Women account for half the population, and addressing their health and safety concerns is the paramount duty of society. To ensure menstrual health and hygiene, the government is providing much-needed policy reforms and provisions through the Menstrual Hygiene Scheme (MHS) which targets reducing or eliminating taxes on menstrual hygiene products, regulation of quality standards and easy access to these products.
Earlier public conversations about a fundamental and natural bodily function like menstruation were unthinkable but today NGOs, SHGs and manufacturers of menstrual hygiene products are educating society regarding menstruation and its best practices. This is an important step to initiate public dialogue about menstruation, which is the need of the hour. It also helps in breaking myths surrounding menstruation and periods.
In urban India, discussions and initiatives have helped women to change, from using rags to choosing from a variety of healthy and hygienic options including sanitary napkins, tampons, cloth pads, menstrual discs and menstrual cups. These products have given women immense reasons to rejoice - ease of use, easy disability and comfort, among others.
However, with the advent of these products and their immense popularity in urban areas, Menstrual Waste Disposal has become a mammoth issue for civic bodies. An estimated 1 billion sanitary pads have to be disposed of every month in our country. A city like Bengaluru alone generates 90 tons of sanitary napkins a day! Sanitary waste management in a hygienic, environmentally friendly manner is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Like any other garbage, sanitary waste ends up in landfills. Incineration is an easy option to dispose of this huge pile of used sanitary napkins. However, Super Absorbent Polymers (SAP) which constitute the primary material in a napkin break down into micro-plastics as it degrades and contaminates soil, water and air. The released poisonous chemicals/toxic fumes like dioxins, phones and other carcinogenic compounds may even enter the food chain of animals and humans.
According to Menstrual Health Alliance India, one napkin takes 500-800 years to decompose thus leaving a very high environmental footprint. Hence in every aspect of the product life-cycle, from the choice of raw materials to design innovations, the sustainability factor - minimizing the negative impact of the product's existence on the environment- must be the primary driving force.
On the other end, individual management of sanitary waste needs to be streamlined. At home, women dispose of menstrual products in domestic waste. In public toilets, they flush them in toilets unaware of the consequences of choking.
At a fundamental level, garbage segregation at the source is the first big solution to garbage management. Segregating menstrual waste is the responsibility of every household. However, this step is only a beginning and not a holistic solution to sanitary waste disposal. Reducing the generation of toxic menstrual waste is the only viable solution.
As part of conscientious awareness of the environmental impact and corporate social responsibility, manufacturers in the menstrual hygiene space must proactively seek ways and means to manufacture eco-friendly sanitary napkins.
Eco-friendly raw materials can replace petroleum-based ones to achieve sustainability in the menstrual hygiene space. Besides, manufacturers can start the process towards sustainability by offering biodegradable disposable covers for sanitary napkins.
Manufacturing sanitary pads from sustainable, renewable materials and making them accessible to women in every nook and corner of the country/world will ensure a cleaner environment.
The key here is how menstrual hygiene products are used. Girls and women have very less or no knowledge about the reproductive tract infections caused due to ignorance of personal hygiene during menstruation time.
In addition to making efforts towards manufacturing eco-friendly sanitary napkins that are also affordable to a large number of women, manufacturers must take the responsibility of proactively engaging themselves in empowering the women community in rural areas with activities geared towards education and awareness building about menstruation, menstrual hygiene management, the importance of toilets at homes, hand washing, diseases related to reproductive tract due to poor hygiene, and so forth.
Girls and women should be made aware of the consequences of disposing of used menstrual products in the open or flushing them in toilets. Dustbins with proper lids should be placed in the toilets. If possible, incinerators should be installed at schools and community levels. Ignorance, misconceptions, unsafe practices, and illiteracy of the mother and child regarding menstruation are the root causes of many problems. So, there is a big need to encourage adolescents at school levels to practice safe and hygienic behaviour.
Myths and prejudices about menstruation, its health and hygiene and menstruating women abound, particularly in Indian society and hence must be discussed in public forums and platforms.
Free distribution of sanitary napkins, educating women and girls about menstrual hygiene and its disposal, spreading information about a variety of affordable and sustainable menstrual hygiene products, medical camps and other initiatives must be spearheaded by businesses operating in the menstrual hygiene space.
All these efforts are geared towards empowering women and the communities around them as well as towards sustaining and protecting the already fragile natural ecosystem of planet Earth! After all, leading a life of dignity is every woman’s right!
About Author - A social entrepreneur by profession, Amar comes with a wealth of experience in textile, mouth fresheners, real estate, hospitality, and oral hygiene industries. Amar has been passionate about improving menstrual hygiene conditions for girls and women in India and is focused on making a marked change with Niine.