Why India Doesn’t Need The Sanitary Napkin Revolution

Sinu Joseph

May 25, 2017, 03:28 PM | Updated 03:28 PM IST

Modern reusable cloth pads in differing sizes.
Modern reusable cloth pads in differing sizes.
  • Foreign organizations are promoting the need to introduce sanitary napkins in India by saying that 88% of Indian women are using cloth.
  • But in their own country, they are promoting reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups, citing environmental reasons.
  • Open any write-up on menstruation in India, and you will find horror stories of how only 12% of Indian women are using Sanitary Napkins and that the others are almost dying from lack of access to such products. You will read about the poor Indian girl in a village who is dropping out of school because she suddenly started her period. And you will read about how India is full of superstitions and menstrual taboos that are coming in the way of us breaking free and embracing our body….and Sanitary Napkins.

    Yes, these are horror stories; because most of what is written about India and menstruation is not true. And it is on the basis of this false information, that decisions are being made for India.

    Having worked on ground for over 5 years now and interacting with over 15,000 women and girls across rural India, I have been witnessing a disconnect between the reality of the situation and what is projected in the media, by developmental organizations and even by international organizations such as UNICEF and UK’s Water Aid and WASH.

    I initially thought, rather naively, that it must be their lack of understanding of the ground reality. Recently, I had the unfortunate privilege to find out why such organizations talk of India as they do. I was invited as one of the key speakers at the International Conference on Menstrual Health and Reproductive Justice, held in Boston in June 2015. It was during the course of this conference that I discovered what is really going on and the intentions of those who decide for India.

    Celebration of Menstrual Hygiene Day in Amra Padatik, India. Photo: WASH United
    Celebration of Menstrual Hygiene Day in Amra Padatik, India. Photo: WASH United

    As I presented the contradictions that exist between the reality in India and what is spoken of, I was welcomed with applause by the audience of feminists and researchers, and avoided by the representatives from organizations who have built their identity (and finances) out of portraying India in poor light. One of the representatives of the large organizations asked me to “modulate” what I speak so that I can build allies! But before I go into that, let me explain the glaring gaps in the menstrual hygiene management initiatives.

    Cooking up statistics to create a false need

    The most often quoted statistic, is of a study done by A.C Nielson and Plan India, which states “Only 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins (Sns). Over 88% of women resort to shocking alternatives like unsanitised cloth, ashes and husk sand.” Here is why this study and others like it are incorrect in representing Indian women:

    • The lesser known fact about this study is that it only interviewed 1033 women, i.e. < 0.00029% of India’s menstruating women! How this sample size is representative of a country as diverse as India is really questionable.
    • Even if 88% women might be using cloth, it is absolutely incorrect to club the usage of sand, ash husk in the same percentage bracket. The usage of sand, ash husk or dried leaves for menstrual absorption happen in extreme conditions (less than 1%), such as in Rajasthan where some women have been using fine sand for ages since water is scarce. In these cases, we need to further investigate if indeed such usage has been detrimental to their health, since such practices have prevailed for hundreds of years. Obviously if such practices were harmful, people would have let it go a long time ago
    • On what basis are they calling the cloth ‘unsanitized’? Are the cloth pads being sold by foreign NGOs sanitized? In fact, if we look at the stitched cloth being sold by NGOs, it is more difficult to dry and sanitize it in sunlight because the inner layers are never exposed to sunlight. Whereas, the loose cloth used by rural Indian women can be opened and dried with complete exposure to sunlight. It is foolish to take a traditional practice such as using cloth, and package it to give it the look of a modern pad, and in the process missing out on the point of maintaining hygiene using cloth!

    Pads for India, reusables for the West

    The hypocrisy is such that while foreign organizations are promoting the need to introduce sanitary napkins in India by saying that 88% of Indian women are using cloth, in their own country they are promoting reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups, citing environmental reasons. If that is the case, then India is far ahead of the rest of the world in being environment friendly.

    In the light of the latest wave of western feminism, movements (such as the Free Blood Movement) which promote women’s right to bleed without using any product are being applauded and encouraged. At the same time, international organizations look down upon indigenous women who for generations have bled naturally without using any product.

    But what took the cake was when, at the conference, an excited American activist told me that I should tie up with one of these cloth-pad making NGOs (which I’d rather not name) to start distributing cloth pads to rural Indian women because it is environment friendly and a safer alternative to sanitary napkins! Imagine the drama of telling our rural women to throw away their piece of menstrual cloth and instead use my packaged version of it, which by the way will also cost them. Imagine teaching her about being environment friendly as a new concept, when all along she has not used a single bit of environmentally damaging menstrual product. Imagine trying to educate her about cloth being healthy, when she and all generations before her have been quietly following natural methods of managing menstruation.

    The ridiculousness of the suggestion made me both laugh and seethe with anger.

    Are the boys also dropping out due to menstruation, then?

