Of Menstruation and Cloth Pads, in a Rajasthani Village

by | Aug 21, 2018

It was just a usual day in school when I requested the staff to open and clear the storeroom. The moment we entered, we saw big boxes, old books, medicines, rats running here and there, birds nesting, and a sack in a corner. The sack was heavy and full of dust. To my surprise, it consisted of sanitary napkins. I picked a packet out found it to be wet. The whole sack had gotten dumped in rainwater and smelled like a pile of garbage.

When I asked teachers, they excused themselves by saying that they had told girls to take pads from us whenever they but they never did, plus the storeroom has a lot of leakages. They said that they do not have control on rainwater. Hence, they either return these to PHC (Primary health center) or burn them and request new ones.

Rajasthan government runs a scheme to promote menstrual hygiene, under which sanitary pads will be provided free-of-cost to girls and women in all government-run schools in rural areas of Rajasthan. The sanitary pads are distributed to women through schools, colleges, anganwadis, sub-health centers and Annapurna Bhandars. The plan aims to provide sanitary napkins to local primary health centers, which will pass it on to the school authorities. The school administration will then distribute the napkins to the girls.

This chain of deliverable looks quite straight-forward, right? But does it really happen this way?

After school hours, I started accompanying students in my class for community visits. The purpose was to understand the village. While walking towards the hamlet, girls and I would talk about how they celebrate festivals, cropping season, and how the household waste gets disposed. In general, there is no proper waste management system in villages. People either dig a hole and bury the waste, or burn it. When I progressed the discussion, by asking what do they use during their periods, girls said that they mostly use cloth and if they get pads from school, they either burn them near the river or dig the pads in a barren land. Although, the challenge with digging is that if wild dogs sniff blood, they take it out and tear it apart. Napkins can be seen flying around in pieces on the fields, and obviously, no one takes any ownership of it.

With a motivation to solve this problem, I decided to dig deeper. As my school only had male teachers, girls do not feel comfortable to ask for pads. Initially, I thought to resolve this by making a system where every month, girls can come in one particular week to collect pads. But as time passed, I realized that this is just a temporary solution to the problem, because this will work only until I am working in the school. The moment I will leave, things will come back to where they were. Also, just distributing the pad will not be a permanent solution because first, the girls need to be well-educated about its use, and they should see an importance in using it.

This led me to do an in-depth research on menstruation related practices in Bhoola village. There are a number of things people see as taboos in various parts of India, and menstruation is one of them. It’s true for Rajasthan as well. Through media we have been hearing how menstruation is considered as a sign of impurity, myths about the ill effects on family members in presence of a menstruating woman, and many rigid social practices which makes menstruation an undesirable entity in women’s daily lives. On top of it, women themselves are not highly aware of proper hygiene and precautions, making it a really arduous affair.

To get to the root of the problem, I worked with the rural communities to understand the need for menstrual hygiene, address taboos and arrive at a solution. I started surveying women by asking them questions on menstruation, hygiene practices, and products being used by them. Majority of the women had no knowledge on the subject before their cycles started. Even now, they only use cloth and don’t know much about it.

What they told me, were exactly the responses I waited to hear from them, as that’s what I was told about the condition of menstrual hygiene across the country. And that’s where I went wrong!

One day, while conducting a PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) with a group of women, a discussion on cultural practices started and women said that while menstruating, neither do they use any product nor they care about getting any stains on their dresses. During these days they prefer to stay in a fixed place and not move much. They don’t even prefer their daughters to use cloth.

I realized that until now, I was trying to prove a hypothesis which I had fixed in my mind. During our India Fellow training, in a session on rural immersion and PRA, we were told, “If you have a hypothesis already fixed in your mind, you will try to prove it anyway, and that’s the flaw of classical research. Until and unless you have validation without knowing the fact, a hypothesis cannot grow.”

It made all sense now.

The deeper I got, I found that when girls get periods in this village, they never share it with their mothers. I was surprised as I wondered if I wouldn’t tell my mother, then who else. They said that they feel shy about sharing it with the mother, so they tell it to their friends or elder sisters with whom they talk easily on these matters. More importantly, they feel that if they share it with their mothers, they will get them married sooner. Across the village, every girl felt similar. I needed to tailor a program catering to this group of girls, with respect to cultural practices being followed in the village.

