Re-visioning sustainability and sustainable menstruation

Conclusive post from our Earth Day #periodofchange webinar on Sustainability and menstruation

Like all other developmental issues in India, I find menstrual hygiene management to be a “wicked” issue. A “wicked” issue defies neatly packaged solutions, for a seemingly easy solution ends up causing problems in other areas. Resolution of “wicked” issues require multi-sector analysis and out-of-the-box thinking.

As stated in our introduction blog, Dasra’s sector report on menstrual hygiene management states that over 7 million women in India use unhygienic material like sand, ash, husk, gunny bags, dirty rags and newspaper for managing their period while another 200 million women in India have a poor understanding of menstrual hygiene. Such numbers boggle the mind, and the diversity of the economic and the cultural landscape of India confounds thought. As a #periodofchange campaign participant, Narayani Anand, Ludhiana defiantly asks:  “Do you think sustainability in menstrual products is an issue that can reach the masses when a majority of women in rural India do not have access to basic sanitation (toilets) and sanitary napkins?” Indeed, given the mind-numbing poverty that so many Indian women are subject to, why should we even talk about sustainability? Isn’t sustainability, one of those imported Western concepts that only the privileged urban rich can afford?

In retrospect, one realizes that India has always been struggling to chart a development path between the Scylla of poverty and the Charybdis of sustainable development. If anything, following Indira’s Gandhi famous declaration to the Brundtland Commission of sustainable development in 1972, that “poverty is the worst polluter” India has eschewed sustainable development in favor of the need for poverty reduction. And at first glance this seems justifiable, for the Western countries have achieved their enviable standard of living at the cost of the environment, except . . .

Except for the fact that given our teeming population, we, in India, can no longer afford development at the cost of the environment. Let’s face it, India’s population has more than doubled since 1972. And when India opened its market to the world in the nineties, at first, we enjoyed a better lifestyle in that we could finally access high-quality consumer goods but now, after over a decade of being plugged into the global market, we are beginning to realize that the quality of our life, especially in the cities has vastly deteriorated. We are beginning to realize that our “consume and throw-away” culture is poisoning our air, our soil, and water; it is poisoning us. The call for sustainable development then stems not from the need of saving the environment for the environment’s sake, but for the sake of human development, so that we and our progeny may lead healthy lives.  As that famous quote attributed to Chief Seattle states “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”

Once we affirm our sacred connection to the web of life, sustainability takes on a whole new other meaning. As Bayo Akomolafe expressed so poignantly in our inaugural seminar, to him sustainability means re-sacralization or reconnecting to the sacredness of life. When asked how, given the modernity of our life and culture, could one reconnect to the sacredness of life, Bayo instinctively replied that we need to “slow down.”  He then elaborated that Western thought and development has this sense of constant progress and achievement where one seeks to constantly do something and produce something, and it is only by slowing down, one can begin to savour the sacredness of life. For Bayo, in indigenous cultures, the monthly menstrual cycle was a time for women to commune with one another and with life itself. Women slowed down when they had their period, disengaged from their routine activities of daily life, and secluded themselves in a sacred communion. This to Bayo was the deeper meaning of “sustainable menstruation.” It is no just being eco-friendly, or being privileged to buy organic, biodegradable, disposable pads or a menstrual cup, but being able to re-connect to the sacredness of life, and this ability is equally open to all, whether we are rich or poor. Sustainability has unfortunately become another homogenized metanarrative and comes with a list of do’s and don’ts but if we were to revision it as sustaining our sacred connection to life itself, then a sustainable lifestyle springs naturally from the core of our being.

Bayo’s re-visioning of sustainability as re-sacrability invites us all to reflect more deeply on our theme sustainable menstruation. And to integrate the reflections of Frederique Appfel-Marglin, another panelist, I’d say we not only need new intellectual ideas, but an embodied “enactment” of a sustainable culture.

–Bindu Mohanty

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.

This post is part of Period Of Change, a 5-week campaign organized by The Kchra 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.

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