Creating awareness about menstrual hygiene waste and finding solutions to it has become a reigning passion of my life in the past one year. If there is one woman who deserves credit for this, it is the woman in the green sari you see on the opening screen of the documentary Masika. For some reason, rather than the opening shot, Parvathi, the woman who inspired me to take up this issue, appears on the campaign page where the movie is posted.
Parvathi is a strong, outspoken woman of the Conservancy Workers Association in Chennai who last year publicly protested about the menstrual hygiene (and diaper) waste. As I write in the article, Disposable pads, disposable lives, conservancy workers is a euphemistic term for manual scavengers and sweepers who due to society’s blind oppression continue to work for urban municipalities doing dirty and dangerous work such going down the manholes into the muck of sewers to clear blockages. It is a term that neatly obscures the fact that in the city of Chennai, 95 % of the 10,000 odd conservancy workers hail from one particular caste, the Arunthatiyar caste, and are condemned to manually handle the 5000 tons of solid waste that is produced by the city every day.[i] Because of the nature of their work, Arunthathiyars are regarded as outcastes and untouchables.
Despite laws that ban oppression, despite decades of protest for social justice, untouchability still rules in Indian cities. Street-vendors in Tamil Nadu typically have three sets of tumblers for serving chai—one for the higher castes, one for the higher Dalits, one for the untouchable—the Arunthatiyar. Despite laws and court orders that seek to ban manual scavenging, it is the government itself, hiding behind convenient provisions and loopholes in the law, that hires Arunthatiyars for this deadly work and in many cases keeps them conveniently bonded to their work by neglecting to pay their wages in time.
When one flushes something down a toilet in Chennai, it ends up in the city’s sewer network, which spreads across 2,800 km with 80,000 manholes. [ii] And unlike manholes in developed countries, in India, there are no vents, fans, or lights to assist those who are periodically forced to go down the manhole, swim through the filth holding their breath, to try and clear the blockage. Death by asphyxiation is a known occupational hazard for conservancy workers. Despite the 2012 law, prohibiting employment of individuals as manual scavengers, at least 1 person dies every month in Tamil Nadu, by diving down a sewer to clean blockages.
It was only upon talking to Parvathi, that I realized with a shock that disposable sanitary napkins can directly lead to fatality among conservancy workers. Commercial disposable sanitary napkins today have a high content of LDPE plastic polymers and a layer made out of polyacrylate. [iii] The polyacrylate layer is a super-absorbent gel, which absorbs the menses to give one that feel-dry feeling, also soaks up water when it is flushed down the toilet. It continues to bloat as it makes its way through the underground rivers and clogs up the sewers leading conservancy workers to dive down and remove them by hand. [iv] Parvathi was so incensed by the irresponsible disposal of these polymer-based sanitary napkins that were directly affecting their health and lives that she has gotten the women of her community to switch to washable cloth pads. “As she says: ‘we are the ones who have to clean up this waste, so why should we be producing it?’”[v]
Parvathi’s work also inspired G. Vijay Kumar, an independent social activist (and a panelist in our upcoming webinar) to file a case against commercial sanitary napkin manufacturers with the National Green Tribunal. Parvathi reminds me that sometimes all it takes is one individual to stand up for change, and that individual action starts a chain reaction leading to a period of change.
The feedback that I got about my 2000-word article, Disposable pads, disposable lives was that it was too long. So I garnered the support of other volunteers to make the 10-min documentary movie, Masika. The movie in turn inspired waste warrior Arpita Bhagat of the Kachra Project to run a campaign on this theme, and so here we are all of us caught up in a period of change.
Over the past year, I have learnt so much, mostly from other activists, about management and handling of menstrual hygiene waste. I have collaborated with them to draft a petition to the Govt. of India for better waste laws. We discuss this in our upcoming webinar where people with field experience and waste experts will discuss the issue.
And last but not least, email us your own story of what inspired you to be part of a period of change. We will share it with our audience as part of our blog contest.
Bindu thrives in an alternative lifestyle in Auroville. Her passion for social and environmental justice leads her to work for earth&us, she is an introverted writer, who cherishes solitude and nature. Some of her personal writing can be found here.
- The percentage of Arunthatiyars working as conservancy workers is extrapolated from the fact that 95% of conservancy workers in Tamil Nadu are from this caste. Source: http://firstwitness.wordpress.com/2011/06/03/arunthathiyar.
- Source: http://archive.tehelka.com/story_main36.asp?filename=Ne081207LIFE_INSIDE.asp
- Source: Zohuriaan-Mehr, M. and Kabiri, K. (2008) Superabsorbent Polymer Materials: A Review. Iranian Polymer Journal, vol. 17 (6), pp. 451-477.
- The Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), an independent research institute that formulates policies on environment and development issues at a global scale, noting that the blockage of sewers due to flushing of disposable pads is a worldwide problem, recommends a “re-introduction of reusable menstrual products” (p. 18). See http://www.sei-international.org/mediamanager/documents/Publications/SEI-ProjectReport-Kjellen-GlobalReviewOfSanitationSystemTrendsAndInteractionsWithMenstrualManagementPractices.pdf
- Cited in The Social Impact of DSN: Stories from the Arundathiyar community. Source: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.684843494871613.1073741838.177908912231743&type
This post is part of Period Of Change, a 5-week campaign organized by The Kachra Project along with Earth&us that aims to mobilize people (both men and women) around menstrual waste as a starting point to lobby for change in current practices in MH waste management.
Bindu thrives in an alternative lifestyle in Auroville. Her passion for social and environmental justice leads her to work for earth&us, she is an introverted writer, who cherishes solitude and nature. Some of her personal writing can be found at bindumohanty.wordpress.com