“Don’t enter the temple if you are on your periods.” “Don’t touch the pickle if you are menstruating.” “Your mother can’t enter the kitchen, she is ‘dirty’ right now,” these are some of the common things most girls and women across India have heard growing up. While menstruation is a natural body process that women undergo, it is a topic discussed in hushed tones even today, thus contributing to the taboo attached to it. From wrapping sanitary pads in newspapers and brown-paper bags to hiding them in black polythene bags, everything related to menstruation is deemed as the elephant in the room – something that has been turned a blind eye to, for a bit too long. While Arunachalam Muruganantham, on whom the movie PadMan was based, did his bit to change the narrative, Anurag Chauhan and Amol Prakash Mane are two other men whose contributions towards spreading awareness about menstruation, is no less significant.
According to a survey conducted by World Health Organization (WHO), 70 per cent of all reproductive diseases in India are believed to be caused by poor menstrual hygiene. While many women are yet to have proper access to hygienic conditions during menstruation, chemical sanitary pads (that a lot of women heavily rely on) are also known to cause various diseases, including serious ones like diabetes, allergies, and skin reactions.
Like Muruganantham, the inventor of a low-cost sanitary pad, Chauhan and Mane are among those working towards debunking the taboos around menstruation, spreading awareness and providing sustainable (and healthy) alternatives to cheminal sanitary pads. On the occasion of World Menstruation Day, we bring to you the stories of these two men and their progressive efforts in the arena of women’s health.
“Talking about menstruation with women is as difficult as talking about sex,” said Anurag Chauhan, founder of the NGO Humans For Humanity (HFH). The 23-year-old, who started his NGO in 2014, was moved by an article written about deaths caused due to lack of menstruation hygiene. “I read an article, which said that about 1,50,000 women are dying because of menstrual problems. I wondered that if I today shoot 20 women, it will become world news but here where so many women are dying no one is really bothered about it.”
Chauhan who has a Bachelors degree in social work, had to face the harsh reality of how women in rural areas only knew of unhygienic and fatal menstrual customs. “A lot of them used sand, ash, jute bags, cloth. Anything that would absorb liquid was used as a substitute for napkins.” he said.
In an urge to spread awareness, Chauhan started WASH — Women, Sanitation, Hygiene (2015), a three-year-old pilot project that works towards educating women about menstrual hygiene, providing them sanitary napkins and also teaching how to make them. “Menstruation is not a problem but poor menstrual hygiene is. Many rural women do not know how to deal with it and how to keep themselves clean. Our role is to tell them what this is and how to deal with it. We give them free sanitary napkins and then give them another workshop to show them how to make it.” This also helps the women inculcate entrepreneurship qualities within themselves and become self-dependent.
The organisation makes hand-made sanitary napkins using cotton cloth and distributes them for free in urban slums as well as in rural settlements. They conduct workshops led by doctors and volunteers in various government schools and colleges.
During a recent session in Rajasthan, the organisation debunked a major taboo by conducting the workshop inside a temple. WASH approached the gram pradhan (village council) of Awahar Nagar Basti, Jaipur. “When we approached her, she initially suggested we use a school as the premise, but surprisingly, eventually conceded to holding the discussion at a temple, which is a significant milestone, when it comes to talking about menstruation.”
Getting the women to attend the session was, however, more difficult than convincing the village council head. “One woman agreed but the others, many of whom were menstruating at that time, refused to go there. The young girls and daughters of these women then took the lead to convince them and thus, brought them to the temple.” he said.
With over 50 women in attendance, the workshop turned out to be a success. An achievement nonetheless, for Chauhan, meanwhile, this is just the tip of the iceberg. “We broke a taboo for that community, we are yet to do that for communities across India,” said Chauhan, clearly indicating that there is still a long way to go.
“In the present day, it is important for health care providers to stress the need for girls and women to not ostracise themselves from regular activities during their periods. It is essential that girls at a young age are taught how to contain menstrual blood and how to dispose them properly as well. Lack of awareness and ignorance can cause infection in the private parts,” says Dr Gayathri Kamath, consultant obstetrician and gynecologist, Fortis Hospitals, Bangalore.
While the distressing condition of women’s menstrual hygiene egged Chauhan towards the cause, for Amol Prakash Mane, founder of DEA Corp, the motivation was his two elder sisters and college friends. “Growing with two elder sisters helped me understand the surface of it, but I still wouldn’t know the exact terminology or the science behind it. It was only when I joined college, I came to know about the process of menstruation in detail.”
The company which is based out of Vapi, Gujarat, introduced its range of menstrual cups, to advocate reusable menstrual hygiene practices in the country. While the idea had popped-up back in 2006, it culminated into a reality in 2015.
“As a young adult, while I knew roughly about the apparatuses women use during their menstrual periods, I wondered about what are the different alternatives they could use. Eventually when terms like menstrual cups started popping up in my research, I realised that this wasn’t a choice for women in India, because it was unavailable,” he said, claiming that menstrual cups were not in sale in India in 2015.
Available at reasonable prices, these cups are sterilised and reusable. And unlike, sanitary napkins, do not have components of chemical plastic in them, thus making them environment-friendly as well.
Given the healthy and sustainable option that a menstrual cup is as compared to chemical sanitary napkins, Mane took it upon himself to research on and develop menstrual cups. And his wife Smita Mane got to be the first user.
“While the insertion was uncomfortable for her on the first day, once she got involved in her daily routine work she realised that she did not even feel she was wearing it. That it turned out to be comfortable and less messy for her, motivated me further,” he said. Mane further tested the reliability of the product by making his wife run, jog and swim after wearing the cup.
The young founder along with his wife and a team of five women faced many obstacles while approaching women across Vapi to explain why they should use menstrual cups — a concept they were not previously familiar with. They launched the groundwork at an English-medium school in Vapi in January 2018, where over 200 girls were given a brief not only about menstrual cups but also menstruation in general. These cups are 100 percent silicone and medically approved, said Mane. They also come in two sizes — for pre and post pregnancy.
“We go about this by first explaining how menstruation is considered a taboo or disease in India. After this, we inform them about the available menstruation hygiene products in the market, then talk about the pros and cons of those products – sanitary pads, tampons and other clothing material. And then we introduce menstrual cups and its many advantages.”
Mane, who is the only male member in his team, aims to educate not only the rural population, but also various departments such as the Police, BSP and other para-military forces where women undergo vigorous training and physical exercise.
“The cups can be used for 10-12 hours and would be beneficial for all the ladies particularly those working in any of the forces. For World Menstruation Day, we plan to give out free cups for women police officials here.”
With a shelf-life of over 10 years, Mane feels that menstrual cups are a perfect way of not just empowering women but also increasing their involvement in the cleanliness drive as on an average, one woman produces 150 kg of disposable sanitary waste in her lifetime, with each sanitary pad taking 500–800 years to decompose.
“Lack of awareness is quite rampant in the rural areas. Poverty, overwork, lack of education and basic needs are the probable reasons for a higher incidence in the rural areas, women in urban areas seem to be more aware, thanks to the networking of women and media as well,” says Dr Kamath.