There’s a pull deep in my lower abdomen that’s followed by a trickle down my inner thigh. I panic. The nearest pharmacy is two blocks away so I locate the closest woman and ask for a tampon. My period panic is short-lived, as feminine hygiene products are easily accessible in the United States.
However, the same cannot be said for many women around the world. The reality is that the majority of women in developing regions have limited access to feminine hygiene products due to cultural stigmas that prevent their sale and distribution. Women struggle to gain social acceptance in seeking feminine products and suffer physically from unsanitary menstrual control alternatives. Girls miss school. Women are shamed.
According to The Girl Effect, an initiative funded by the United Nations to end cycles of poverty by investing in girls, a staggering one out of four girls in rural India will drop out of school once they begin to menstruate. According to Dr. Marni Sommer, an assistant professor of socio-medical sciences at Columbia University, “Menstruation is not something a girl is going to openly admit that she misses school for. Some girls may leave school for a few hours each day skipping class, while others may skip school altogether.” Girls have difficulty managing their periods in India, where only 12 percent of women use sanitary pads. Due to inadequate access to feminine hygiene products, these girls are forced to use unsanitary alternatives to manage their flows. Dirty towels, scraps of fabric, sand, ash, dry leaves, and plastic sheets are commonly used. These alternatives are unhygienic, messy, and even fatal.
Menstruation also hinders home life. When asked how menstruation affects her daily routine, 32-year-old Manju Baluni from Uttarakhand, India said in an interview with BBC, “I’m not allowed into the kitchen; I can’t enter the temple; I can’t sit with others.” She explains that the shame surrounding menstruation prevents women from discussing the topic. This shame originates from a section of the ancient and sacred Hindu text, The Srīmad-Bhāgavatam. In the sixth canto, the god Indra kills Visvarupa, a brahamana, which leads to a series of implications for women, land, trees, and water. “Because women accepted one-fourth of the sinful reactions [of Indra], they are untouchable during their menstrual period” (Srīmad-Bhāgavatam 6:9:4). The sense of impurity and embarrassment regarding menstruation is mortifying for women like Manju. However, some women stand to end the stigma. Manju concludes, “I will never let my daughter suffer the way I do when I have my period. My family treats me like an untouchable.”
Manju’s call to end the cultural stigmas around menstruation is reflected by several organizations in India that make sustainable feminine hygiene products. Goonj, for example, is a group that operates in 21 out of India’s 31 states to salvage discarded materials like clothes and rags to be reused and recycled. Their project “Not Just a Piece of Cloth” produces inexpensive feminine products called MY Pads. Over 2.5 million MY Pads have been made from cotton that would have ended up in a landfill.
With a similar mission to Goonj, Village Volunteers started the Water Hyacinth Pad Project, which utilizes water hyacinth, an invasive aquatic plant, to make biodegradable sanitary pads. Local factories that produce the pads are run by women trained in social enterprise by Village Volunteers. The pads are cheap and distributed through local women’s groups, schools, hospitals, clinics, NGOs, and governmental organizations.
Village Volunteers is supported by donations and international partners such as local Philadelphia startup, Cora. Struck by the harsh realities of menstruation that girls face in India while studying and working globally for women’s economic empowerment, social entrepreneur Molly Hayward started the Fishtown-headquartered company in 2014 with the mission of providing women across the world with safer feminine hygiene products. The tampons sold domestically by Cora are made with 100 percent organic cotton and shipped as a monthly subscription box. Unlike conventional pad and tampon companies that do not fully disclose their ingredients, Cora is proud to share theirs.
Non-organic feminine hygiene products are laden with chemicals and constructed from rayon, a semi-synthetic fabric. The combination of rayon and chemicals produced from the cotton bleaching process, like dioxin, is harmful. The FDA has done research on these toxins and has imposed stricter quality standards; however, health risks still exist. According to the Mayo Clinic, Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS) is associated with highly absorbent tampons, which users tend to change less frequently. The prolonged tampon usage allows more bacteria like staphylococcus to grow. Some strains of Staph bacteria are toxic. In October 2012, Los Angeles model Lauren Wasser famously lost her leg to TSS after reporting flu-like symptoms that led to an eventual amputation from the infection. The dangers of toxic shock are relevant to menstruation in India because rather than donating conventional products, Goonj and Village Volunteers have sought out healthier and sustainable alternatives to help women manage their periods.
Menstruation is not a taboo; it is a biological process. The cyclical nature of menstruation causes routine suffering that only ends with menopause or intervention. Women whose period panic merely involves a trip to the nearest pharmacy, rather than anxiety about a week of shame, need to raise awareness about the realities of managing menstruation domestically and internationally. Enabling women to realize their full potential by adding another week to each month of their life with access to feminine products would result in tapping into untold and under-utilized human capital.
Written by: Abigail McGuckin