    I had the unfortunate opportunity to make my 5 minute presentation at the conference, just after the UNICEF representative, who of course spoke of bringing girls back to school thanks to the toilets they are building and so on. UNICEF’s intervention in Indian schools has been about building toilets, providing Sanitary Napkins and Incinerators, in the name of bringing the girl child back to school.

    For the record, let me be clear – I think functional toilets are a necessity in any environment. But the link between the absence of sanitary napkins to menstrual hygiene and therefore school drop-outs is really like a poorly written movie script. Why would a girl stop going to school because she doesn’t use a Sanitary Pad? And if school dropouts are due to menstruation, then what about the boys? In most States of India, we have more boys dropping out of school than girls (according to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan survey of 2007). So are we going to distribute Sanitary Napkins to boys then?

    Yes, sometimes girls take a few days off when they get their period. And so do we adults, if we could afford it. Taking a few days off due to menstrual pain and discomfort is not the same as dropping out of school. Increasingly, doctors recommend that menstruating girls and women honor their period and take the needed rest to avoid menstrual problems. Movements such as the Red Tent movement are built around the idea of getting women to honor their period and take time off.

    Modern reusable cloth pads in differing sizes.
    Modern reusable cloth pads in differing sizes.

    If and when girls do drop out, the reasons have to do with parents fearing teenage pregnancy, or requiring another hand at home to work. And let’s not forget the really out-dated education system in government schools which does nothing to retain the interest of anyone with the tiniest capacity to think. So no matter how many toilets you build or Sanitary Napkins you distribute, it will not address the problem of bringing the dropouts (boys or girls) back to school.

    After I spoke of this disconnect, the UNICEF representative diplomatically clarified, albeit a little later, that they don’t really build toilets to reduce dropouts due to menstruation. And that, it is just a way of bringing children to school in general.

    Perhaps, UNICEF would also want to make that correction in all their material on menstruation in India.

    Menstrual huts are patriarchal, while Red Tents honor womanhood

    Water Aid’s project WASH had put up a “World Taboo Map” at the conference. The idea was to list all menstrual taboos across the world. The Menstrual Hygiene day, an initiative of WASH focused on breaking the taboos such as menstrual seclusion. Menstrual practices are often spoken of as the result of a patriarchal society in India which is deliberately attempting to suppress women. However, our interactions with women of the Golla Community in Karnataka, revealed that women chose these practices inspite of men telling them that they have a choice. (Link to our work with Gollas – Voice of the Gollas)

    The glaring contradiction at the same conference was the screening of a film on the new concept of Red Tents, which was applauded and embraced. What is a Red Tent? It is a movement which raises up a Red Tent in local villages, cities and towns (in U.S) to honor blood cycles and womanhood journeys. Here are women from the U.S choosing to take time off during their period and stay in exclusive Red Tents, rather than at home!

    So, how different is the Red Tent from the age old practice of seclusion through menstrual huts practiced in rural India?

    The traditional practices of menstrual seclusion came into being to address practical issues of maintaining hygiene and having privacy and comfort during menstruation, since indigenous women lived in small homes with large joint families. Whereas, the Red Tent and similar new movements have evolved from a somewhat pretentious attempt to honor one’s period. I call it pretentious because there was no sense in why the American women in Red Tents wear Bindis and dance around with Duppattas to native music, trying to imitate practices of ancient societies like India and Africa! (Click here to view the Trailer of the Red Tent)

    The manufactured need

    Most movements begin with a need. Either a real need or a manufactured one. In the case of the newly emerging space of menstrual hygiene management, the need is a manufactured one; specifically, for sanitary product manufacturing companies to enter the untapped market of India, especially rural India.

    Organizations working on menstruation and even Sanitary Napkin companies (Whisper’s ‘Don’t touch the pickle’ ad) have started talking about cultural practices around menstruation by demeaning them as Menstrual Taboos. These institutions, in their attempt to create a market for sanitary products and infrastructure in India, have chosen the path of dismissing all cultural practices around menstruation as regressive taboos, and emphasising that Sanitary Napkins are the progressive expression of the modern woman. Happily joining hands with such organizations are the sold out Indian NGOs, who have made menstruation their means of sustenance.

    One can, at best, express their views or disagreement of their own personal belief system. Imposing upon another’s belief system and forcing women to “break the taboo” is unnecessary social engineering. The intent behind such intervention is to uproot the very foundation upon which Indian women have been menstrually independent, by ridiculing traditional practices around menstruation.

    India does not need the Sanitary Napkin revolution.

    What we do need is a simple solution of providing information in schools and communities on maintaining menstrual hygiene, be it with cloth or pads. And leave it to women to decide what they wish to use.

    There is something wrong about everyone deciding for the rural Indian woman, except for herself.

    Sinu Joseph is a menstrual hygiene educator, counselor and founder of Mythri Speaks Trust which works on issues pertaining to women and children. For more details about her work, please visit Mythri Speaks

    Sinu Joseph is a menstrual hygiene educator, counselor and founder of Mythri Speaks Trust which works on issues pertaining to women and children.

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