Sustainable menstruation and making the informed choice

In this guest post, Aravinda beautifully talks about what sustainable menstruation really stands for and how a woman should make the informed choice towards it.

As the moon revolves around the earth, our monthly cycles remind us of our capacity to give life, confirm that we are not currently doing so, and require us to take special care of our personal hygiene.

Have you heard people talk about “sustainable menstruation?”  Can something so fundamental to the sustenance of life ever be unsustainable?

Menstruation is at the heart of sustainability for without menstruation there would be no human life.  In the phrase “sustainable menstruation,” the term refers to the sustainability of our resources on our humble planet.  The urgent question is:  What would it take to reverse the rising tide of garbage resulting from the use of disposable menstrual pads and tampons, and to conserve the resources that go into their manufacture and marketing?

As the world steadily converts to the use of disposable products in every sphere of life the impact of disposable menstrual products has reached proportions alarming enough to capture the attention of journalistsacademicsresearchersfilmmakers and bloggers.  A number of NGOs throughout the country are training women to make washable menstrual pads, for their own use as well as for sale.  Men are learning too.  Some have already set up small enterprises and have found enthusiastic customers throughout India and beyond.  They use cotton, hand loom, khadi and flannel.  At least one will even accept your old clothes and up-cycle  them into pads for you.

tailor sewing pads
Woman sews cloth pads at home in a village in Srikakulam District. Photo Courtesy Jivika.

In Masika, a film by Auroville Video Productions, one person quotes an estimate that currently 42 million women in India use disposable sanitary napkins.    To the industry, that number represents an untapped market of over 300 million women … if they too took to disposables, there would be at least 3 billion pads and tampons disposed every month – and that is if they used only 10 pads per cycle.

Which brings us to another important question we don’t often talk about.  How many pads do women use per cycle?   An estimate based on changing pads every 4-6 hours would be 4- 6 pads per day, for 4-6 days, meaning anywhere from 16 – 36 pads per cycle.  This is the kind of math that makes the industry giddy.    As it is, however, in India, most women using disposables avoid changing pads so frequently, for multiple reasons including cost of the pads, no place to change and no place to dispose of the used pads.   When I surveyed women attending an engineering college in Orissa, some reported using only one pad per day.  Making your pad work overtime is not only uncomfortable but can lead to skin irritation and excessive accumulation of bacteria, posing other health risks.

Suppose you made pads affordable and provided ample spaces for girls and women to change their pads as frequently as necessary – then what?  Then the tons of disposables manufactured, packaged, distributed and disposed would number in the millions.


Unless those pads were not disposables at all.  Let me repeat the question I started with: What would it take to reverse the rising tide of garbage resulting from the use of disposable menstrual pads?

There must be a way to do right by our bodies and right by the earth.  With this confidence. many women have embraced washable cloth pads that allow for frequent changing without depleting one’s pocket or filling the dustbin.  Washed and dried in the sun, these cloth pads can last several years and are comfortable and hygienic.  While many women become interested in washable menstrual pads and menstrual cups for the sake of reducing waste, what keeps them hooked is the comfort. This comfort extends far beyond the important yet comparatively superficial notion of physical comfort.  Indeed, it prompts us to examine our comfort with comfort.  Can our periods be comfortable?  Can we be comfortable with our periods?

Happy Periods

If cloth pads are so wonderful, then why are disposables catching on at all?  Why do people who have traditionally used cloth for their periods abandon this practice for the sake of disposables?  Advertising plays a major role but let us look at other issues that women face.

We often imagine that all the women who aren’t using disposable sanitary napkins are using scraps of old cloth.  However there are many women who have no such old cloth to spare and are using husks, newspapers, or ash.   Among those who are using old cloth, not all of them are using comfortable cotton cloth.  Many are using whatever cloth is left, often already quite ragged, because only then would it be discarded from its primary function as a garment.  Whatever they use, they don’t expect their periods to be comfortable or to be able to do things as usual.    With messages like “have a happy period” the disposable pads industry has led women to associate mobility and modernity with the disposable pad.

