The topic for today is a sensitive one, one that does not get spoken about a whole lot and is generally considered taboo for public discussion. It is about menstruation, female health and the effect of conventional sanitary products on the environment. Have you heard of the latest rage in the developed world — free-bleeding? ‘What is it’ you may ask? Exactly what it sounds like — having a period and not wearing any special sanitary products to collect it except your clothes and undergarments. This year marked a first in this movement where a woman ran the London Marathon with blood running down her legs. While the feminists were celebrating, others were disgusted and thought this was a step backwards for the progress of women.
Women’s liberation or not — this is not so different with the state of affairs in India. Most rural women in India and Nepal do not know how to use sanitary napkins. While they may not free-bleed in the same way it is being touted lately in the West, they definitely do not have sanitary napkins either. It was during the Chennai floods in 2015 that this struck me. A group of volunteers showed up at a village on the ECR and handed out a packet of pads to one of the girls – she looked puzzled and asked me “What is this for akka? It doesn’t look like biscuits”. More and more women are being encouraged to make the switch to disposable sanitary napkins. Rural girls get free sub- standard pads handed out to them in an effort to adopt this habit.
Conventional sanitary napkins are made from super-absorbent polymer, polyethylene film, glue, LLDPE–packing cover, thermo-bonded non-woven, release paper and wood pulp. As you can imagine, these are highly synthetic plastic-based materials, which cannot be absorbed into the earth. Today, most parts of the country lack the systems of solid waste management to deal with this type of ‘disposable’. Closed incineration with strict international emission standards is the only way to handle this biohazard waste safely, and we lack these facilities. In cities, we rely on our Corporations to haul away waste and throw pads, tampons and diapers without fully understanding where these go or what happens to them after we get them out of our homes.
The situation in villages is much worse — the are strewn around with no channel out of homes or even burned. The leak-proof layers made of plastics, produce dioxins when they burn. Dioxins are proven to cause many health hazards including cancer and respiratory issues. Also, during usage, the irritation caused to the skin is due to the body reacting adversely to the chemicals and synthetics in these products. While being convenient and disposable we are putting our bodies into long term risks of exposure to chemicals through direct contact as well as inhalation of dioxins.
I am a big believer of what is good for you is good for the planet. This logic continues in the argument to make the switch from conventional sanitary products to alternate sustainable options — the cup or cloth/compostable options — or even free-bleeding if you so dare. There are several resources out on the Internet that help make this transition for you. So go ahead use feminism as an excuse to talk about your sanitary products and make a change for a healthier body and planet — Period!
The writer is an architect,urban designer, dancer and chief designer at Shilpa Architects