When Deane De Menezes had to go to a fancy office for some work, she was elated. The décor was top class and she was in awe. The day turned into a nightmare when she realized that she got her period. The luxurious office didn’t feel comfortable anymore because the bathrooms didn’t stock sanitary pads like the vending machine in her college toilets. A frantic search and an embarrassing stop at a chemist shop later, Menezes finished her work but the experience had left her bewildered. “That whole night I kept thinking. If this happened to me, how many others must be going through the same? What if I was in School and I had no money? What would happen if there was no chemist around? What about underprivileged school girls? What do they do?” said Menezes, who then began research on menstrual hygiene and the waste generated from it.
What she found surprised her - she read the Nielsen Report 2011 which found that out of the 355 million women in India (falling in the menstruating category), only 12 percent have access to sanitary napkins. The report also states that on average, a woman uses 25 napkins per month and this would add up to 1065 million used pads. This would weigh a staggering 22,200 mega tonnes; generating enough waste to cover 60 hectares. It also said that a woman generates 150 kilograms of mostly non-biodegradable absorbents every year. Menezes referred to the Kachra Project reports and read more about how menstruation affects women. She also found a high number of drop-outs from school once girls reached puberty and were absent during their periods.
“When any woman like me gets her period, we just wrap the pad and throw it in the dustbin and its over for us. After that incident and reading up on the matter I spoke to my society waste-picker. It was awkward for me to talk to him about sanitary napkins but he was very matter-of-fact about it. He told me how they separate the waste with their bare hands. I mean all of this goes to the landfill where more people come in contact with it. It is plastic at the end of the day and doesn’t decompose. The spread of diseases and the pollution caused by it is worrisome. Our country is still a growing market for such napkins and problems are only going to increase,” she said.
Menezes thought of installing a sanitary napkin vending machine and an incinerator to tackle the menstrual waste problem in schools. “I spoke to the girl from my college days who had got them installed there and she put me in touch with the Hindustan Lifecare company which works with the government and is also the company behind condom vending machines in the city,” she said. A research associate at the international analytical company CRISIL, 22-year-old Menezes tapped into the company CSR funds to buy the machines. The vending machines costed Rs.20,000 and the incinerator Rs.25,000. She approached a number of schools before Auxiliam Convent High School in Wadala agreed to install them. “I spoke to many schools but nothing worked out. I approached the schools that would maintain it as some kids in a municipal school destroyed my rough prototype. Auxilium School was facing a problem with menstrual waste management and they were happy to install three machines and incinerators in their Wadala and Bandra School for underprivileged girls,” she said.
What began as ‘Red Is The New Green’ campaign by Menezes turned out to be very helpful for the girls in the school. While most schools stock pads, girls have to visit the staff room, inform a teacher, pay five rupees and get the pad in case their periods come while they are at school. As most of them don’t know how to track their periods, this is often a common occurrence. With the installation of machines, Menezes also held a menstrual education session with the girls in both schools and took her male colleagues along. “We told them how to use both the machines and what are good menstrual hygiene practices. My male colleagues were hesitant at first but they knew that their moms, sisters, girlfriends and colleagues were going through this and some were amazed how this was kept a secret for so long. They explained the environment bit to the girls and felt the need to participate and let them know that they can talk about this to men in their family,” she said.
The campaign began in February 2016, and the machines were installed when school began in June. Sister Shiny, the head-mistress at Auxilium Convent High School in Bandra has seen obvious changes in the girls behavior. “We had a big problem with the menstrual waste management as we are surrounded by residential complexes and all of it goes through the same garbage bin in the locality. The girls put the used pads in the incinerator and we have trained the domestic staff to operate it who turns it on twice a day to eliminate the waste. Girls are using it not just for themselves but are taking it for their sisters and mothers back home and sharing what they learned at the session. With the pouches given to them, they don’t have to hide the pads between books and uniforms. It looks like a pencil pouch. Privacy was a big concern. The best part is the rise in confidence levels. They often associate periods with shame and feel very shy around teachers. It also very cost effective as they had to pay five rupees for one pad and with the vending machine they pay Rs.10 for three pads. They are happy with the quality as well,” she said. Sr.Shiny said that around 300 girls from seventh and tenth grade are using the facility and around 1000 girls in Wadala are using it. “When the brothers were talking to them about it, they were shocked at how normally they spoke about the issue. It helped to make the topic less awkward around boys,” she said.
A few teachers in the school are using it as well. 29-year-old Hetal Yagnik is a Primary teacher and incharge of re-filling the machine. “Many teachers use it as well. Even I use it and the quality and value for money has solved a lot of problems,” she said. The machines are self-sustainable as the pads are re-filled by the money put in the machine.
The girls from tenth grade said they don’t feel ashamed anymore. With the tracking cards given to them by Menezes and her team, they are able to manage their periods better. They were proud that a technology like this exists in their school. “We have friends who would sit in a corner, stay isolated, use different plates when they got their periods and felt that it was a shameful thing. Even my mom would say don’t wash your hair during that time but when we had that session a lot of myths were busted. I went home and educated my mother about what they taught us,” said Divyata Gamit. “We realized how the environment is affected because of menstrual waste. Rag-pickers come in contact with it who pick it up with their bare hands and sometimes cows eat it too,” said Ritika Sharma. Most of the students agreed that asking for pads from chemists who are generally male was uncomfortable and many of their peers would miss school when they got their periods, which is slowly beginning to change.
Menezes also held a session with a self help group in Wadala and some of the revelations were heart wrenching. “These ladies do domestic work and are in their thirties and have children. Some of them didn’t know the link between periods and children. When we explained it to them, one of the women started weeping. She said she dropped out of school because she had stained her uniform and the boys in her school made fun of her. She regrets not completing her education till today. There were many who tried washing the sanitary napkins because they that’s what they did with their cloth napkins. Women who did use cloth napkins wouldn’t dry them in the open where sunlight could act as a natural disinfectant. They would dry it under their beds so none of the male members of the family could see it. We need to counter many wrong practices on a social level. It is easier to make memes and jokes and say my ovaries are on fire. Many girls in my social circle have adopted reusable pads and menstrual cups to reduce their carbon footprint. Each of us can do something for the environment. I am not trying to sell a product here, just an idea,” she said. She is in talks with more schools that have shown interest in installing these machines.
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