By Vikas Bagaria
Over the last few years, India has made significant steps in the sanitation and menstrual hygiene space. “Swachh Bharat: Swachh Vidyalaya” campaign has been launched to ensure that every school in India has a set of functioning and well-maintained WASH facilities including soap, private space for changing, adequate water for washing, and disposal facilities for used menstrual absorbents. Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) has been made an integral part of the Swachh Bharat Mission Guidelines. As per the latest National Family and Health Survey 4, 58 percent of young Indian women between the age group of 15-24 years use a hygienic method of protection (mostly sanitary pads).
India’s MHM is undoubtedly on a fast track as all the government initiatives and various efforts from NGOs and industry are welcoming. In managing menstrual hygiene, sanitation, and public health, India still needs to go a long way. The need of the hour is to connect the dots.
In India, menstruation as a subject is gradually coming out of taboos and stigmas. For many women and girls in India, even talking about periods was once considered as a great taboo. Thanks to an array of movements aiming to educate women about menstrual hygiene and sanitation, our girls even in rural India are now asking for good quality sanitary pads.
This rise in awareness also demands a sustainable menstrual products ecosystem so as to ensure eco-friendly environment along with better menstrual hygiene. The need of the hour is to start educating girls on sanitary hygiene with an emphasis on informed choices for eco-friendly sanitary products.
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The effect of menstrual waste on the environment and public health is hazardous. Although there is no official data on menstrual waste in India, the estimated figures are shocking. A survey conducted in 2011 by market research group AC Nielsen, titled ‘Sanitary protection: Every woman’s health right’, showed that at 12 percent, India has one of the lowest sanitary napkin usage figures in the world. Down to earth magazine estimated that 300 million women in India are of 15-54 years of age, a sanitary napkin usage of 12 percent implies that 36 million women use sanitary napkins every month. At an average usage of 12 napkins per woman per month, this would add up to 432 million soiled pads, weighing a staggering 9,000 megatonnes, enough to cover a landfill spread over 24 hectares. Majority of sanitary napkins carry plastic. Under the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules 2000, soiled napkins are considered part of non-recyclable household waste and are to be incinerated. We all know that Plastic is highly non-biodegradable and our life-giving planet is already struggling with the massive amount of plastic that we humans produce. Exposed sanitary napkins are also posing grave health risks to waste-pickers and garbage handlers. Their families are more prone to infections and other health hazards due to handling feminine hygiene discards.
With the growing awareness of menstrual hygiene, this menstrual waste is also going to grow at a massive scale. This is definitely a big matter of concern for manufacturers, policymakers, health advocates and the public at large. In 2016, the Indian government revised the 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 a wrapper for their safe disposal. Still, reports indicate that sanitary pads are typically thrown in the open fields, and are also discarded in toilets and in incinerators. With these indications, safe disposal or appropriate waste management of these products is still debatable and is under scrutiny. Incinerators are considered to be favored options to tackle the situation, but challenges still exist in terms of mainstreaming incinerators without emission of toxic fumes such as furans and dioxins from burning of plastics.
While the world is debating on existing disposal mechanism and the corrective measures required for effective menstrual waste management, it is time for India to take a leading step. We can set an example by creating a unique infrastructure and favorable environment which supports eco-friendly practices and organic/bio-degradable products.
Disruptive eco-friendly solutions for feminine hygiene are evolving in the country. Just like Menstrual Hygiene Management, a mass level of awareness is required to make a big shift from plastic-based menstrual hygiene products to natural, safe and bio-degradable products. Till the time we don’t have a robust ecosystem for such products, the disposal process also needs to be strictly monitored.
It’s time for us to take a stand for the right education, awareness, and large-scale availability of these eco-friendly products. It’s time for today’s empowering women to make a green switch.
(The author is a Personal Hygiene Expert and Founder-Pee Safe)