History has borne witness to many upheavals against major social prejudices and practices. But these have been limited to some issues. Some everyday social evils have persisted throughout time and have been trivialized as being normal. These are everyday struggles of people (or a section of them) that we are taught to ignore, put up with or endure in silence. The taboos associated with menstruation and the reluctance in discussing it is one such issue that has been stuck in the cycle of inaction. The reluctance in holding open dialogue leads to problems ranging from unhealthy menstrual hygiene practices to ignorance about the various MHMs (menstrual hygiene measures) that are available to women, both sustainable and disposable; the health issues related to use of DSNs (disposable sanitary napkins) and the ecological impact each women have while they use DSNs during each cycle that accumulate in various landfills or get burnt.
Various campaigns and groups across India are working on opening up discussions and creating awareness about menstruation. The most common thing that all activists speak about is the silence around such a natural process. As I spoke to them, I realised that each of them are passionate about this work and want to do their bit, no matter how small, for the women and for the environment.
Code Red came into existence when three friends- Pritishree Dash, Ayushi Dangre and Sara Fathima from NUALS, Cochin, went to a Child Care Institution near their college. The visit was to assess the need for art supplies that Pritishree planned to buy for the kids from the money she made selling her beautiful, hand-made bookmarks. The visit made them realise that the major deficiency the kids faced were a lack of access to MHMs. Ayushi and Pritishree asked the girls in their hostel to buy one extra packet of pads each month so that they could be donated to the girls at the Child Care Institutes. They were helped at all stages by Sara and Bhavna Firoz, another friend. The movement then widened to their classmates and others from college, and thanks to social media, they were able to reach out to more people for help. Pritishree says they are overwhelmed with the amount of response and now Code Red supplies to 4 Child Care Institutes in the city. Even though the friends will soon graduate and move out of Cochin, they have put into place arrangements for their work to continue and even expand. They have now switched to pads made by kudumbashree groups as they are more ecofriendly and indigenous.
What started as a drive to collect menstrual hygiene products for tribal girls at Nareshwadi village in Dahanu, soon escalated to a full time movement called “A Period of Sharing”. But the work had just started for them, says Nishant. While at first they focussed on collecting packets of napkins for the girls every month, they soon came face to face with the problems associated with disposal of the soiled napkins. The girls were dumping them in a pit and burning them. As the team became aware of the toxins released on burning the pads, they installed a clay incinerator at the facility. But the research into disposal methods for DSNs opened the avenue of sustainable MHMs to the group. Although biodegradable pads were considered, the advantages associated with menstrual cups and cloth pads, such as the reduced need for transportation every month, benefits to the environment and economic sustainability, made them zero in on these options. A Period of Sharing started organizing sessions in schools, societies and colleges to spread awareness on sustainable menstruation with a target of reaching 6000 women in the year 2017. They have associated with another organization called Ashay Social Group in administering the knowledge of menstrual cups and cloth pads. Their parent organization, MUSE, works at raising socially relevant questions through art, movies, etc, as they believe it creates a larger impact. In keeping with the principle, A Period of Sharing is organizing the “Maasika Mahotsav” from the 21st to 28th of May, in connection with World Menstrual Hygiene Day, at various places like Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Uttarakhand, etc. The Maasika Mahotsav is a celebration of menstruation through arts, sports and movies that will bring the discussion of menstruation to the forefront.
Green the Red
Shilpi Sahu and Sindhu Naik, two Bangaloreans, had the idea to set up a stall at the Pinkathon event, an all women’s distance racing event, in Bangalore in February 2016 to create awareness about sustainable MHMs such as menstrual cups and cloth pads. The stall was set up with the help of various other volunteers interested in this cause. Even though they found the awareness regarding sustainable options to be low, they realised that the public reaction ranged from incredulity to genuine interest. They continued the awareness stalls at various Pinkathon events held in other cities around the country and at various other corporate and social events at Bangalore with their network base expanding to more than 20 volunteers who called themselves the ‘Cupsperts’. The campaign was officially named “Green the Red” at the Pinkathon event in January, 2017. Green the Red campaign is made up entirely of volunteers and is not affiliated to or associated with any product brands. What started as a small initiative by a few women to spread awareness on alternative menstrual hygiene options among women in endurance sports in Bengaluru, has grown organically, gathering followers steadily on the way. Today it has members from Kolkata, Surat, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Goa, Hyderabad, Trivandrum, Cochin and Chennai. Since January this year, the campaign has conducted more than 70 awareness sessions at corporates, anganwadis, schools, NGOs, apartment communities and events and composting fairs.
Shilpi explains that when they say sustainability, it is not just limited to environmental issues but also includes health and economic sustainability. Plans like the exemption of tax for DSNs and installation of vending machines at public places are misguided as they only add to the environmental burden and spread the wrong message to the masses. The campaign aims to fight against such misinformation. These ‘reforms’ also do not address the taboos and silence around menstruation. The campaign has circulated the following petition to the government to ask for tax benefits for only sustainable MHM products. ( change.org )
With a rapidly increasing following on Facebook, publication of in-depth researched articles by its members in popular sites like The Logical Indian, Citizen matters, Eartha and a soon to be launched website greenthered on 28th May- World Menstruation Day, Green the Red is poised to become a one stop shop for all matters related to menstruation.
