SEATTLE — In the past decade or so much light has been shed on the issue of period poverty in India. According to the Indian Ministry of Health, more than 80% of menstruating women do not have access to sanitary products and instead rely on unhygienic solutions such as cloth, sand, sawdust and ash that can cause serious medical issues. The inability to access necessary period products, or the lack of proper facilities to manage their periods, often causes young girls to miss school and even drop out. In India, each year, more than 20 million girls drop out of school after they start menstruating.
In addition, the harmful impact of disposable period products on the environment has elevated the need to assess how these problems are solved. A sanitary napkin that contains a certain type of plastic can take more than 500 years to decompose. And the lack of reliable waste disposal systems in most Indian cities and rural areas means that disposable menstrual products are dumped in water bodies or vacant land, contaminating the environment.
Sustainable and Eco-Friendly Products
Menstrual cups may be reused for up to 10 years, and while the initial cost to purchase is higher, these products are cost-effective in the long term. Cloth pads and period panties are reusable and available at affordable prices.
In India, increasing awareness about the environmental impact of disposable products has helped create mindfulness in the production and distribution of sustainable products. In 2018, a group of students in Kerala created an eco-friendly sanitary pad made from water hyacinth plants for a science competition. The students received guidance from sanitary pad manufacturers and health experts on how to create a low-cost pad. They also received support from Kudumbashree, a poverty eradication and women’s empowerment program in Kerala.
Another encouraging story is of Muhamma, a village in Kerala, where a movement to adopt sustainable products has gained momentum.
ATREE is an environmental organization focused on reviving polluted water bodies. When ATREE discovered that a canal attached to the Vembanad Lake was clogged with sanitary pads and diapers, the organization collaborated with the Muhamma village council to find a long-term, eco-friendly solution. As a part of the initiative named “Muhammodayam”, they set up workshops to educate women residents on the benefits of sustainable period products, adopted a door-to-door awareness campaign and offered products such as menstrual cups at a subsidized price. By early 2020, over 500 women had switched to menstrual cups and cloth pads, with a target to convert at least 200 more residents.
Activism Campaigns to Spread Awareness
Perhaps the most important step in the adoption of sustainable menstrual products is spreading awareness. “Green the Red” is a volunteer-led campaign that conducts information sessions about the importance and ease of adopting sustainable period products. The “Pad for Pad” program run by Eco Femme, a women-led organization that sells cloth pads, carries out educational sessions about menstrual health and offers free cloth pad kits to adolescent girls from low-income backgrounds.
In many parts of the world, the COVID-19 lockdown triggered a shortage of disposable period products. Severe lockdown restrictions disrupted production and logistics. Many schoolgirls in India who receive free sanitary napkins as part of a government scheme were suddenly left without access to a necessity. While several organizations stepped up to address the shortage, the advantage of having access to reusable period products during these times became obvious.
Period poverty is a global issue with multifold consequences that can last a lifetime. What begins with dropping out of school then affects work prospects, life choices and fractures efforts and the desire to overcome poverty. However, the multitude of campaigns, innovations, and products to reduce period poverty in an environmentally sustainable way has gained attention and continues to make a significant difference in how India approaches menstrual health.
– Amy Olassa