THE movie ‘Padman’ has generated a lot of buzz, some of it is good, and some not so good. It’s heartening to see that a subject which is considered taboo in our country is being discussed openly. Menstruation, though being a
natural phenomenon, somehow has been a cause of shame and awkwardness to women. Age-old traditions and practices, evolved over the years, made menstruating women rue their femininity due to the inhuman segregation they faced. Ironically, a culture that
celebrates the onset of menstruation, ostracises women for the same reason.
There’s no shame in accepting that it is indeed physically taxing for many women to do physically intensive work during that time. The need for rest, and the non-availability of proper means to manage menstruation might have been the basis for a woman to be quarantined, but as the years passed, this ritual turned out to be a curse for many women across India who still face inhuman segregation and there is an urgent need for awareness in this regard.
Padman is a biographical journey of a man who supposedly worked towards offering women better means to manage their periods by making low cost sanitary napkins in place of the cloth they used earlier. It dwells on the shame women feel when they have to use cloth and hide it from the world while managing their ‘periods’. This is where the movie goes wrong. Instead of addressing the shame that women shouldn’t be feeling in the first place, it offers a dangerous alternative.
Globalisation has led to all traditional practices being replaced by modern and seemingly better ones. The truth can’t be far away in the case of sanitary napkins. The ugly truth about these sterile and hygienic looking sanitary napkins is public knowledge, ironically no one seems to care and the sale of these napkins is only growing. The plastics and chemicals present in sanitary napkins are proven beyond doubt to be harmful to women. Cotton used in these pads contains pesticides that are absorbed by the skin which are linked to thyroid malfunction, infertility and other health problems. The bleaching agents present in the cotton cause skin darkening and altered liver function. Deodorants present in the napkins hamper embryonic development and cause severe irritation and yeast infections. The dioxins present in them have been linked to cervical cancer.
Unfortunately the companies manufacturing these pads do not make the presence of these chemicals public even though research has proven their presence without doubt. More and more women are switching to pads unaware of the severe health hazards they cause. The advertising campaign for these pads is designed in such a way that it makes women who use traditional means feel like uninformed and dogmatic idiots.
Apart from being a major health hazard, sanitary napkins are a huge environmental hazard. Each plastic filled napkin takes about 800 to 1000 years to degrade and decompose fully. To give a rough estimate, if every Indian woman in the menstruating age bracket uses sanitary napkins, 58,50,00,00,000 soiled pads would be discarded annually! That’s a whopping 5850 crore soiled napkins every year and all of them are going to be around for 800 plus years. The mountain of trash this would create and its impact on the environment is terrifying to say the least. The unchecked disposal of these napkins in our country is the leading cause of polluted water bodies and choking drains. Flushed pads lead to blocked drains calling for manual scavenging which has led to frequent death of manual scavengers which is criminal and inhuman. Most developed countries burn soiled napkins along with medical waste in incinerators. Sanitary napkins have to be burned at a temperature of 800 degrees upwards to destroy all the chemicals and plastic completely. Burning them at even slightly lower temperatures releases dioxins which are highly carcinogenic and are linked to autoimmune diseases.
A country which is grappling with basic segregation of waste is not equipped to manage the sanitary waste of such a huge population. The silver lining in the obviously looming disaster is that at least 40 to 50 per cent of Indian women are still using the traditionally safe cloth pads. The promotion pitch for the movie Padman encouraged celebrities from all fields to pose with sanitary pads on social media and has been very popular and trending since. The youth of our country looks up to these celebrities and sadly a promotion like this will push many young women to ditch safe and environmentally friendly cloth pads to sanitary napkins, which is hazardous not only to their health but also to the planet. It’s ironic how a natural, life giving phenomenon like menstruation has turned into an environmental nightmare.
Yes, there is an urgent need for awareness in hygienic practices and against the inhuman treatment of menstruating women in some sections of our country and we have to focus on these issues instead of promoting a product which is neither safe nor sustainable. Many eco warriors are up in arms with this irresponsible promotion. They do acknowledge that the movie has paved a way for period talk which will bust many myths and usher in hygienic practices, but encouraging more women to use pads is certainly not acceptable. Realistically speaking, ‘Padman is no superman.’
India is a country which had made inroads into medicine through Ayurveda, long before the western medicines even came into existence. After experiencing the side effects of chemical filled drugs, the world is now looking at natural remedies, wherein Indians have been privy to them centuries ago. Our country was always ‘waste wise’ and we are still the biggest recyclers in the world. We have always believed in the concept of repair and reuse and never use and throw, and fortunately, a major section of the country still follows this culture.
Globalisation ushered in a new era of disposable culture where using and throwing anything and everything has become the norm. The enormous implications of disposables on our environment, is there for everyone to see. The rivers and oceans are overflowing with plastic, landfills across the globe are exploding with the sheer amount of waste humans being generatedevery second. At this juncture, we need to be moving towards sustainable means of living if our planet needs to survive this onslaught of trash. The government needs to apply stringent pollution control measures to combat the rising pollution due to plastic disposables. Sustainable products should be given the necessary push and incentivised so that more people adopt them.
A statistics recently released quotes that only 57 per cent of girls and women in the age group 15-25 years in India have access to hygienic menstrual products as per the National Family Health Survey (2015-2016). The country needs many more eco-wise Pad men and Pad women working for the cause. There are already many biodegradable pad makers such as Aakaar Innovations and Saathipads. These cloth pads are highly functional and aesthetically designed to suit the lifestyles of dynamic women of today. There are a number of reusable cloth pad manufacturers in India.
Another wonder product which many women swear by is sweeping the sustainable market, the menstrual cup. We now have many indigenous makers of these cups in our country. One menstrual cup which is made of non-reactive medical grade silicone lasts eight to ten years! Imagine the environmental implications if every woman uses a cup instead of sanitary napkins, our planet would be spared of mountains of non-biodegradable, toxic trash. More importantly, women who use the menstrual cups have noticed significant improvement in their menstrual health – reduced cramps, no irritations, and no infections. Swimming, running and any other physically intensive work is easily managed with cups. Many women are calling it a blessing. Unfortunately companies don’t market these wonder cups as they are highly durable and hence non profitable to them.
The ball is in our court now. All we need, is the will to choose earth friendly and safe options for a healthy life on a healthy planet. With ancient knowledge combined with sustainable practices and the efforts of passionate eco-warriors, it shouldn’t be long before the problem of sanitary access is solved keeping in mind the solutions that are the best for women andt the mother Earth.
(The writer is Conservationist and blogger)