The Menstrual Move - The Secret to Change


"The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, 
not on fighting the old, but on building the new"
— Socrates

Every few months there is an article on bringing in change for the way the world looks at menstruation – it’s taboos and myths, the societal stigma and our social conditioning on the topic.

I was lucky to have grown up with a father who seemed unperturbed by the idea of periods or chums, as many of us call it. I don’t remember watching ads on tv over sanitary pads as freely as they come today, but if my mother got it, I would follow a day later and so would my sister, leaving my dad to be the only one to run down to the pharmacy and get us packet of pads. My father studied in an all-boys military boarding school for most of this schooling years and before that, grew up with two other older female siblings, in the then retired man’s paradise, Pune. My mother grew up in Mumbai with two more siblings one from each gender, the male in the elder and female in the younger, so one would think since there were more women than men in the house like my father’s home, she would have grown up just as freely, but sadly that was the case. My maternal uncle also went to an all-boys boarding school too so for most of my mother and her sister’s initial menstruating days he wasn’t there to witness it and my grandfather, well, he turned a blind but awkward eye to cramps, washroom needs, washed cloth because my grandmother wouldn’t have it any other way. On the other hand, my father wasn’t privy to the knowledge of periods since he wasn’t home absent too, but I think it had a lot to do with my paternal grandparents treating it, as it should be, a natural transformation for a girl. My paternal grandfather was more sensitive to his daughter’s needs and taught his son too. Two families each with two female siblings and one male sibling, each with more women than men in the house and both from urban cities but with two distinct conditioning to menstruation. The taboos and myths that comes with periods - stayed in both homes like no eating / making pickles, no visiting religious places, or the home temple but both homes had one noticeably big difference “The Men”.

For long women have been dependent on men to provide for them but as we enter the next decade of the 21st century, women are making bigger moves to become more independent. They are driving change across the globe, they are being heard and adhered too and while the success of this change lies with the women – her struggles, her tolerance, her endurance, her strength, her resilience and her perseverance, it’s also the men that have broken loose from their own social conditioning and we owe to our parents to have brought out that change in us. When a bollywood celebrity like Akshay Kumar tells a young man about saving his wife’s life by sacrificing two cigarettes per month to give her sanitary pads he is addressing the men because there is still a section of women who need to be empowered to be able to stand on their own two feet and be able to buy sanitary pads. But by speaking to these men he is driving a huge movement towards the acceptance that Menstruation in a woman is a relationship she has for more than 30 years - in some cases longer than a marriage and she can’t shake it off, ignore it, divorce it or fight it and so it’s time to be the man your woman can be proud of and help her for 4 days in the month by providing her this basic need.

Menstruation changes the body and the soul. She develops new hormones (in a way), her body changes faster than she can think, she matures emotionally, she learns to endure pain in ways a man can’t imagine and with all that she is still expected to study, keep the house, work, give exams, look beautiful. Pain is only relative to the one who has it - you can only claim to understand it but not actually feel it. I remember watching an episode in a famous comedy series where a conversation between two people lead to the funniest but truest statement of all – “What’s more painful going into labour or being kicked in the #&lls? We’ll never know, coz neither can experience both, one of life’s greatest mysteries.”

For a healthy and hygienic lifestyle an urban girl / woman will typically use about 12-15 pads in a period cycle of 4 days. When an NGO through Government programmes hands out a packet of 5-7 pads that’s almost 10 less than what you should typically use. A doctor tells you that you must change your pad every 4-6 hours to avoid rash, foul odour, leakage so when an 18 year old village girl Lakhi has only 7 pads to use that month how does she decide how many pads and on what days? Does she carry a pad with her at all times tied to the end of her dupatta (crushed in the knot) for emergencies, does she use 2 or 3 pads on the second day when the bleeding is heavier leaving her with 3 more pads to be divided equally between the first, third and fourth day - to be used for 24 hours. Another solution, Rakhi Didi (elder sister in Hindi) says we should use reusable pads made of cloth, but when there is a water problem in her village and she has to walk miles just to get it Lakhi is still required to wash the cloth pads and then dry it during the day under direct sunlight to kill of any germs that may still be there, with the hope that no one sees her pieces of cloth including her brother or male neighbour or uncles or father. The horrendous stories of girls’ using unsanitary methods like leaves, sand, mud etc during their periods or using pieces of cloth, washing them (many a times without the correct disinfectant) and drying them inside their homes in dingy corners where there is no window is appalling, yes, but it defines how regressive we still are. Where one part of India is making headway into gender equal work roles and pay another part is still darkened by the lack of resources.

