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My mother used torn pieces of old clothes as pads when she first moved to the capital city from her village, where she endured periods without using anything. When I got my first period, I was handed over pieces of the same shawl almost as a family heirloom. These pieces however, had to be washed and dried in secret. Outside the rented flat we lived in, there was a small outer passage, where we hung the stained pieces to dry. The narrow space barely saw half an hour of sunlight.
In Nepal, the majority of menstruating individuals still face hurdles in accessing appropriate sanitary products owing to their unavailability and unaffordability, especially in low income and rural settings. In India around 70 percent women’s families are unable to afford sanitary pads while 88 percent continue using old fabric, rags or even sand to manage their flow.
While the access is not easy, the majority of menstruating individuals who do use it, usually use disposable sanitary pads. Plastic sanitary pads which can be used and thrown away are occupying significant a space in the composition of solid waste. The discourse around “pad pollution” usually places responsibilities on menstruating individuals to manage their periods more sustainably. But the issue is not as simple as making a quick switch.
First of all, there are not enough alternatives to plastic pads and even the existing ones are not as accessible as cheaper pads. These alternatives come with a hefty price. A menstrual cup cost ranges from Rs.500-700. One cup can be used for around 5 years. While this price may not be too much for people in the top rungs of the society who can afford to buy an expensive, albeit reusable menstrual cup, it is still a large sum to pay upfront for someone who may be living hand to mouth.
Even though economically, using a long-lasting reusable product might be a better option, most menstruating individuals lack that knowledge, capital, and awareness. These products, which are difficult to find, require good research and access to the internet to be bought. Individuals in urban areas may be able to do so, but it is futile to expect that everyone has the resources for it.
Sustainable menstrual hygiene products also need to be washed regularly, which requires good water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) facilities. Also, the use of such menstrual products is not one time. They require frequent changing, sanitation and multiple uses. In private spaces, it may be possible to make such arrangements. But what about the public space?
One of the schemes of the Indian government, the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) [SBM(U)] aims to provide universal sanitation coverage by providing funds for constructing toilets (individual and public). The Parliamentary Standing Committee criticised SBM(U) report claims that a sizable number of toilets built under the SBM(U) were not being used due to lack of water supply and that many public toilets are in a dismal condition in terms of cleanliness.
In Nepal, while access to private toilets has increased, a considerable amount of work still needs to be done about public toilets, which often run out of water. In a recent research centered on schools of peri-urban areas in Nepal, it was found that WASH infrastructures were available, but water supply and soap were less frequently managed.
Let us forget about amenities like water or electricity, most public toilets are not even remotely clean. With no proper sewage system or regular cleaning, they are not in the state to be used. In the case of reusable pads, along with a good supply of water and soap they require a secure washing and drying space which is rare in most places.
In such washrooms, how can menstruating individuals spend time changing the cup? What about the water? Soap? Hand washing arrangements? The cup requires taking it out, draining the blood and again inserting it. With what to wash away the blood or clean the bloody mess?
The thing that boils down in the end is about access. Governments may be rolling out biodegradable and affordable sanitary pads. Some innovative businesses may produce eco-sanitary pads. But are menstruating individual getting them? When the market is flooded by cheap plastic sanitary pads, how difficult is it for an individual with no access to the internet, to browse multiple choices and buy, thinking about sustainability? Does one simple choice even matter in the end?
If there’s one good thing to come out of this whole COVID fiasco, it has to be how more public spaces are being equipped with hand wash and sanitizers. Apparently it was only post COVID that government officials realised the importance of hand-washing with soap and accessibility of running water. This shows how there is still a lack of enough knowledge and awareness about menstrual health management.
For a change, in Kumbalangi, Kerala, menstrual cups are being distributed. Some organizations like Volunteer Service overseas and Action Aid are teaching Nepalese young girls to make reusable sanitary pads. This is a good initiative but its effectiveness cannot be gauged without considering if there is enough water and how the water is accessed by these young women.
Usually, the responsibility of covering a difficult path to fetch a bucket of water falls squarely on women of the household who cannot be expected to drain it for their period stains. A few days ago, a relative came with a reusable pad hidden behind her shawl. My mother and she tossed it around discussing their menopause. “She uses something else now“, my mother said on my behalf.
When I explained to them how a cup worked, they both flinched. I had forgotten to flush after draining my cup in the morning so my mother had to deal with the full-fledged sight of a blood bath. I think about the buckets of water it takes to wash away the blood. How I am not throwing it wrapped in a paper or a plastic. How I am lessening the amount of sanitary pad waste that goes to landfills. But it still requires so much water down the drain.
Featured Image Source: The Indian Express