All of us are taught to only whisper about our periods and Meghan Norean did the same until she saw the amount of waste a menstruation cycle generates and its unhygienic treatment. Her fight was against the culture of silence, of period shaming and filling the earth with trash. She wanted to offer sustainable solutions while empowering women in the process. She partnered with Luke to start Shomota, which means equality in Bengali, in early 2015. They not only offered an ecofriendly MHM, but also ensured sufficient pay of the women manufacturing these products. The proceeds from the sale of the cloth pads are channelled to fund menstrual education programs as they believe that education is the key to end silence and period shaming. A holistic approach that encompasses environmental concerns, community development and women’s education is what is allowing Shomota to create a positive impact and eradicate the taboos around menstruation. They aim to build a lifestyle that is in sync with the menstrual cycle which includes online courses, women’s circles, dance and yoga therapy, trainings, etc. (menstrualempowermentkolkata)
For Kathy Walking, sanitary napkins were ‘out of sight; out of mind’ until she moved to Auroville and was forced to look for spots to bury them every month. Tired of this routine and wondering about the impact of burial of napkins, she was relieved when she discovered cloth pads during a visit to New Zealand. The many benefits of cloth pads prompted her to make cloth pads for the Auroville community. With the like-minded Jessamijn Miedema, Kathy researched about DSNs and the waste management systems (or the lack of) in India. The alarming data and the mounting sanitary waste prompted them to start EcoFemme. EcoFemme not only brings about women empowerment through the manufacture of cloth pads, but they also have programs like “Pad for a Pad” where for every pad purchased internationally, they give away a pad for free in their education sessions and “Pad for Sisters” that provides these pads at subsidized rates for rural women.
Kavya R Menon is one of the people I interacted with and she faced her first major crisis with pad disposal while staying in a remote village in Tamil Nadu, as a SBI Youth for India (YFI) fellow. She realised that even though there were many NGOs working in the area, awareness about menstruation was unaddressed. Kavya wrote to Kathy, since she thought cloth pads would be a good alternative for use in rural areas, and Kathy agreed to sponsor 5 pads each for 60 adolescent girls who participated in Kavya’s education session. With the success of this session, Phaemie from Australia agreed to sponsor pads for the girls who attended Kavya’s sessions. Thanks to the local interest and support from EcoFemme, Kavya has been able to spread the message of sustainable and healthy menstruation to over 700 adolescent girls and women, across 15 villages. She has also conducted sessions in corporate offices, orphanages, colleges, yoga centres, etc as an EcoFemme ambassador across Chennai.
For this World Menstruation Day, Feminism in India is teaming up with sustainable product manufacturers like EcoFemme, Shomota, SHE cup, UGER pads and Boondh to launch the campaign- #ThePadEffect, that explores the intersection between sustainable menstruation and culture.
UGER (“new beginnings” in Mewari), in Udaipur, Rajasthan is an organization supported by the Jatan Sansthan and functions under the guidance of Lakshmi Murthy. It is another organization that empowers women from lower socioeconomic groups by training them in stitching and in business management, making them financially independent through the sales of their cloth pads. They also work to increase awareness and thus, end the silence and taboos through seminars in colleges and discussions in rural and urban community groups.
A temple priest proclaimed that they would let women enter the shrine only when a machine is invented that determines whether it is the “right time”. In Hinduism, women are not allowed to enter temples, puja rooms and kitchens during the time of menstruation. This comment prompted Nikita Azad, a student from Patiala, Punjab, to launch the #HappytoBleed campaign. The campaign garnered huge social media response and brought the talks of menstruation, that were previously hushed up, to the open. Many women responded to the remark by offering their support to the campaign. The campaign is as much against patriarchy and gender discrimination as it is against menstrual taboos and commoditization of women’s menstrual health.
Arjun Unnikrishanan came across an article about Mr. Arunachalam Muruganandam, a man who invented a low cost pad manufacturing machine. Arjun was unaware of the process of menstruation since he did not think about it beyond what his textbook taught him. When he approached a teacher to talk about the article, he was surprised about the silence around such a natural process. In many schools menstruation is taught in biology classes just as a component of the reproductive process, but for most boys this makes no sense and the girls find the classes awkward. So does that mean the boys are not to be made aware of this process or educated about it? Was this just a women’s problem that men could close their eyes to? These questions drove Arjun to start The Red Cycle. Even though he was determined to spread awareness, Arjun confesses that their first education session was awkward and ill-planned. One of the most frequently asked question to him is about what ‘productive work’ their group is doing. By this, many people mean distribution of pads and such programs. But Arjun is determined to keep their goals more holistic where they want to create awareness about alternative hygiene measures and talk about the problems associated with the disposal of sanitary wastes. He is associated with many other social campaigns and groups so that there can be more open discussions, sharing of ideas in bringing about a collective solution. The Red Cycle plans to work on a wide platform only after they bring about a change in the policy level and the discussions become more widespread so that a holistic solution can be collectively arrived at.