As girls mostly use cloth in this area, and I was apprehensive about its usage, how could I promote it? Struggling with this dilemma, I called my mother and briefed her about the situation. She asked, “Who told you that using a cloth during menstruation is unhealthy?”, to which I replied that this is what we have been told since school. My mother said that using a cloth is never a bad idea. It’s just that people think that menstrual blood is impure, and hence after washing the cloth, they dry it in a place where no one can see it, which restrains the cloth from getting sundry and causes bacterial growth. That’s how it becomes unhygienic for reproductive health. This made me calm and gave a different perspective.

About the same time, I got to know about Eco Femme, a women-led social enterprise that aims to bring the cloth pad revolution. What attracted me most was their Pad for Pad Program, a menstrual health education and free washable cloth pad distribution program especially for adolescent girls from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in India. I got in touch with them and received a Facilitator’s Kit. They also provide a pack of 4 reusable cloth pads for each girl along with a pouch (to keep the used pad safely), which can be used for up to 2-3 years.

I conducted the first pilot session with 50 girls from my school, in the age group of 12-17. We talked about:

  • Cultural practices and beliefs around menstruation in different regions of India
  • Personal experience of first menstruation: How I felt
  • Female anatomy and menstrual cycle, as most girls think that the pathway of blood is the same from where we urinate.
  • Menstrual Hygiene
  • Different products used during menstruation

Girls took a pledge saying, “I promise to speak out about menstruation and share what I have learned with at least one other person”, so as to pass on the same knowledge to other girls and women of the village and help them empower. In the end, girls were gifted a pack of Eco Femme reusable cloth pads each.

The next session was scheduled with 30 girls in Mandwa village of Kotda where one of my co-fellows is working. They also had a similar set of beliefs and practices. Most surprising was that, before the session, my survey in school showed that there are only 4-5 girls who have started menstruating, but during our workshop, about 20 girls stood up. The apprehension was visible, and that’s why we need to build an environment to talk about these sensitive issues.

The pads distributed can be used for a long run (3-4 years), but to make this a continuous practice, Ecofemme also promotes women to stitch their own cloth pad. For this, they had provided us with the sewing kit and a video with simple instructions. I taught more than 40 girls to stitch their own pad and they found it so easy that they now stitch pads at home for their sisters.

I can say for myself as well that from having apprehensiveness about using Cloth during menstruation, to transforming my practices of using a Reusable Cloth Pad, all the credit goes to Eco Femme.
To conclude, killing the taboo around period is important But, holding a sanitary pad on social media is not an answer to it, simply because social media is a tool for educated urban people. The issue which we are trying to address is essentially an evil prevalent in rural and backward areas of India. One should also keep in mind what exactly are we promoting. It is estimated that around 432 million disposable pads are used each month across India. The challenges here is that they are almost entirely plastic, and take an estimated 500-800 years to biodegrade!

Many people think incinerating, or burning them can make used pads ‘disappear.’ Instead, it produces toxic ash. If the plastic polymer is not burned at an appropriate temperature (above 800 degrees Celsius), they release asphyxiates and irritant gases into the atmosphere. Now, if we talk about rural areas, there is no waste management system and disposing of plastic sanitary pads causes more hazard to the environment.

Distributing pads or promoting them is not the end solution to this issue. We need to understand the real nuances of a cultural practice being followed in a community and then tailor a program where women get to know the issue and educate themselves about menstruation. Solutions designed should be eco-friendly, sustainable and easy to scale.


Rajasthan to distribute free sanitary pads in rural areas

Over 16 lakh teenage girls to be provided with sanitary pads in Rajasthan

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  1. adrijachaudhuri

    Your article is so insightful Deepshikha! Recently, as I have come across alternate menstrual habits and practices, I have begun to question what passes as accepted wisdom among urban women: that pads are the best option. I had so many doubts about this before your post cleared them up and gave me many other perspectives on the issue. Was wondering what other, eco-friendly technologies can be introduced among urban and rural women: do you think something like the menstrual cup could work?

    • Deepshikha Chhetri

      Thank you Adrija. 🙂

      Definitely cups are the best option and has long term benefits. The only issue is of the cost. Also, it takes time to get habitual of it but for sure this can be done as a pilot on rural women.

  2. Kiran Kumar

    Nice article yaar menstrual knowledge is very important,impressed

    • Deepshikha Chhetri

      Thankyou Kiran. 🙂


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