Did you think that menstruation is hushed only in homes and is largely a cultural stigma?
The oppressive silence around the monthly cycles of almost half of the world’s reproductively active population actually transcends from taboos and ignorance to systemic global issues that trickle down into our lives.
Let’s have a look at some of the issues that need to be carefully studied and sensitised among menstruators and the society at large.
In the current framework of capitalism and market economics, the concept of “efficiency” has largely been detrimental to women in the work setup, ignoring their rights and being indifferent to their biological functions. In this age of tough competition where women are constantly put to test on being “as good” as the men, most menstruators, especially the ones with serious implications like PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), endometriosis or extreme PMS (premenstrual syndrome) are afraid of losing out if they acknowledge the health concerns around this.
So we live in a society that expects women to set aside their monthly cycle and reproductive health concerns in order to contribute efficiently to the GDP, but also be fertile and provide motherly care to the next generation that then thrives on the wealth made from our non-existent wellbeing.
While our country still grapples with even uttering the M-word in public discourses, it is interesting to see that discussion from around the world on menstruation and its various aspects are also largely divided.
Schemes and legislation
Are tax-free sanitary napkins or free tampons the only way out?
Not really, say petitions from members of #GreentheRed in India and activists in the UK. In fact, a citizen report analysing some of the schemes in India say that most of them are not as effective as deemed to be due to low-quality products or discontinued supply.
Decision makers in the country have by large assumed that sanitary napkins are the way out for the general welfare of menstruators. It is doubtful if such projects are in consultation with women’s groups, or such deliberations have adequate representation from informed women participants who can make a call. In fact, schemes under National Rural Health Mission and Swacch Vidyalaya Abhiyan carelessly toss low-quality disposables and incinerators in toilets, which often lack water and power supply. The health concerns of such measures have been discussed at length in our previous features. The ignorance around such matters has led to failed schemes and any welfare intended, especially for the rural and urban poor who face additional challenges of disposal. Provisions under the current Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, is ambiguous and unhelpful for the municipal bodies to make producers accountable for the problematic (and expensive) nature of the disposal mechanisms available for sanitary napkins.
In the end, the biggest question that we need ask our government is beyond taxes – why are sanitary napkins and menstrual hygiene products still not listed as essential healthcare/medical commodities, but seen as luxury items?
Sanitary napkin companies reap profits of unimaginable amounts through relentless use of misconceived statistics and advertisements with a false sense of empowerment. Due to corporate monopoly and lobbying, as well as these products falling out of the purview of rightful consumer information compliance, a disclosure of the chemical nature of these products has been conveniently hidden. For instance, when you buy a pack of sanitary napkins does the company tell you if it contains chemicals that can cause hormone imbalance? Do they tell you that there is a potential risk of dioxin exposure when burned after use? No.
In the strange nexus of competitive pricing, patent rights and markets, corporations have been successful in burying any scientific evidence that points to the toxic nature of our sanitary napkins (and tampons). Chintan, an environment research group states that women are much more at risk from persistent organic pollutants like dioxins, through environmental and industrial sources. In the early 2000s, activists in the USA campaigned strongly with scientific data on the presence of toxic chemicals in the products under the brand Always, which is still being ignored by the Senate. In India, Laxmi Murthy reported back in 2004 on the linkage between endometriosis and dioxins that again has been largely ignored in mainstream scientific studies. The linkage between bleached menstrual hygiene products and dioxin exposure has been vaguely attributed by Endometriosis Association in the USA, but there’s still much more scientific evidence that needs to be built.
What we know is that most sanitary napkins are bleached, and chlorine containing products leave out styrene and dioxin traces when in contact with the vagina and after being burnt or buried. Now, do we wait for the lax scientific community to study a woman’s body for the 40 odd years she menstruates and uses toxic products? Or do we act on precautionary principle and make the companies that produce these compliant to providing accurate health information?
This has been the buzzword in the last few years. With the United Nations bringing in Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals for the betterment of humanity, listed below are some of the goals that development workers can make use of in promoting menstruation and reproductive health rights in India;
Goal 3 Good health and well-being – Target: By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services..
Goal 5 Gender Equality – Target: Ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights
Goal 6 Water and sanitation – Target: By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all..
Goal 10 Reduced inequalities – Target: Improve the regulation and monitoring of global financial markets and institutions and strengthen the implementation of such regulations..
Goal 12 Sustainable consumption and production patterns – Target: Rationalize inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption by removing market distortions, in accordance with national circumstances, including by restructuring taxation and phasing out those harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries and minimizing the possible adverse impacts on their development in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities
Although menstruation has not been explicitly mentioned in the targets (yes, the silence is universal), if these goals are indeed implemented, it would help every individual to have access to all safe and sustainable choices for managing their periods.
How does all of this matter to you and I?
Menstruation and menstrual hygiene products are not just an individual’s private matter anymore. Starting from the production till the supply chain, and the various market systems surrounding it and our choice of menstrual hygiene product has an immense consequence to health, environment and the society. The current reality is an invisible oppression of our basic human rights. While corporates profit through pushing out a toxic cocktail of chemicals to our vaginas every month, our uncomfortable silence towards these issues creates a generation of young menstruators struggling with health concerns unheard of among generations that preceded.
Over the weeks, the series shared here through members of various campaigns across the country are an attempt to take us forward into conversations that are the need of the hour. We have come to understand that our sanitary waste just doesn’t magically go away, and menstrual shaming through unscientific beliefs and taboos often hampers with personal growth. Our writers have analysed India’s legislation (and lack of it) to deal with the conundrum of sanitary waste management, which now results in the menstruators and sanitary workers suffering from serious health implications, and a violation of basic dignity.
Despite programmes that aim at ‘rural women’s welfare’, reproductive health initiatives in most such areas are poorly conceived. We have also shared the organisations and movements that are slowly blooming around making menstruation sustainable and healthier, and through menstrual hygiene products that are earth-friendly.
Make menstruation matter to you and break the silence around it for a safe living environment for all of us.
About the author: Shradha Shreejaya is a graduate in Biochemistry and has a Masters degree in Ecology and Environmental Sciences. Her previous work areas have been in national environmental policies, waste management and sanitation in Tamil Nadu, zero waste and climate action in Kerala. She’s also the founding campaigner at the Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective, and tends to brood with a book on her couch when not at any of the above.
This article is part of the series 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.