As a woman born and raised in India, I learnt to not discuss my period. And I’m hardly alone... There are millions of women in the country who feel the need to take home sanitary napkins in black polythene bags, suffer through PMS in silence, or refer to their period as ‘That time of the month’ in order to be able to speak about it. However, it’s not just the taboos and myths around the subject—deep rooted in our culture—that create the illusion that menstruation is inherently ‘shameful’, ‘gross’ or ‘weird’.
It’s the lack of awareness on menstrual hygiene that’s posing to be a bigger threat. According to a 2016 study by AC Nielsen, out of the 355 million menstruating women and girls in India, only 12 percent use sanitary napkins. And with incidents of Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) becoming 70 percent more common than ever, menstrual hygiene is one of the most challenging development issues in the country today. Another study by FSG, on menstrual health in India, states that the greatest barrier is the cost of sanitary napkins in India. In a survey, nearly
70 percent of women said their families couldn’t afford them. And the GST rollout last year—with a 12 percent tax being levied on sanitary napkins—hasn’t helped matters. But it’s not just the cost that’s a concern:
71 percent of young girls in India, especially in rural areas, are clueless about menstruation before their first period. They often turn to their mothers for info and support, but since many of them consider it ‘dirty’, it further perpetuates taboos. And the ‘shame’ doesn’t stop at home. Recently, when a woman posted a photo on social media, holding a used menstrual cup, she received hundreds of vile messages and death
threats (!). And when author Rupi Kaur posted an image of blood-stained clothes, so many followers reported it, that Instagram took it down! Then there’s the issue of choice—women everywhere complain about the lack of organic, biodegradable or good-for-sensitive-skin options. Luckily, things are changing, albeit slowly. We spoke to five women who are helping bringing about a much-needed wave of change in the spotty history of your period.
Tanvi Johri, Co-Founder, Carmesi
After suffering rashes and allergies from synthetic sanitary napkins for years, Tanvi had had enough. She began researching on what regular sanitary napkins were made of, and was shocked to find that many of them contain chemicals that can cause health hazards. “As a woman, I was not just concerned about my well-being, I wanted to find an alternative,” she tells us. And with that goal in mind, Carmesi, a brand of all-natural sanitary napkins, was born. “Our product is made of bamboo fibre and corn starch, and is also biodegradable,” Tanvi says. Through Carmesi, she doesn’t just want to offer a healthier and safer alternative for menstrual hygiene, Tanvi also wants women to feel empowered. “There’s a huge stigma attached to periods, which prevents women from learning more about it. With Carmesi, we aim to change that. We deliver the pads in a beautiful vanity box, so that women don’t have to hide it out of shame,” Tanvi reveals. Currently, Carmesi supplies monthly, luxurious boxes to over 4,000 customers, and offers them the flexibility to choose their preferred mix of sizes, delivered as per their period dates.
Jessica Kapur, Project Manager, India Vision Foundation
Dr Kiran Bedi’s NGO, India Vision Foundation, has been working on prison reform programmes for many years. And last year, under an initiative of the state prisons department, the NGO helped start a factory in a Haryana prison, training female inmates to create low-cost sanitary napkins. “This project was born out of necessity,” says Jessica. “Most inmates lived in unsanitary conditions during their period, which makes them susceptible to infections. Since many of them are from the villages, and have a mental block regarding menstruation, this project helped us open up their minds, and change the perception that a period is ‘unholy’.” Currently, a team of 13 inmates in the Bhondsi Jail make 800 to 1,000 sanitary napkins a day, which are then supplied to prisons across Haryana. The napkins are supplied free-of-cost to these inmates, part of an attempt to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene. The initiative, which started in one room with just five machines, is expected to grow further as the department is working towards providing pads to all female inmates in the 19 jails across the state. “As project managers, we help women understand the importance of menstrual hygiene. This initiative will also help them earn a living once their term is over. As each of the trained inmates works with the machines, they’re driven to produce more sanitary napkins—this will help more women in the facility join the movement, and, in turn, lead to more awareness about the topic,” she adds. The India Vision Foundation is currently collecting data to understand the demand for sanitary napkins, and will amp up the production accordingly.
Kathy Walkling, Co-Founder, Eco Femme
Launched in 2010, Eco Femme is an all-women led social enterprise that produces washable cloth pads and educates adolescents about menstrual health. “I personally experienced the shift from disposables to reusable cloth pads, back in 1999, as revolutionary,” says Kathy. “I was so excited by this discovery, that I became somewhat fanatical in my efforts to encourage other women to also make the shift.” Soon, Kathy co-founded Eco Femme, with Jessamijn Miedema, to transform the planet, one woman, one period at a time. “Jessamijn and I both share a passion for women’s empowerment and ecology, and this evolved into an idea to start a project—to bring cloth pads to India and counteract the increase in sanitary waste that we saw littered all over the city,” says Kathy. “We recognised through our early research that education—especially for adolescent girls—would be an important value addition to the products.” Based out of Auroville, Tamil Nadu, Eco Femme pads are made of organic cotton flannel, which can last for approximately 75 washes. (Trivia: a single disposable sanitary napkin takes about 500 to 800 years to decompose!) “Cloth menstrual pads are rapidly gaining acceptance around the world for their environmental and cost-saving benefits. A woman who switches to reusable menstrual pads can prevent an average of 600 disposable pads from being thrown away during a five-year period...and that’s a huge number!” Apart from selling reusable pads in India and internationally, Eco Femme also donates pads to girls in rural areas through their Pad For Pad programme; and sells their product at a subsidised rate to economically disadvantaged women above the age of 19.
Aditi Gupta, Founder, menstrupedia.com
Her revolutionary website started an open discussion on the subject of periods. It started small, and now, menstrupedia.com not only has over 1,00,000 users a month, over 25 schools have also included it in their curriculum! The site features blogs, comic strips, and videos on periods that are meant to clear any haziness on the matter. Aditi tells us that she started it up because she felt a huge dearth of this kind of information herself, when she needed it. “I took up a research project in this domain as a Research Associate for the Ford Foundation at NID, and during that time, found that the subject was introduced long after most girls had already experienced their first period.” It was then that she set up a prototype: a printed comic in Hindi, which they tested on school girls, but had to shelve for lack of funding. Years later, Aditi managed to bring menstrupedia to fruition. “Crowdfunding! People really wanted it to take off, so they contributed.” Aditi wanted to change people’s thought and mindsets. “I wanted to bust ridiculous myths like ‘period blood is dirty’ or that a ‘menstruating girl is a bad omen’. You’d think it’d be archaic, but beliefs like these are still prevalent, and we’re glad we’ve started changing that.”
Neha Tulsian, Founder, NH1 Design and Don’t Hide It. Period. Campaign
The fact that people are so apprehensive about using the word ‘period’ really bothered Neha. “Periods are as natural as eating and sleeping,” says Neha. Yet, most of us don’t like talking about them. And that got me thinking: wouldn’t it be great if the packaging of such a basic necessity could encourage women to open up about their periods?” And that’s how the Don’t Hide It. Period campaign came about. “We designed a canvas pouch with inspiring messages that spark a conversation. Each pouch contains a set of 10 pads, and comes with a unique message,” she adds. Currently sold exclusively on nykaa.com, 100 percent of the sales from these products are donated to The Better India, who, in collaboration with Aakar Innovations, are setting up a factory in Ajmer that will employ local women to manufacture biodegradable, low-cost pads. Designer Pallavi Mohan, too, joined the movement by designing an exclusive range of T-shirts for the cause. “Our end goal is to make sanitary pads accessible to rural women at a low cost,” Neha says.