By Ananya Bhardwaj
A school dropout from a poor family in southern India has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap Sanitary Napkins. This concept has been utilised for the production and creation of the film Padman, which stars Akshay Kumar and brings to limelight the life and story of Arunachalam Muruganantham.
A lack of menstrual hygiene
Muruganantham’s actions stemmed from a truly vital need of the hour—absence of proper menstrual hygiene and care by the women in rural areas, mainly due to lack of resources and facilities for the same. There have been several studies that show that rural women suffer from more UTIs than others because of the measures they take while menstruating. Since Sanitary Napkins are not available, they are forced to use old blouses and cloth material as a desperate substitute, thereby contracting various dangerous infections from their grisly nature.
It is true that rural women do not get the appropriate resources for their menstrual cycle and the government needs to take note and act upon the same. However, this has been a traditionally uni-dimensional approach to the problem so far. It is necessary to view from this issue from the point of the oft-unspoken party: the environment.
“The issue of managing menstrual waste is one that needs more attention. MHM (Menstrual Hygiene Management) is a neglected issue, and disposal is probably the most neglected topic in the MHM value chain,” Myles Ellege, Senior Director at RTI International, a leading non-profit applied research and consulting organisation based in North Carolina, US, said.
According to Shradha Shreejaya, an active campaigner in Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective, a Kerala-based NGO that promotes bio-degradable and toxin-free sanitary products, “India has been very messy about dealing with its sanitary waste,” and described the new rules as “very weak”. “We have found ignorance regarding the raw materials used in making most sanitary products that are falsely assumed to be only cotton and plastic–the products are more than 90% plastic with super-absorbent polymers and non-woven plastic components that make it extremely difficult to dispose off in a backyard shortcut way,” Shreejaya, who is also a supporter of EcoFemme which manufactures and promotes reusable cloth pads.
Disposal of sanitary napkins
Around 336 million women and girls in India experience menstruation, thereby around 121 million of them use sanitary napkins. On such a wide scale consumption, it is thus, necessary to realise the true environmental impact of the same. To address this issue, the government formulated with new Solid Waste Management (SWM) rules. These rules make it obligatory for the manufacturers, brand owners or marketing companies of sanitary napkins and diapers to provide a pouch or wrapper for their safe disposal. But that doesn’t seem to be enough.
Most women from urban areas go for commercial disposable napkins, not knowing that most of these products pose health hazards due to its chemical contents (dioxin, furan, pesticides and other endocrine disruptors), said experts. With no knowledge of disposal, they end up getting dumped in the open and thus pose further biohazards. Many manual scavengers and cleaners have to pick these disposed of napkins up with their bare hands and infect themselves in the process.
The material used to make sanitary napkins is plastic and often non-biodegradable, leading to massive clogging of drains and sewer systems. Burning these napkins releases toxic fumes and effluents to be released into the atmosphere. Due to lack of proper knowledge, women who use these products in rural areas are unaware of the biohazards or the proper disposal systems and thus use cloth napkins more than the popular urban ones. Cloth napkins are then disposed of in ways that are not hygienic or environmentally safe.
If not taken care of soon after disposal, it can cause serious health problems. Stagnant menstrual blood generates a lot of bacteria such as Escherichia coli, which rapidly multiplies at an exponential rate. The red blood cells in the menstrual blood nourish the bacteria and emit a foul odour when they die. However, it is not entirely a bleak picture. There have been several breakthroughs in this field.
Successful attempts at safer disposal
An idea was first introduced by an MIT startup that wanted to revolutionise the way sanitary napkins were generated and distributed across India, with a special focus on the accessibility of these products in rural areas where 88% of the country uses rags, newspapers, wood shavings and even ash as alternatives to its polymer counterparts, posing serious health hazards to themselves. They are designed for disposal; all their components are made from sustainable and environment-friendly materials, such as banana fibres, which take much less time to decompose in landfills and can even be reused for compost and biogas. They came up with biodegradable napkins, that not just reduced cumulation of napkins in landfills, but also generated a steady source of income for the farmers who can sell the waste fibres or women who can stitch the napkins up.
Some incinerators have been created to dispose menstrual waste by electrical or physical fire-based incinerators without allowing the smoke created in the process to escape into the atmosphere. Napkins must be incinerated immediately after they are used, without giving time for pathogens to breed on them. Keeping the problems caused by improper disposal in mind, an incinerator named the Ashudhinashak was made out of natural materials to enable the eco-friendly disposal of menstrual waste. This incinerator is small in size and very easy to use. It restricts the smoke generated in the process of incineration to a specific chamber and prevents it from entering the atmosphere.
These steps must be taken to solve the problems that improper disposal of sanitary napkins causes to the environment and to public health. It is thus imperative that there be solutions for the environmental harm caused by sanitary napkins since using them is an inalienable right of every woman.
Featured Image Source: Barefoot Photographers of Tilonia on Visualhunt / CC BY-NC-ND