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Junking the sanitary napkin

An online community is prodding women to adopt eco-friendly methods such as reusable cloth pads and menstrualcups and reverse the reliance on the feminine hygiene product

August 13, 2016 11:51 pm | Updated August 14, 2016 12:03 am IST

Remember the popular sanitary napkin advertisement that urged menstruating women to “touch the pickle”? While ad campaigns in the 1990s had a role in breaking certain taboos around menstruation, they also pushed a whole generation of adolescents into adopting sanitary napkins. Sanitary waste has become the elephant in the room: every household generates it and there is no proper disposal method for it other than shucking it in the bin, where it will be thrown with garbage on the street and eventually handled by human hands, or burning them in incinerators.

Alternatives to the napkin

There is an alternative to a future where used napkins are piled up in street corners — sustainable menstruation. A Facebook community called ‘Sustainable Menstruation India’, which has 10,000 members and adds more every day, encourages women to adopt eco-friendly methods like reusable cloth pads and menstrual cups. And going by the response, more and more women are joining the bandwagon every day.

“Anyone I know who has used menstrual cups wants to shout about it from the rooftops,” says Malini Parmar, a member of the group. These medical-grade silicon cups are fitted in the vagina to collect menstrual blood when a woman has her periods, and to be able to use them, women need to get accustomed with handling their “lady bits”.

“I always get two questions — the first one is ‘will it get lost in there?’ Keeping [the] female anatomy in mind, it’s close to impossible for that to happen,” says Ms. Parmar. The second is whether it can break the hymen. “The possibility of a menstrual cup breaking the hymen is about the same as for any physical activity like sports and running,” says gynaecologist Meenakshi Bharath. Several members on the Facebook group reply to questions from first-timers and conduct workshops on sustainable menstruation across Bengaluru to clear these misconceptions.

A lot of women ask if the cups are suitable for teenagers. “I think this is a question that can be answered by a teen and her mother after proper discussion,” says Ms. Parmar. Her 11-year-old daughter uses reusable cloth pads and plans to try cups in the future. Ms. Parmar dismisses the idea that washing cloth pads can be a hassle. “My daughter soaks them in water and rinses it a few times, and then it goes into the dryer with the other clothes. I don’t believe in the notion that anything with a bit of blood on it cannot be mixed with the other clothes.”

Dr. Bharath says that menstrual cups and cloth pads are better for women’s health. “Commercial sanitary napkins contain chemicals like acetone and styrene, which can increase the incidence of menstrual cramps. Many women report getting fewer rashes once they switch,” she adds.

Starting a conversation

The sustainable menstruation campaign forces women to look at where the sanitary pads go after they have been used. “A major reason for drains being blocked in the city is pads flushed in them. When they are thrown in the dustbin, they pass through human hands and can cause infections,” says programme manager Harishri Babu, a member of the Facebook group. Incinerators, which governments have been touting, can lead to more amounts of cancer-causing dioxins being released into the air.

It has also brought a conversation often made in whispers in girls’ toilets out in the open. It questions several hard-to-shake notions, such as the idea that menstrual blood is unclean and is best “thrown away and forgotten”. One woman on the community has gone a step further in shattering stereotypes: she pours the blood collected from her menstrual cup as fertilizer for the plants at her home. At a time when cities are drowning in their garbage, this movement is asking women to stop and question where the blood goes.

cinthya.anand@thehindu.co.in

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