NEW DELHI, India — A shocking 2011 report put the estimated use of female hygiene products in India at about 12 percent of all 355 million menstruating women. This figure is the result of twin barriers to access and affordability that force the other 88 percent to rely on unsanitary alternatives such as cloth, ashes and husk sand.
The lack of access to hygiene products, particularly in rural India, can be attributed to the taboo associated with menstruation in India. Certain interpretations of Hindu myth imply that menstruating women are impure and must be clean before returning to daily life. This tradition is alive in parts of rural India, where women are shunned or even hidden away during menstruation. Naturally, in such restrictive societies, menstrual health and hygiene are not high on the list of priorities.
Even in villages and towns where the taboo has been broken, the cost of sanitary products is prohibitively high. As a result, girls often use pieces of cloth specifically intended for bleeding. While the use of a sanitary cloth in itself is not problematic, women often reuse the cloth without properly drying it in an effort to hide evidence of menstruation.
These problems are compounded by the fact that sanitary products themselves are disastrous for the environment. India already generates several hundred million pads every month, which clog up sewers and exacerbate the massively inefficient waste disposal in the country. If more women in rural areas were to start using sanitary products available in the market, it would impact the environment negatively.
Today, an innovative partnership is introducing banana fiber sanitary pads to India. Made from a biodegradable material, these pads decompose naturally and can be used in compost and biogas systems. Since the material is entirely natural, it also eliminates irritation and swelling for the user. The first organization to commercialize this innovation in rural India was Saathi, a nonprofit set up by three MIT graduates in 2014. Partnering with local NGOs, Saathi distributes these pads in rural villages and urban slums around the country. It is currently undertaking a program to distribute one million pads to women in rural Jharkhand.
Simultaneously, NGOs are also working on raising awareness about menstruation in India. Menstrupedia, an initiative that started as a comic strip to educate girls about menstruation, has grown into a website and a book in various languages. It is now used by NGOs around the country as a first step towards eradicating myths and taboos around menstruation in India.
The Great Wash Yatra, a carnival established in 2012, employs games and pop culture to promote good sanitation practices in five Indian states. The carnival has included an installation called the Menstrual Hygiene Management Lab, which provides a free, non-judgemental zone for women and girls to discuss menstruation and feminine hygiene. The carnival has reached almost 230 million people and is considered a great success.
Initiatives like these are steadily changing the conversation and attitudes towards menstruation in India. With adequate resourcing and small, incremental steps in cultural dialogue, women and girls in India can reclaim their dignity and live safer, more comfortable lives.