The student union at Government Medical College, Kozhikode, led by Sreya Salim, wanted to do an event to show their support to the #HappytoBleed campaign. They decided to organize a micro-tale competition in February, 2016. What began as an intra-college competition soon grew exponentially generating more than 100 responses in 4-5 days, with responses pouring in from Pune, Delhi and even France. This response was overwhelming and prompted the organizers to continue with the campaign and help with creating awareness. Haiku has worked with The Red Cycle to conduct educational classes in many schools in the city. Their outreach programs involve talks about healthy menstruation habits and cleanliness in various schools where both boys and girls are encouraged to attend the sessions. When asked about their plans for the future, they mention expanding their outreach programs and publishing the entries they received for the competition as a book.
“We are on a mission to inculcate better waste etiquette among people in the country” reads the description on the website of The Kachra Project. The growing mountains of sanitary waste and issues with their disposal and the plight of sanitation workers and manual scavengers prompted them to start #periodofchange. Their campaign #periodofchange is aimed at bringing consorted action on integrated menstrual hygiene management so that women can choose safe, hygienic and sustainable products. They are exploring 5 themes over the course of 5 weeks from Earth Day (April 22nd) to Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28th). The topics are:
- Sustainability and menstruation
- The development of the MHM sector in India
- Dealing with menstrual hygiene waste
- Reusable menstrual hygiene products
- Educating ourselves on best practices.
Orikalankini differs from the other campaigns in that it is rooted more in spirituality and learning to accept our bodies and celebrating womanhood. Dr. Sneha Rooh, an artist and a palliative physician, started Orikalankini after she realised how uplifting women’s exclusive groups were and how they helped a person celebrate themselves. As an artist, she uses art installations at various events to engage the public and make them open up to discussions about womanhood and menstruation. Sneha’s sessions start off with activities to engage the young minds and to help them open up to the discussion. The topics range from menstruation and ways of dealing with it, good touch- bad touch, etc. She makes the children enact the menstrual cycle with a person playing the egg and passing through various organs, they chart the moon phase with oreos and such activities help them shed their inhibitions about their body and menstruation. According to Sneha, Orikalankini works because instead of dealing with large crowds, their workshops connect to people at a personal level. Sneha feels that every girl understands that menstruation is not shameful, but are relieved to reinforce this belief when it comes from another adult. Then they open up and share their stories and the session moves forward. Currently, Sneha is travelling across India looking for women’s groups to collaborate with and who can carry forward her work in their states.
After talking to so many activists associated in bringing about the cycle of change, I noticed that there are few things that remain common to all the causes.
- Menstruation is hushed and whispered even in our modern times.
- Boys/ men are unaware of this natural process and once they learn, they are motivating everyone to accept this as a natural process and not as something to be silenced.
- Even when considered as a women’s problem, the solution involves both men and women.
- Even women take time to accept that menstrual blood is not impure and is life giving because we are conditioned to believe in its impurity.
- Ignorance about alternate and sustainable menstrual products is highly prevalent. But once educated many women are willing to make the switch.
- Even while working through different means and methods, all campaigns aim at empowering women through the acceptance of menstruation and making menstruation sustainable.
Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective
My involvement with menstrual campaigns started when I became part of the Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective. While aware of the biological processes involved in menstruation, I was blissfully unaware of the harm I was doing to the environment by using DSNs and the harm DSNs were doing to my body through the cocktail of chemicals used in them. SMKC helped open my mind to these issues and helped me open up discussions and debates about menstruation. SMKC is a collective of like-minded people from various campaigns, volunteers, working professionals, activists and students who want to collectively bring about change. As a collective, we aim to focus on various aspects of the issue and find solutions through exchange of ideas while each group can remain rooted to its cause. Ill-defined rules and regulations that govern the manufacture and sales of DSNs in India and the vague policies about sanitary waste management are among the few major issues the collective is trying to combat. The collective aims to bring the discussion and solutions to the public by bringing the events to public spaces. As part of the Women’s day celebration the collective had done a first of its kind event at the Manaveeyam Veedhi which included panel discussions with experts on menstruation, screening of documentaries and short films related to menstruation, sale of sustainable menstrual hygiene products and art installations.
Slowly the cycle of change has begun, it will gain momentum to bring about a paradigm shift in how we perceive menstruation and it is only together that we can make this happen.
About the author: Dr. Remya is a practising endodontist in the city of Trivandrum. She believes in the principle of small things adding up to big proportions and is striving to do her bit to bring about change.
This is the fifth article in the series of seven for Earth Day and is done in a collaboration with Bhoomi College, a centre for learning for those who wish to take up green paths, as well as those who wish to live with more ecological consciousness and personal fulfilment. The last article in the series of seven will be published on Menstrual Hygiene Day On 28th May.
In these seven weeks, we will cover a variety of topics around menstruation, which are eye-opening, thought-provoking, and will inform readers more about sustainable menstruation options. We urge our readers to stay tuned and participate in this crusade.