24 November 2016, Kotagiri: Kathy Walkling of Eco Femme was in Keystone on Tuesday to speak to 20 women – staff, volunteers from Sweden, and villagers from Sigur, Semanatham and Anaikatty on the issue of menstrual health. Menstrual health is still a topic that few people, women or men, care to speak about. Besides the obvious reasons of privacy, there is still a lot of taboo associated with this normal and essential part of a woman’s life. The Indigenous People’s Programme decided to take up this issue to give the women basic knowledge regarding the menstrual cycle and changes occurring within the body during that time.
The meeting started with the forming of small groups where the women discussed their personal experience of puberty. Kathy made a presentation illustrating the internal organs of the female reproductive system and a chart showing the 28-day menstrual cycle. She explained the cycle and answered questions reassuring the women that any cycle length between 19 and 45 days would be considered normal, but cautioned them that variations above and below these durations definitely required medical attention. She explained characteristics of different parts of the cycle and how it is related to the development of the uterus lining. Kathy made the women mark their cycles on a calendar and estimate their approximate date of ovulation. The women highly appreciated this information as it gave them more knowledge, control and choice with regard to conception.
The next topic that came up for discussion was the type of menstrual hygiene product that the women used. It was somewhat of a surprise to note that all the rural women were using commercial disposable sanitary pads spending anything between Rs 40 to Rs 150 in a month. Kathy explained to them the anatomy of a modern sanitary napkin, which contains very little, if any, organic material and is treated with chlorine to achieve the clean white look. The women were able to appreciate the risks associated with prolonged contact with chemically treated substances.
The disposal of used sanitary pads was also discussed. Knowing that a single sanitary pad takes around 800 years to degrade was quite a shock to the women as was the knowledge that a single woman produces about 125-150 kgs of such non-biodegradable waste in her lifetime. Eco-friendly options such as washable cloth pads made of cotton and menstrual cups were shown to them and the use explained. When a show of hands was taken from the ladies present on whether they would like to move from the disposable napkin currently being used to an eco-friendly alternative, each hand shot into the air. When questioned on specific products, 17 women opted for the washable cotton pads while 16 said they would want to use the menstrual cup.
When asked about the reason for the choices, the women said that these options were safe for health, good for the environment and, in the long run, more economical. Kathy further asked them if they felt disturbed about having to wash cloth pads instead of being able to throw them away, the women replied that washing was never the problem, it was always the embarrassment of drying the cloth openly and risk of stains that made them shift to disposable pads. They said that both those issues were addressed by the colourful cloth pads with their leakproof layer. The women joked about the cloth pads looking more like a child’s article of clothing rather than a menstrual hygiene product.
The discussion left Kathy pleasantly surprised as she had been expecting some degree of hesitation towards both these options. The openness with which the village women discussed their doubts and concerns and considered alternatives made rest of the participants (Keystone staff and visitors from Sweden) feel very proud of them. Kathy is co-founder of Eco Femme, an organisation that provides a livelihood opportunity to rural women by engaging the self-help group in manufacturing eco-friendly, washable cotton cloth pads. Kathy remarked that though she had been conducting such meetings for many years to generate awareness among rural women about the menstrual cycle and the impact of sanitary pads on the environment, this was the first time that she had met with a group that could think so progressively and be ready to inconvenience themselves a little to be able to protect the environment. The women said that they would return to their villages and educate other women and adolescent girls about menstrual health. The next step is now for Keystone to continue to maintain the momentum and establish linkages for the women to source washable cloth pads and menstrual cups as they had indicated that they would like to use.