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Photo: The Desai Foundation

A new Bollywood movie put periods on the big screen, but battling widespread myths and superstitions around menstruation is much harder

Shrouded in myths and taboos, menstruation is a difficult subject in India. Studies suggest that 200 million women lack awareness of menstrual hygiene, and many don’t have access to toilets during their periods, let alone sanitary products like pads or tampons. In some areas, even discussing menstruation is anathema, silencing an entire gender into shame.

So, when I heard that Pad Man, a biopic celebrating the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who sparked a minor revolution in menstrual hygiene, was coming to mainstream cinema, it seemed like an enormous step. The movie would tell his story, I read. It would talk about what led him to invent a machine to mass-produce affordable sanitary pads in rural India, and in doing so, it would talk about menstruation openly, in a raw, unsophisticated manner, without resorting to shabby innuendo or weak euphemism.

But as the release date drew near, the #PadManChallenge began to crop up online. This trending hashtag saw celebrities holding up sanitary pads alongside glib captions denouncing the shame attached to menstruation, hygiene products and women’s periods in general. They would then go on to vouch for the movie and its commitment to talk about menstruation unabashedly.Full marks for good intentions, but none for sensitivity or nuance. On the one hand, celebrities (men and women alike) were using their positions of influence to push the dialogue around women’s issues into mainstream channels of communication. But as the hashtag grew to enormous numbers and spread to include movie stars, industrialists, professional athletes and socialites, the exercise also resulted in a colossal waste of sanitary napkins. In marketing the movie and promoting this message, they’d completely missed the point of the film itself.

For Arunachalam Muruganantham, India’s real Pad Man, his moment of awakening occurred with the simple act of buying his wife a packet of sanitary napkins in an effort to impress her. Shanthi was on her period, shamefully hiding a piece of menstrual cloth (that she would fold many times over and use to line her underwear) from her husband, when he questioned her about it.

“We’ll have to cut our milk budget, if I have to use sanitary napkins,” she said, revealing the bleak reality that she and other women in the family were forced to choose between buying food and sanitary products.

Fifty-seven percent of menstruating women in India, face similar choices and have to get by without access to sanitary pads. Some studies report that as many as 200 million Indian women lack awareness of menstrual hygiene, and 39 percent of girls don’t have access to soap for washing their menstrual cloth. In some areas, even cloth is hard to come by, and women resort to using hay, dry leaves or unhygienic plastic. Wateraid’s Menstrual Hygiene Matters report states that 20 percent of women lack access to a clean toilet during their periods.

If those numbers are staggering, the effects are even more so: Twenty-three percent of Indian girls between ages 12-18 drop out of school entirely when they begin menstruating, and some data shows gender disparities are exacerbated with the onset of puberty, as millions of women without access to comfortable and dignified menstrual hygiene management are forced to skip opportunities to work or pursue further education. Perhaps this has contributed to declining female participation in labor force in rural India, year over year.

These numbers point to a crucial need to build awareness around sanitation, menstrual hygiene and women’s reproductive health, and to elevate menstrual hygiene on the government’s priority list.

In 2017, India rolled out the Goods and Service Tax, lauded as a revolutionary shift in the country’s taxation structure that would benefit consumers by providing a singular transparent tax system. Where women are concerned, it exempts products like bindis, kajal and sindoor (used to indicate marriage), but continues to heavily tax essentials like sanitary napkins. Unsurprisingly, the 31-member Goods and Services Tax Council that decided the exemptions doesn’t have a single woman on it.

The Desai Foundation creates manufacturing facilities in rural communities, giving women access to employment and menstrual pads. The Desai Foundation

This is the reality in large parts of India where pioneers like Arunachalam Muruganantham and others operate, an India far removed from the one occupied by the privileged, elitist movie industry.

However, there are several organizations trying to take the spirit of Murguanantham’s work forward, provide workable solutions and empower women to take control of their menstrual health, including Aakar Innovations, Goonj (Not Just A Piece of Cloth), Azadi and the Desai Foundation.

The Desai Foundation calls itself a “public and programmatic organization” and works in the areas of health and livelihood as a means to empower women and children in India and the U.S. Asani, meaning Ease, is their sanitary pad program, currently run in 52 rural communities in the western state of Gujarat. The program is committed to destigmatizing menstruation, improving access to sanitary pads and enabling women to take charge of their own health and hygiene.  

Megha Desai, president of the Desai Foundation, touches on the aspect of dignity a central to the work that they do. “Our channels are essentially health and employment, but the currency we work with is dignity. Elevating communities in terms of their dignity is key, and women are crucial to this effort because when they thrive, their communities do too.”

The foundation provides access to machinery to manufacture low-cost, almost fully-biodegradable sanitary napkins and creates rural social entrepreneurship that centers around women as employees and managers.

“We want women to really feel empowered through and through, and helping them build this as a part of their community, as a service being provided for and by them does that,” says Desai.

Taking on the traditional patriarchal family, where men have the power to bring about or withhold change, Asani employs women in their factories, not only providing avenues for income growth and independence for women, but allowing them to reclaim control over their bodies, their health and their choices. The program also conducts regular health camps and seminars where women talk about sex, reproductive management and menstrual protection, thereby fighting regressive beliefs and challenging deep-rooted cultural taboos and superstitions associated with menstruation. Bringing women and men together to openly talk about menstruation goes a long way in breaking the taboo around the topic, too.

Speaking about the Pad Man film and accompanying social media challenge, Desai is optimistic. “I am so thrilled that there is so much energy around this movie. I think any conversation around menstrual health helps to break the cloud of silence. So I was happy to see the campaign where celebrities were coming together and showing that they aren’t ashamed to talk about periods. It makes me hopeful that people are starting to see this as a basic human right. I hope that the energy and support for this issues continues long after the movie.”

That lasting change is also part of Desai’s goals for her foundation’s work. “Our long-term vision is to get the system to be sustainable, so it can run on its own. We want the women to take it on, so we can bow out. They’re capable of such greatness, but they don’t know it. It’s about showing them what they can do.”

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