh MY Pads across India; in 2012-13, more than three lakh napkins were dispatched to various states. Annually, Goonj processes over 1,000 tons of old recyclable materials, including cotton cloth from cities; bed sheets, salwar-kamizes, cotton t-shirts, among others. The model is sustained by the immense amounts of cloth that comes in from all over the country, instead of throwing away unwanted out of fashion clothes that fill up landfills.
In an interview with The Hindu Gupta states,“women should become aware of their biological process and manage it in a safe way…we found clothing gave these women, who neglect or are ignorant of this critical health issue, a sense of dignity and self-respect.”
VII. Jatan Sansthan’s Safe Menstrual Health Campaign and Uger Pads
Janat Sansthan and Vikalp design studio, run by Lakshmi Murthy, worked together to eradicate myths surrounding menstruation and improve menstrual health, and in 2011 they launched the Surakshit Mahawari Abhiyan (SMA) or Safe Menstrual Health Campaign in Rajasthan.The movement sought to improve feminine menstrual health through awareness and sensitisation seminars, campaigns and workshops for adolescents, youth and the community at large, including men who are usually disconnected the most from such topics of discussion.
SMA’s Uger pads are eco-friendly, reusable and washable cotton pads that promote health and hygiene while also not contributing to the waste accumulation in the country. The pads are offered in a variety of styles depending on your flow; produced by economically disadvantaged women in a self help group, based in Udaipur, it provides them with an additional and consistent source of income.
Cloth is seen as an unhygienic material for sanitary pads and a lot of women are weary of using it. Murthy makes an argument for the use of cloth pads in an interview with Krya where she states, “We wanted to give young girls and women informed choices. We wanted to communicate to girls and women that there is dignity in reuse and that it is also a healthy option if reusable products are managed well...here’s why I, Lakshmi, believe in reusables: cotton fabric/ reusable cloth as such, will not cause any health problem (underwear is usually made of cotton fabric and worn next to skin for so many hours in a day). Cotton is a natural material and feels cool on skin; the fabric itself does not cause any skin rashes or allergies.”
VIII. Azadi Organisation
The Azadi organisation was set up by two men who’ve hopped the biodegradable sanitary-pad bandwagon after seeing firsthand the hazardous effects that lack of access to good feminine hygiene products can have on women when they were working for a non-profit organisation. The organisation provides performance scholarships to students in India and they noticed a large number of women were dropping out of programs because they weren’t equipped with necessary products during their menstrual cycle which started to impact their attendance, performance and health.
Founders Dhirendra Pratap Singh and Ameet Mehta realised the large number of women that could be helped from their endeavour and took to the task of creating biodegradable sanitary pads, called Azadi pads, which sell for Rs. 20 for a pack of eight. Their work includes conducting awareness campaigns for your girls in rural areas and helping the government in building schools; ensuring adequate toilets that are separate and which meet the basic infrastructural needs of menstruating girls in order to promote their regular attendance.
“We don’t look into menstruation as a man or a woman issue, because gender is socially constructed. So, men and women both have equal role to play in changing the overall perception,” Singh states in an interview with Quartz.
IX. Girls Glory initiative by Reaching Hand
Girls Glory is an initiative by Reaching Hand undertaken to provide proper sanitation facilities and educate young girls and boys, on proper hygiene practices. The program focuses on removing menstrual taboos and more importantly explaining the process of puberty and menstruation to girls before the menstrual cycle begins; to understand the naturalness of the body’s development.
The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) was commissioned to conduct a third party evaluation by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, and they found that only 62% of state schools have functional toilets. Reaching Hands is renovating defunct toilets and building new ones for girls and boys in various schools they’ve partnered with and taken under their wing. Girls are being taught about good menstrual health practices, provided sanitary napkins and told how to use them, as well as the need to use them.They conduct workshops to educate children on keeping clean and healthy, avoiding germs that lead to various kinds of diseases.
We have covered the multi-layered and self-absorbing THINX underwear in the past; it isn’t an ‘Indian’ product as such, but nevertheless, gets a special mention on this list. The technologically advanced and leak-proof underwear is the brainchild of twin sisters Radha and Miki Agarwal, along with their friend Antonia Dunbar. Designed by women in New York City and made by women at a family-run factory in Sri Lanka; the secret behind these comfortable, practical and beautiful undergarments was revealed to be four thin layers, each fulfilling a specific purpose.
THINX has partnered with AFRIpads and for every pair of underwear you buy, AFRIpads manufactures seven washable and reusable cloth pads for African women and girls in need. We know it’ll be hard, but it’s time to break up with your favourite go-to granny panties kept to use just for ‘that time of the month;’ and treat yourself to a pretty pair of THINX underwear. With in-depth research and modifications done over the years; the secret to the underwear they revealed lies in the layers. Tampons and sanitary pads can be discarded altogether with the use of the underwear, or be used in conjunction with tampons - it’ll depend on your flow.
When ‘that time of the month’ arrives, so does a delivery from HighTide, and they know exactly what you need. The way it works is convenient and pretty simple--you choose the sanitary items you want in your monthly box when you sign up, set the date and the box arrives at your doorstep in sync with your cycle. Subscribers are offered a variety of sanitary products to choose from to fit their feminine needs, additionally you get chocolates, painkillers and a surprise gift that could be anything from bath salts to a hot water bottle, or even some organic teas; it changes every month. So you can just sit back and relax as they take care of everything you need.
Founded by Aanchal Suri and Ashwat Sehgal, HighTide is a company with a cause, as a part of their proceedings are donated to Pankh, an NGO that works towards the betterment of women’s hygiene and menstrual health issues in villages of Himachal Pradesh. Promoting the use of sanitary napkins, Pankh educates women on manufacturing low-cost sanitary pads pads who then further spread the message of proper hygiene practices to friends and family members. With HighTide you won’t just be helping yourself, but also hundreds of women overcome a social stigma that has been long associated with menstruation.
Featured image courtesy Sarah Naqvi