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Why India Needs a Period Revolution

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Alyce Mokrzycki, Sromona Bhattacharyya

Indian women face an increasingly difficult choice around how best to manage the environmental waste created during their period, a problem heightened by cultural taboos around menstruation.

Social media awareness campaigns #PadManchallenge and #Standbyher aim to break the taboos around talking about menstruation in the country.

Indian inventor Muruganantham made international headlines with his work inventing a simple machine where poor women can create cheap sanitary products - but there remains a long way to go tackling secrecy and waste around periods. 

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In Golahalli , a semi-rural area located approximately 45 minutes outside the city of Bangalore, the technology capital of India, cultural taboos mean women are still burning their used sanitary pads away from family.  

“We have a special place in our home where we burn the pads at the end of the day, away from our husbands and other family members,” says Mallamma, a service worker aged in her early 40’s.

Women reported collecting used pads throughout the day and storing them discreetly, before returning home to wash and then burn them once their husbands had fallen asleep.

Menstruation is also taboo in religious circles, with women considered ‘polluting’ or ‘unclean’ for being on their period. 

Local Golahalli woman Manjamma manages this stigma by using oral contraceptive pills to stem the flow of her period during times she wants to visit religious temples.

In addition to social media campaigns, government education programs over the last few years have brought the topic of menstrual hygiene to the fore.

However the practice of burning sanitary waste in informal and concealed waste incinerators can lead to toxic by-products, with long-term exposure to emissions posing significant health risks. 

Women who previously used cloth or free bled, are now more commonly using sanitary pads made from low-density polyethylene plastic polymers, bleached wood pulp and super absorbent polymer gel. 

But with 432 million pads, flushed down the toilet or end up in landfill each year across India, the management of sanitary waste remains a significant public health issue.

In a recent article, an Indian government official admitted that of the estimated 40 tonnes of sanitary waste generated daily in Bangalore, only five to ten tonnes was being collected. 

Stonesoup, a sustainable lifestyle consultancy located in Bangalore, is part of a wider movement within India to provide women with more affordable and sustainable menstrual hygiene products.  

Their ‘Stonesoup Wings’ is a re-usable menstrual cup made of medical-grade silicone that is used for period care and can last up to three years. Volunteers travel to both urban and rural areas to teach women how to use the cup, with thousands of women already receiving training.

On the eve of International Women’s Day, the Indian government announced they would be launching biodegradable pads priced at 10 rupees for four, considerably more affordable than the average market price of 32 rupees for the same amount.