The lamentable silence around menstruation, menstrual health and sanitary practices has left an imprint even in the way Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is treated in our country. With much reticence, a measure of airbrushing and a lot of resistance in terms of treating the matter in depth, resuscitating it from its fringe status in public policy discourse.
The Swachh Bharat Mission has become a war cry against all that is unclean and unpalatable in the country. But how do we address an issue that is considered too dirty to speak about, too dirty to even broach? How do we bring into our language of reform, a phenomena that has traditionally sequestered women and glossed over their bodies, pain and health? If the Swachh Bharat Mission has to be truly successful, even in principle, it must include MHM in its lexicon. The cause of bathrooms have been championed. But the movement must go several steps further and examine the cross-section of access to bathrooms, availability of water and women’s menstrual health.
Menstruation, in various cultures and languages, has suffered from the weight of silence, whispers, muted pain, euphemisms and the many machinations of language that allow a thing to not-exist, simply by not calling it what it is, to allow it to be a part of existence but appropriating its name and meaning into the realm of impurity, ill-health and pollution. Given this relentless silencing, it is no wonder that a vast majority of Indian women are still unaware of all that is wrong with the sanitary napkins they regularly used— laced with high doses of chemical and synthetic materials, not only affecting their intimate hygiene but also choking the environment. In order to tackle all the damage, then, menstruation needs to be incorporated into everyday language, and also in government policy.
Disposal of sanitary napkins: The gaps in ideation and implementation
The government policies need to recognise that menstruation is not dirty, but soiled sanitary napkins and cloth are. According to research shared by the Ministry of Water and Sanitation, said that rural women dispose their pads out in the open fields, in water bodies nearby, or simply by burning. In urban areas as well, sanitary napkins are thrown away in plastic packets, without segregated. These lie around in open dumps or are burned. The stagnated period blood allows pathogens to grow, and a high degree of the bacteria Escherichia Coli emanates a foul and unhealthy odour. Regular sanitary napkins, when burnt outside regulated conditions, emits dangerous carcinogens.
movement must go several steps further and examine the cross-section of access to bathrooms, availability of water and women’s menstrual health
To address this, an incinerator called “Ashuddhinashak” (the destroyer of impurities) was developed by the government. However, it is hardly a solution that can be implemented easily and quickly. These incinerators, though they are of various kinds, have huge building and maintenance costs and can cause serious damage even with a small lapse in supervision. The minimum temperature required to combust sanitary wastes in a manner that completely destroys non-biodegradable matter, is 800 degrees. If that temperature is not reached, then carcinogenic dioxins (found in the bleach) and furans (found in the inorganically grown cotton) are emitted. The technology for building and strict procedural skill required to operate the systems and ensure 100% burning effectiveness, are still in short supply. All these issues have put serious question marks on the scalability of this solution. All this, while non-biodegradable pads remain un-decomposed for 500-800 years. Not to mention, that when these wastes are burnt in rural areas, or by rag-pickers in urban spaces, the minimum temperature regulations are obviously not followed.
The other practice of menstrual waste disposal is dumping them in water bodies nearby, choking the water resource. This is because of the super absorbents used in pads (polyacrylate) which bloats up as it soaks in more water. The same problem happens in urban areas when pads are flushed down toilets.
Laws around MHM: Lacunae in legal language
Laws in India pertaining to the the disposal and management of wastes of different kinds do not mention or pertain to menstrual wastes at all. Even the Swachh Bharat Mission provides only guidelines and not legal obligations. This yawning gap in our legal language only reinforces the cultural barriers that prevent people to adapt healthy sanitation practices, or even start a sustained discourse on it.
As per the Plastic Waste (management and handling) Rules of 2011, the producers of plastic items are required to bear the financial costs of the item from the production to disposal stages. However, makers of sanitary napkins, who use high uses doses of plastic, have not been brought under the purview of this law and hence shoulder no responsibility beyond the production stage.
Because sanitary napkins are a part of household wastes, they come under the purview of the municipality. But proper segregation and hygienic disposal methods are not followed by the municipality. This indolence and blindsiding exacerbates the problem already existing in the language of law.
Data shared by the Ministry of Water and Sanitation shows that 90% are unaware of proper ways of washing their menstrual cloth. 87% women used old cloth as menstrual absorbent, 33% women didn’t wash the cloth before using and 86% women are completely unprepared about Menstruation before it starts. On this Menstrual Hygiene Day, therefor, there is an urgent need to raise informed voices, not just for reform in behaviour and policy but also in our language which seamlessly elides over the unpalatable truths about women’s bodies, hygiene and sanitation practices. This reform in language needs to reflect on the Swachh Bharat Mission, as the country cannot afford to have another major movement paying only cursory attention to gender.
Swarnima Bhattacharya is the founder of WomensHealthLine.in
Views are the author’s own