The unprecedented nCovid19 lockdown created a new worry for girls and women like Lakhi because India forgets for a woman its Roti (Food), Kapda (Clothes), Makaan (House) and Sanitary Pad at least until she is 50. Of course, we saw many companies out there that reached out to NGOs and distributed pads in villages but why are we still forgetting this to be an essential product to be made available at any cost. So, it’s in situations like these where we must find and understand that a sustainable model of demand and supply is maintained so that we never read another article or story on The Period Shame that India faces. The demand graph for pads is only likely to go up and never drop. The 2011 senses said only 12% women use sanitary pads - that number has gone up to 36% and while we still have a long way to go, the demand is up it’s the cost of the product and it’s coinciding supply that still makes this product just out of reach for many.

When I decided to be part of the change for menstruating women by manufacturing sanitary napkin vending machines and incinerators I was still living in my little home bubble under the freedom my father gave us, the liberal conversations we had about all topics women & men, I had no idea about how hurtful / painful my journey would be. It pained to see that a product I took for granted every 4 days a month was a luxury for over 65% of girls and women in our country. Coming from a family of doctors, engineers, defence personnel - I was still unaware of my world my country. I was devastated but I scaled forward because I wanted to make a difference. On one of my first initial business year tours with an official with a tier 2 municipal office where we visited 9 schools in his ward, I saw the installation of a sanitary napkin vending machine and a sanitary napkin incinerator. At first, I was disappointed since I was late to realise a potential customer. He complained about how useless the machine was, how it did not work and how much money they had spent installing it under one of the PMs pet projects. I was confused because the machines were dirty but unused and untouched. So, I asked the school official who was clueless of the situation and she quickly summoned another leader from her team. She said that the machines were of use only for 2 months, after the big splash inauguration and the press photo op and they remained unused for almost 8 months after the inauguration. The municipal official smirked and pointed out to me what cheaters the manufacturers were and how the responsible vendors have not been paid for their substandard products. I asked for two napkins opened the vending machine and turned the dial with a ₹5 coin and quick as a rat the napkin fell to the takeout port. I took the same napkin opened it poured some water, opened the burner and the napkin was totally incinerated. I turned to the official and plainly said jab andar pad hoyega nahin toh phir bahar ayega kya, aur bahar pad ayega nahin toh phir jalega kya (if there is no pad to dispense then where will you get the pad to burn). To which the school official interrupted and mentioned how they received pads that were distributed for free from the vending machines but now since the free lot was over there weren’t any more to place within the machine to dispense and to top it they had no idea where they could purchase pads from in bulk without being cheated of quality & cost. So now they must rely on an NGO or Government Programme or the Corporate Social Responsibility activity to make suitable arrangements for the girls. There are many stories like these that taught me how I can make these vending machines and incinerators bring about a sustainable change.

The value of free products is a sitting expectation that more will come. What is the school to do if the budgeted pads for the year are used up in less than 2 months - months of investigation and probe but the real culprits would never be found, eventually leading an un-ending loop. Make leaders at all levels accountable, give the school Maushi / Didi (Housekeeping Team) the job to refill and incentivise her for every napkin she refills and for every ash collection tray she disposes, the supplier/vendor of the machine should be able to provide a repeat order for napkins and the machines should be serviced regularly – after all there is a likelihood that if 100 girls are using these machines a minimum of 15 pads will get dispensed on an average every day of the month.

At Tendril Products, after experiencing stories from villages, slums, chawls, urban homes, schools etc we pledged and executed to always provide sanitary napkin vending machines with free pads first, that way you have greased the wheel of demand and supply, to always remain in touch and make sure the tray in the machines are never empty, to ensure pads can be dispensed for as low as ₹1, that an installation regardless of where is it is done the girls & women, no matter their age, maturity or knowledge would always have a forum to discuss basic menstrual hygiene and sanitation – a dialogue, a sanctuary to discuss their most intimate, most private four days. Tendril Products was formed with the thought that every woman has the right to this basic hygiene – She Has The Right To Smile – we do not provide that right it’s not ours to provide, we only empower so She Realises It For Herself & The Generation of Females After Her – It’s a Menstrual Move.

Aarti Sharma
Hoping to be a voice for menstruating girls and women