88% of women in India resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and even husk sand during their periods, according to a report by market research group AC Nielsen called Sanitatary Protection: Every Woman's Health Right. As a result of these unhygienic practices, more than 70% of the women suffer from reproductive tract infections, increasing the risk of contracting associated cancers.
These numbers are an account of how apathetic the Indian society is when it comes to women's intimate health. Of how a city bred girl like me cannot understand the wails and whines of a dame, twisting and turning in pain during mensuration and why she might have left schooling because it was the most favoured practice in her village might be the account I am trying to draw here.
Let's take a look at the numbers
A national survey conducted by AC Nielsen and NGO Plan India earlier this year found that 23% girls drop out of school after reaching puberty. Unicef, too, has reported that one in 10 girls in Africa drops out of school for the same reason. Why?
Firstly, the lack of affordable sanitary products hampers the mobility of these girls. Secondly, lack of facilities like toilets and running water which doesn't give them a place to change and dispose off the pads in safety and without being jeered, in the privacy of the school. Thirdly, the idiocrasy of the issue prevents them and society from talking about the problem. Such girls are often told by their mothers to stay at home to prevent themselves from becoming a mockery.
One man changed it all for them. A man who once saw his wife using rotten rags while she was menstruating. He says he would have never used that cloth to wipe his two wheeler which left him in a state of shock and disbelief as to how she could reconcile to the practice.? What followed was the combination of his weaving and entrepreneurial skills to make a low cost sanitary towel with waste banana tree fibre.
He has sold 643 machines to self help groups of women in more than 23 states also winning him a President's award for his innovation.
Only because this man wanted to help. Only because he was willing to discuss and openly debate about why and how we became so heedless when it comes to discussing sanitary pads, menstruation and women's intimate health.
Another initiative called Saathi by a group of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduates, a project to develop a machine that makes affordable sanitary napkins using natural resources. Their first machine prototype, built at MIT, is now being customized for the Indian market in collaboration with IIT Bombay and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University. CEO of Saathi, Amrita Saigal says, "I was shocked to learn that more than 25% of rural girls/women miss up 50 days of school work a year due to lack of access to proper sanitary protection."
The Saathi napkins, costing Rs 2/pad, are made using waste banana tree fibre, but "we have designed our machine to accommodate a variety of filler material," she adds. One of the biggest problems Saathi has faced so far is "convincing older women that using sanitary pads over old clothes/rags is a good thing. We've found many mothers understand the benefits of proper sanitary pads and are willing to buy them for their girls, but are unwilling to change their habits," says Saigal. This might be due to the cost attached to buying a sanitary pad which the mothers want to save up to be utilized elsewhere and in erstwhile conditions.
It's never been easy to change centuries of beliefs, especially where women are involved. Kala Charlu, founder of Bangalore-based NGO MITU, says, "Some girls believe god has cursed them with menses. I have seen girls sit in a corner in schools because they don't have any protection. Most don't have even clean underwear. People donate clothes, but who donates underwear?"
And why go far even in a city like Delhi, sanitary pads are things sold by chemists and local kirana shops in black plastic bags especially used for this purpose. Once out of curiosity when I happened to ask a chemist about why they used such bags he shyily replied " Humein acha nahi lagta beta, khol ke dena. Koi dekh lega to tum logo ko sharam se lal peela hona padega humein nahi".
So if a man sees that label" Whisper" or "Stay Free" ogling out of a carry bag, will hell break loose on the world?
While I live in a universe, where women have taken to popping a pill to arrest the menstrual cramps and use the costliest of pads with side walls preventing leakage and sophisticated technology to convert the vaginal waste into gel, there are hundreds and thousands of women of my age and younger who do not have hygienic toilet facilities at home or school, who do not know what a sanitary pad is and have retorted to the usage of ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and even husk sand during their periods.
Who have to indulge in all sorts of strenuous labour at their households like drawing water from the well to milking the cows to cleaning and mopping during those days when girls like me do not leave the comforts of our bed sipping ginger tea and go to the aerobics classes for the Kegels exercises to bell the cat called pain and take Traxenemic acid tablets to stall a spasm.
And while the organizers of this competition are selling vagina tightening creams to the copious clan of the society a whooping 88 percent of the women in India still haven't seen and touched a sanitary pad. Irking irony, isn't it.?
If a man like Muruganandam saw his wife and mother walking out on him for testing a sanitary towel he made (only to return and understand his cause) and face the rousing ridicule of the women around him for discussing the effectiveness of his invention. And if this man could test it on himself by collecting goat's blood from a butcher shop and treating it chemically to prevent coagulation, he wore a bladder-and-tube contraption and women's underwear for a week. His homemade uterus would release a small dose of blood whenever pressed. And then the unsatisfactory results prompting him to distribute towels for free to women and asking them to return the old ones, brought at the end of this tireless testing a breakthrough technology and a social change, then why cant we the rich and the middle class educated and living in the wealthy warmth of our four bedroom apartments do our bit to sing a song of change.
I am contributing my two paisa for the cause by buying my maid servants daughter a pack and more, whatever she needs every month to not let her miss school during those days. I think charity begins at home and maybe in the future I will be able to do much more when it comes to this cause. For now the hushed habits of changing the channel when a sanitary pad advertisement is aired to discussing such issues only amid girls and women when much of the men folk must know about it is a practice that should not have seen the light of the day considering the changing times and our evolving economy.
What can be done to bring a change?
Isn't it high time that schools start imparting education about women's intimate health below the secondary school level and not just in the biology classes. Such issues have been buried in coffins for long, since these are issues that were concerning the women, and men having been kept out of the matter turned ignorant and insensitive and started calling it a controversy.
Health initiatives organized by the government especially targeted for the lower class and rural populations to educate them about the cons of brushing the issue under the carpet.
More funds being allocated by the government to build toilets in the villages and where open defecation is a reality rarer than truth, and girls have to think twice before cleaning themselves on a period or disposing off the used pad.
More inventive ideas aimed at creating low cost sanitary pads for the poor people on the lines of Murungandam's invention and the Saathi initiative.
Brands like Stay free and Whisper can associate with the health ministry and NGO's to create low cost sanitary pads. For a starter they can allot a part of their profits in creating such economical enterprises.
Stayfree Women for Change is one such initiative which is aiming at bridging the gap between the two contrasting worlds of the 22 percent of the privileged women and the 88 percent of the marginalized class. You can also sms SUPPORT to 56677 to know more about funding a woman/girl.
Sanitary pads can be distributed in the government hospitals for free only if the government maybe willing to risk a share of their funds for the cause.
Yes maybe, take care of the sanitary pad needs of your maid servant and her daughters to begin with. A few hundred rupees spent for the cause won't burn a hold in your pocket I guess.
And lastly to not start blushing or jumping to grab the remote when a sanitary pad commercial is aired on television. In short, to not feel ashamed to talk about it.