Aimed At Making Periods Affordable And Safe, ‘The Project Amara’ Addresses Taboos Around The Natural Process
- IWB Post
- June 1, 2019
It was in 2016, when five friends Surabhee Arjunwadkar, Anjali Dalmia, Sayuri Deokar, Aahana Mehta, and Reva Patwardhan were in grade 11 at Drive Change Learning and Resource Centre (DLRC), and they were asked to think of a social impact project which would benefit the society and in turn teach them valuable skills. While all of them were initially engaged in different projects, one day one of them came across menstrual cups online.
At that point in time, all of them were uncomfortable about the period talk. However, they were aware of the issues related to the environmental effect that menstrual waste had, cost of pads as well as the taboo surrounding menstruation in our community. After conducting extensive research on sanitary napkins, they discovered the risks involved in using them and that’s when they were pushed into trying the menstrual cup. While they did face some challenges in getting used to inserting and removing the cup, the improper opening of the cup, and wrong sizes, the freedom and pride they felt after successfully using the cup completely outweighed the strenuous learning curve.
In order to share their experience with other women to raise awareness about menstruation, alternatives to sanitary napkins, alleviate taboos surrounding menstruation, and to create awareness about healthier and more sustainable menstrual products such as menstrual cups, cloth pads, and biodegradable pads, the started The Project Amārā.
Through sessions in colleges, housing societies, schools, villages, offices, and slum areas, the team provides an intimate and open space for women and girls that encourage them to talk about menstruation. Since 2018, they have reached out to more than 1,000 women, thereby reducing India’s sanitary napkin waste by 14 tonnes (650,000 napkins). And today, their project is a growing network of passionate individuals who are contributing to the cause by switching to sustainable products and conducting sessions in their communities.
Tell us about the reasons behind period poverty in rural India and urban slums.
Period poverty is described as a lack of access to sanitary products, menstrual hygiene education, toilets, hand washing facilities, and/or waste management. In rural India and urban slums, period poverty is usually a result of several co-existing factors. Firstly, there is a lack of proper infrastructure and women do not have access to clean and safe toilets, nor do they have proper garbage disposal systems. Coupled with the expense of buying sanitary napkins, this results in women using a single pad for a much longer time that leads to infections and diseases. In many places where safe menstrual products are not available, women resort to using ash, dirt, leaves, and dirty rags.
Secondly, due to a lack of education regarding menstruation, there are many taboos prevalent in rural and slum areas. Menstruation is commonly associated with shame and proper care is not taken to ensure that women and young girls have access to safe facilities and products. Those who use cloth feel ashamed to dry it in under sunlight, and instead, leave it hanging in damp corners of their house or bathroom that causes harmful bacteria to grow. Lastly, religious beliefs coupled with centuries of patriarchal mindset have also stigmatized periods and they reinforce unhygienic and discriminatory practices regarding menstruation.
Sustainable menstrual options are generally expensive. So how do you promote sustainable options while eliminating period poverty in rural and slum areas?
The idea that sustainable products are more expensive than sanitary napkins is to a large extent a myth. One sanitary napkin costs between Rs. 7 to 10. This adds up to an average of about Rs.150 being spent each month and nearly 60,000 to 80,000 rupees in a lifetime. In comparison, one menstrual cup costs between Rs. 600 to 1,500 for 7 years and this means that in a lifetime a woman would spend Rs. 8,000 to 10,000, which is significantly lower than the cost of pads. Similarly, certain cloth pads are available for Rs. 200 and if a woman uses 5 such pads on a rotational basis over 2 years she would spend around Rs. 30,000 to 50,000 throughout her life. Therefore, sustainable menstrual products are not only beneficial for our health and the environment but are also pocket-friendly.
What have been the most outrageous stigmas regarding menstruation that you came across in the rural and slum areas while conducting workshops?
Stigmas and myths are still very prevalent today not only in villages and urban slums but even amongst city dwellers and more economically privileged sections of society. One of the most common myths is that if your hymen breaks you are no longer a virgin. In modern societies, girls can break their hymen from riding a bicycle, a scooter, horse-riding, climbing trees, martial arts, and many other activities. Many people feel that by using products such as tampons or menstrual cups girls may not be able to get married as their hymen would have broken and they would no longer be considered virgins. However, an intact hymen is not an accurate measure for virginity. You can only lose your virginity if you have penetrative sex.
Apart from this myth, there are some practices that we all know of and have had to follow at a certain point of time. Women are not allowed to shower or wash their hair and go to the temple or into the kitchen when they are menstruating. They are also required to sleep in a different room. It is also believed that if a menstruating woman touches pickle it goes bad.
Can you share with us some sustainable options available in the market along with their pros and cons?
Currently, there are four well known sustainable menstrual products in the market, which are biodegradable pads/tampons, cloth pads, period panties, and menstrual cups.
Biodegradable Pads/Tampons: These are usually made from a combination of corn starch, bamboo fiber, and organic cotton, and also new ingredients are being explored. Biodegradable pads and tampons are used exactly the same way as their commercial counterparts are and it can usually be worn for the same time duration. Some can be disposed of by burying in soil, while others degrade within 3-5 months in a landfill (varies from company to company).
1-They are easy to use and very similar to regular pads/tampons.
2- Equally as convenient as other pads and tampons and a good alternative for those who like pads but want to switch.
3-Usually they are organic, chemical free, and bleach free (although this depends from company to company)
4-They degrade within a year.
1-Biodegradable products can be more expensive, however, some companies do offer discounts and personalised packages.
