‘Padman’ has started a welcome conversation about periods, but don’t ignore the bad news

Akshay Kumar holding a packet of sanitary napkins in a promotion for Padman
Actor Akshay Kumar in a teaser trailer for his upcoming film Padman. | YouTube screengrab

In a country notoriously tight-lipped about menstruation, the topic of sanitary napkins, menstrual hygiene, waste disposal and even the taxation of sanitary pads has suddenly gone mainstream.

In an illegal resettlement colony in South Delhi, Vandana is talking about the first time she got her period. She was in the fifth standard, at school and hadn’t a clue on what to do. Now 18 and a college student, she remembers telling a friend who told the ‘ma’am’. The class teacher gave her handkerchief to Vandana to staunch the bleeding, and sent her home early.

In a country notoriously tight-lipped about menstruation, the topic of sanitary napkins, menstrual hygiene, waste disposal and even the taxation of sanitary pads has suddenly gone mainstream.

A series of publicity events has got the conversation going days before the release of Padman, the Akshay Kumar-Radhika Apte-Sonam Kapoor film on the life of social activist Arunachalam Muruganantham, who developed a low-cost sanitary napkin machine.

The pre-publicity release has involved a ‘padman challenge’ designed to break the traditional silence, and stigma, with actors like Aamir Khan posting photos holding sanitary napkins. Elsewhere, Miss World Manushi Chillar spoke about the need for ‘social responsibility that will push for change in society’.

At the illegal resettlement colony, Rajasthani Camp, the excitement is palpable.

“It’s time we started talking about these things normally,” said Vandana, the daughter of a fruit seller.

As a volunteer with Cfar (Centre for Advocacy and Research), an NGO that works for the rights of marginalised communities, Vandana is a part of a group of 25 girls that go by the name of Umeed (hope). The group talks about periods, and pretty much everything else – child marriage, ‘girls and boys’ – with the other girls in this colony of about 3,000 people. They’re listening, and the mothers are happy to get the word out.

“After all, every mother wants her daughter to learn something good,” Vandana said.

Unlike their mothers, who continue to make do with rags, a new generation of girls wants to use sanitary napkins. “For girls, it’s an aspirational product,” explained Juhi Jain, a senior programme manager with Cfar.

The girls are clear about what they want. A media workshop held by Menstrual Health Alliance India, a group of NGOs, private sector and development partners and philanthropy foundation Dasra, in Delhi in January, threw up some interesting insights.

One young girl had told them she wanted to be able to wear white clothes – a colour she never wears or, for that matter, owns. Other girls wanted pads to ‘smell nice like flowers’.

India has a population of 336 million girls and women who menstruate. Over 57 per cent of these girls and women, aged between 15 and 24, use locally or commercially produced pads, according to the National Family Health Survey-4. That’s the good news.

But while menstrual hygiene awareness through the use of safe products is increasing – and let’s be clear, there are states like Bihar where only 31 per cent of menstruating girls and women use hygienic protection – here’s the bad news: India is looking at a massive waste disposal problem.

Do the math. If 121 million girls and women use an average of eight disposable, non-compostable pads a month, you are looking at disposing of over a billion pads a month. That’s 113,000 tons of menstrual waste a year.

A pad, made of superabsorbent polymers with a plastic barrier, can take as long as 250 years to fully decompose. These are now clogging urban sewage systems, landfills, rural fields and water bodies.

The market does offer alternative products. But menstrual cups and tampons have limited acceptance in a country obsessed with sexuality and virginity. Compostable pads, that use banana fibre or wood pulp, are more expensive and are not as easily available as the mass-produced pads by MNCs. And reusable cloth pads are simply not popular with a new generation of girls and women.

“Washing and reusing cloth is something they have seen their mothers do,” said Jain. “They don’t want to do that.”

At Rajasthani Camp, many of the girls said they used a combination of cloth and mass-produced pads – pads are for when they go out. But Jyoti, a class 10 student at a  government school, said that because they are expensive, she switches to cloth for when she’s at home, or at night.

“I’m more comfortable using cloth, but I prefer wearing a pad when I’m going out. That way I know my clothes will not get stained,” she said.

None of the girls said they washed cloth pads. For one, where would you wash them and, more crucially, how would you dry them in the sun where everyone can see them? “Whether it’s pads or cloth, I just wrap them in newspaper and throw them in the trash,” said Sangeeta, a 14-year-old who studies in the class eight and dreams of becoming a Bollywood dancer.

In 2011, the Delhi government began distributing free pads to the approximately 8 lakh girls aged 10-18 in the government school system. This was done both to promote menstrual hygiene and to stem the large number of girls who would skip school because they were menstruating.

But in November 2016, that programme came to a halt, reportedly because none of the applicants for the fresh government tender could meet the requirements. A second tender was then issued, but the girls said, they no longer get free pads from school.

“Earlier when we got pads from school, I would save a few for my mother, who works as a domestic worker,” said Sangeeta. “But now I have to buy even my own, and they are expensive so I use them sparingly.”

If the use of pads is increasing, so is the conversation. In India, menstrual activism has been gaining ground since at least 2014 when a group of women began speaking up against the stigma around what is a perfectly humdrum biological act for half the world’s population.

In Toronto, India-born poet Rupi Kaur challenged Instagram’s social media guidelines that took down her photo essay on menstruation. In India, university students back in 2015 went about sticking pads to trees with such messages as “Menstruation is natural. Rape is not.”

These are largely isolated instances of activism in a country where 70 per cent mothers still believe that menstruation is ‘dirty’ leading to the forced exclusion of their daughters from areas like the kitchen or the temple when they menstruate. In some villages, menstruating women are shunted out to the cattle shed where they sit bleeding on rags or straw for five days every month.

Padman is not likely to change those perceptions overnight. What it will do is start a conversation. Who can complain about that?

Namita Bhandare is a journalist. Her twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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