Making Informed Choices, Bleeding Clean

By Shruti AjitonFeb. 20, 2021in Environment and Ecology

Written Specially for Vikalp Sangam

Conversation around menstruation has been limited, often hushed, to be kept as a secret, not to be spoken in front of men, have names like ‘aunty flow has arrived’, ‘code red’ and a personal favorite ‘chums’ and generally build a narrative that makes anyone squeamish when one brings up periods. Popular culture show blue liquids on advertisement around sanitary pads, conservative households practice taboos of having separate utensils or not entering kitchen during menstruation and most often, the discussion on how to sustainably dispose sanitary products, are left out. Menstruation in contemporary India has still got stigma linked to it.

Based on a study conducted by Menstrual Hygiene Alliance of India(MHAI) in 2019, it was approximated that over 12.3 billion disposable pads end up in landfills every year[1] which are mostly non decomposable, are made of super absorbent polymers and have a layer of plastic that will remain there for close to 600-800 years.

The National Family Health Survey of 2015-16 estimated that 58% of women use sanitary pads of which 78% are in urban spaces and 48% in rural areas[2]. Based on these estimates, 6 out of 10 women use disposable sanitary products, some of which are locally sourced. State Schemes aimed at Menstrual Health Management(MHM)which includes distributing disposable sanitary pads at nominal costs, creating awareness on menstrual hygiene and at disposal of sanitary waste, have not been successful due to poor implementation, management and bad quality of the products[3].

However, in recent times, several initiatives have emerged that are enabling conversations around menstruation, addressing the very stigma mentioned above, challenging the traditional narratives that have been passed down from one generation to another and well as creating awareness for menstruators[4] to make informed choices. One such initiative is the Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective.

About Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective(SMKC)

This collective brings like-minded individuals and organizations that are engaged with issues aimed at gender, equity and ecology. The collective began as a conversation between few people around solid waste management and in particular menstrual waste, is now one of the pioneer enablers of sustainable menstruation dialogues in Kerala.

Eight young minds, Shradha Shreejaya, M K Balamohan, Vivek Nair, Dinesh Reghunathan, Ashwin, Kavya Menon, Remya Ganesh and Babitha P.S., who were all equally keen to understand and work on sustainable menstruation but came from varied backgrounds realized that this issue needs to be addressed not in isolation but by understanding the intersections of ecology, social acceptance and questioning age old cultural norms. These founding members, each used their expertise to campaign for what Sustainable Menstruation Kerala Collective is today.

The collective which is not registered works largely on a huge volunteer base. With sprawling public gardens of Kanakakunnu Palace sometimes turning into meeting spaces, SKMC was the pioneer of introducing dialogues on sustainable menstruation in Kerala providing support, guidance and a network to connect initiatives like the Red Cycle, Code Red, Namskriti, Green the Red and Ecofemme that have been engaged in the work of providing green and affordable alternatives to menstruators.

Waste and Sustainable Angle

Babitha P.S, a campaigner for SMKC and a volunteer mentor for the Green Army (a movement started by youth to create awareness on zero waste management amongst school children) shared, “I was working  with Green Army when the conversation around the need to talk about menstrual hygiene was brought up informally with a few others including Shradha Shreejaya. Proper disposal of sanitary waste has always been an issue and we wanted to start this conversation on menstruation emerging from waste management. Once we brought together a group of people, we realized that the issue of menstruation has varying dimensions and needs to be seen through a holistic lens combining issues of gender, culture, politics and ecology. And thus, SMKC was formed to create awareness on these various intersections.”

According to Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, menstrual waste is treated as solid waste and as ‘sanitary waste’ within that category. With the exception of two cities-Pune and Bangalore[5], there is very little segregation of waste that is being carried out in other places. The popular sanitary napkins that are available in the market today comprise of super absorbent polymers/plastic at its top coating and has other materials like rayon, bleaches, gels and artificial fragrances. Use of these pads in the long run could be detrimental to the menstruator’s health.

The general silence and shaming of menstruators in most households would mean that a lot of adolescent girls would end up flushing the napkins down the toilets, leading to the clogging of drainage systems and polluting the water bodies where it may end up.

In Kochi and other municipalities, authorities had a tough time trying to deal with menstrual waste. They wanted it be categorized as biomedical waste along with diapers, citing dignity of waste pickers who will have to go through waste covered in blood and excreta. In Thirakara Municipality of Ernakulam district, they have refused to pick up sanitary waste unless it is cleaned properly and have the gel and blood-soaked cotton removed to be treated as non-biodegradable waste. An order was issued to dispose only the plastic lining without the gel and cotton, after waste workers from Kudumbashree collective protested about having to deal with sanitary waste[6] which was not separated by the citizens. While the order was passed, there were very few who followed the protocol, leading to a deadlock from both sides and a growing mountain of uncollected sanitary wastewithout any solution.