2-In India they can mostly be found online.
3-For those who dislike the feeling of pads, these are not any more comfortable and do restrict activities such as swimming.
Cloth Pads: Cloth has long been used by women across India. There is a common notion that cloth is unhealthy which does not stand true. If properly cared for, thoroughly cleaned, dried in the sun, and used on a rotational basis, cloth pads can be reused for up to 2 years. Cloth pads are used very much like commercial pads, except that they have buttoned flaps rather than having gum to keep the pads in place. Some pads contain a PUL layer to prevent leakage, but depending on the company it can be used for about the same time as a pad.
1-If made from organic cotton; cloth pads do not contain any chemicals.
2-They are quite comfortable and usually, you would not feel wet.
3-They are reusable.
1-Cloth pads require more maintenance; they must be soaked in cold water, should be thoroughly washed and most importantly be dried under direct sunlight. However, this can be difficult for working women, school girls, and areas where it is a taboo to dry pads in the open.
2-If the pad is not well cared for it can lead to infections.
3-You would have to buy at least 5-6 pads so that they can be used in rotation.
Period Panties: These are similar to cloth pads except for the fact that they are in the form of underwear. They can be used on their own or can be used along with a menstrual cup or tampon. Most of the Pros and Cons are similar to cloth pads. Additionally:
The can be used on their own on light flow days and with another product for extra protection on heavy flow days.
They cannot be used on their own if you have a heavy flow.
Menstrual Cups: The Menstrual Cup is a bell-shaped device which is inserted inside the vagina and sits around your cervix. It collects blood rather than absorbing it and can be reused for 5 to 7 years. It is made from medical grade silicone and forms a vacuum inside which prevents the cup from falling out or leaking.
1-It can be worn for up to 8-10 hours which is double the time that pads can be worn for.
2-Medical grade silicone is used in several medical procedures which is non-reactive and does not leave any residue behind.
3-Once inserted, you will not be able to feel the menstrual cup.
4-You can swim, do a handstand, and everything else which you would otherwise do.
5-It only requires boiling water to sanitize it and clean water to wash while emptying and reinserting.
1-It has a larger learning curve and can often be a bit daunting without proper guidance.
2-It can hurt the first time you insert and remove if you are tense.
3-It is likely that your hymen will break if it hasn’t already from either intercourse or other activities. This can be an issue for unmarried girls where the hymen myth is still prevalent.
How can we reduce the number of girls who drop out of school due to unmanageable periods?
The most important part of preventing girls from dropping out of school due to menstruation is to educate both women and men about it. The notion, that once a girl has started menstruating she is fit to bear children and be married needs to be addressed. Apart from education, clean and safe toilets need to be built in schools so that girls can change their period products. Also, uniforms should be redesigned to be a darker colour to remove the fear of staining and natural remedies for cramps such as hot water bags and warm milk need to be made common knowledge so that they can be administered by school nurses to prevent girls from staying home due to cramps. And finally, the more discussions we all hold around menstruation as a community, more girls will feel proud rather than ashamed of their menstrual cycles and will be able to use this to bring themselves up.
What is your opinion on making boys a part of period talk?
We have talked to several men and boys and we found that they have several misconceptions about periods. A few examples include that women use one pad for the whole cycle; they bleed constantly; they bleed blue (as shown in sanitary napkin commercials) etc. Sanitary napkin commercials are harmful in this sense because they are the cause of a lot of misinformation regarding menstruation.
As humans, it is very important to know how our bodies work for both male and female. We need to make it a priority to be informed about the various processes we go through and the kind of impact it has. Men are usually uninformed if not misinformed about menstruation. It is incredibly important to make sure boys and men are part of period talks and to start the conversation so that we as a society can work together to normalize menstruation.
Why do you encourage people to move away from using sanitary napkins?
Sanitary napkins and tampons have become an environmental and health hazard. In India alone, 432 million sanitary napkins (9000 tonnes, 24 hectares) are disposed of annually which are made of crude oil and take more than 800 years to degrade. One sanitary napkin contains plastic equivalent to four plastic bags, and on average, a woman uses nearly 10,000 sanitary napkins in her lifetime. All this garbage is dumped in landfills where the chemicals and organic substances leach into the ground. This is devastating for the workers who pick up this trash and for our future generations who will grow up to have polluted rivers and soil.
Furthermore, sanitary napkin companies are not required to disclose the materials used in the manufacturing process. Breaking apart a pad and analysing its contents, we discovered that pads are made of 5 layers. The main ingredients used are plastic, viscose (processed sawdust and wood pulp), cotton is grown using pesticide, Super-Absorbent Polymers (SAP’s), fragrance, rayon, polyester, and chlorine bleach, glued and sealed using ultrasonic vibrations.
Many of these materials release dioxin, a toxic chemical classified as an Organic Pollutant. Although released in trace quantities, Dioxin has been shown to be cumulative and can stay in our body’s fat cells for more than 20 years after exposure. Furthermore, the vulvar and vaginal tissues are extremely permeable and allow for direct transfer of chemicals into the circulatory system without being metabolized first. Super Absorbent Polymers added to increase the absorption capacity of pads and tampons have been directly linked to toxic shock syndrome, a potentially fatal illness caused by the poisonous bacteria Staphylococcus aureus.
In addition, the typical period smell, large blood clots, itchiness, and rashes are not a part and parcel of your menstrual cycle, they are a result of the chemicals, oxygen, and blood interacting with each other and your skin.