This is why the most salient feature of the contemporary cloth sanitary pad is not merely the soft and absorbent quality of the cloth, or even its contoured shape designed to fit neatly on the underpants.  Using these cloth pads calls for a difference in one’s mindset.  Ask yourself if you agree with the following statements:

Cloth pads drying on the line.
Cloth pads drying on the line.

1) It is okay for me to use good quality cloth for my period.

When you see a set of cloth pads, priced at Rs. 100-200 apiece, do you see if you like the cloth and design and consider trying them?  If you are handy with a needle, do you consider making some yourself?  Or do you think, “If I am to give up disposables, why should I spend this kind of time and money on some fancy new-fangled pad for my period when I could get by with old rags?”

2) I can wash and dry my pads in a sunny area.

Do you hesitate to dry your monthly cloth on the line?  Get over it!  Sunlight is an effective disinfectant and ensures that the cloths dry quickly and thoroughly.

If you agreed readily to the above statements, it may surprise you to learn that many women who may spend thousands of rupees on saris and dresses that they wear once a year or accumulate in the closet waiting for a special enough occasion will hesitate to buy a set of pads that will help them be more comfortable every month, which pays for itself in less than a year, eliminates that much trash every month, and which simply feels good.

Even better

“I love my cup..and I love my vagina..I love my body..and I love my earth.”

– Shailee Patel, writing on the facebook group Sustainable Menstruation in India.

Menstrual cup
Menstrual cup

Now for the best part: the menstrual cup!  What can beat the feeling of leaving the restroom after taking care of your period, with nothing to throw away, nothing to wash, and nothing to worry about for hours?  Ask yourself if you agree with the following statements:

1) I am comfortable with my body, including my vagina and cervix.

When you see a menstrual cup, do you consider trying it?  Or do you think, “I could never insert something into my vagina?”

2) I am comfortable with my menstrual blood.

When you consider emptying your menstrual blood down the drain rather than absorbing it into a pad to be washed or thrown out, do you like the idea of seeing its color and consistency?

Consider sweat, once thought the male analogue of menses.  It is smelly, sticky, and can be all over the body.  We wash it off, not without a sense of pride in the hard work that brought on the sweat.  Can we not also wash out our menstrual blood while appreciating our bodies?

Cutting out Disposables: Jivika Stall at the Mumbai Organic Farmers’ Market features cloth vegetable bags, menstrual pads, diapers and covers to help people eliminate the use of disposables for their daily and monthly needs.
Cutting out Disposables: Jivika Stall at the Mumbai Organic Farmers’ Market features cloth vegetable bags, menstrual pads, diapers and covers to help people eliminate the use of disposables for their daily and monthly needs.

Cutting out Disposables: Jivika Stall at the Mumbai Organic Farmers’ Market features cloth vegetable bags, menstrual pads, diapers and covers to help people eliminate the use of disposables for their daily and monthly needs.

We realize that when we are kind to ourselves we are also kind to the earth.  If we use disposable tissues, napkins, towels, diapers and pads to absorb any bodily fluid  be it from our ears, noses, sweat glands or nether regions, we not only waste energy converting our trees and plant fibers into products that we use-and-throw, we not only fill our sewers, landfills and dump yards with masses of waste, often polluting the air in the process of manufacturing and transporting it and again in the process of burning it; but we ever so unwittingly distance ourselves from our own bodies and our place in the ecosystem of our planet.

— Aravinda Pillalamarri

Aravinda Pillalamarri works with the Association for India’s Development. Her articles on education, environment, food and gender have appeared in Teacher Plus, The Alternative, India Together, The Hindu and other publications.  She blogs about peace, justice and sustainability on the home front at AskAmma.

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

Join us for our inaugural panel on Earth Day, 7 pm IST as we bring experts to talk on sustainability & menstruation.

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