With issues around menstrual waste creating a dire need to look for alternatives, SMKC in collaboration with other organizations are working at various levels, i.e in schools, colleges, resident welfare associations(RWAs), municipalities and corporations to create awareness about  sustainable menstrual products that are available in the market.

The “Cup Revolution” that has taken place in India in the last decade, with campaigns to make menstruators “cupverts” and shift them from using non-biodegradable sanitary napkins to menstrual cups, there is a shift in people’s acceptance towards conversations on periods. As people are getting more aware of the term sustainable menstruation, it is creating more avenues for SMKC to debunk myths, taboos and stereotypes about periods and particularly on the use of cups.

SMKC setting up it stall with the products which helps initiate conversation on Sustainable Menstruation Pic Credits: Thomas Varghese

SMKC held workshops with people of varied age groups, but specifically targeted youth. One of the important parts of this workshop was to introduce and talk about alternative sustainable products that are available in the market. “We always keep it in at the end of the workshop because our stand around sustainable menstruation is not to force anyone, but to ensure that the menstruators make an informed choice. That would come from being aware of the choices that are available to an individual at the first place,” says Babitha.

Conversation about the big M and Addressing Equity issues

In November –December 2017, SMKC in collaboration with Red Cycle, organized a month long campaign Aarthavayanam that covered 14 districts starting from Kasargod and ending in Thiruvanathapuram and had debates, panels discussions and dialogues that were aimed at creating awareness around sustainable menstruation in schools, gram sabhas, colleges, organizations etc. 

All hell broke loose in 2018, when the Supreme Court passed the judgment that all women can enter the Sabarimala Temple. Menstruation became core of the issue, and in Kerala people were divided on this altogether. It was no longer a culture or waste management thing. Periods became political. 

SMKC Campaigner in a workshop with school children Pic Credits: Thomas Varghese

“There have been a lot of changes in the mindset of people regarding periods. However, it is still a slow process. It is not easy to challenge the intergenerational narrative of period shaming that has been passed from one generation to another for ages. However, the younger lot is definitely challenging the age-old conservative mindsets with their questions and their informed selves,” says Kavya Menon.  Sometimes while in a workshop, conversation around female reproductive system often gets a lot of participants uncomfortable, especially when addressing use of cups and while discussing the biology and politics of an intact hymen and its linkage to “virginity”. However the youth have begun engaging with these conversations for they understand the value of being informed about social, political and ecological implications of menstruation that impact some of their rights and dignity.

 State Interventions in Kerala

A boom in initiatives around sustainable menstruation finally provided an impetus to the state officials, who were very keen to take it forward as a way to promote clean menstruation and also deal with the waste accordingly. Districts like Malappuram, Kasargod and Kannur are reportedly having high demands for menstrual cups and cloth pad in the State[7]. With organizations like The Red Cycle and Code Red making intervention in Kochi and Kozhikode respectively, Kerala has proactively jumped into the sustainable menstruation bandwagon.

In 2017, the Trivandrum Municipal Corporation set up vending machines that provide three cloth pads at a nominal rate of Rs 10[8]. In 2019, Muhamma Gram Panchayat of Alappuzha district distributed free cloth pads and menstrual cups in an effort to make the panchayat synthetic pad free[9]. Alappuzha District was also lauded for having a very effective decentralized waste management system.

SMKC is now in the process of helping the Trivandrum Municipal Corporation set up their own cloth pad manufacturing unit thereby making cloth pads even more accessible and making it easier to champion the cause of sustainable menstruation.

Period is no longer a ‘whisper’ in Kerala now. Young people are slowly but steadily breaking the shackles of age-old cultural practices to pave way for something that ensures a dignified life and is light on this planet. The vision of SMKC will impact menstruators and non-menstruators alike in many years to come. 


[1]https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/health/the-mammoth-task-of-managing-menstrual-waste-in-india-63376

[2]https://thelogicalindian.com/health/menstruation-in-rural-india/

[3]https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2017/05/status-check-well-scheme-promote-menstrual-hygiene-fared-india/

[4] The following term “Menstruators” is being used to challenge the narrative how menstruation is not confined to a particular gender and to expand usage the term menstruation beyond the gender binaries that exists. This also signifies that those who may be gender non-conforming could also be menstruators.

[5]https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/health/the-mammoth-task-of-managing-menstrual-waste-in-india-63376

[6]https://www.onmanorama.com/news/kerala/2020/01/20/sanitary-napkins-diapers-kochi-waste-cochin-corporation.html

[7]https://www.thehindu.com/society/shradha-shreejaya-on-the-pioneering-work-of-sustainable-menstruation-kerala-collective/article18707416.ece

[8]https://yourstory.com/2017/04/cloth-pads/amp

[9]https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/muhamma-to-be-first-synthetic-pad-free-village-in-the-country/article30422072.ece

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