A group of women in India are pushing back against the shame and stigma that keeps them out of school and work for up to 5 days every month.
Abhijan Barua finds out more from the issue in the eastern city of Kolkata.
In Kolkata’s slums, old cloths are hung out in cramped homes. Too embarrassed to hang them outside, they stay damp.
Women who can’t afford to buy sanitary pads use these old rags over and over again, from one month to the next.
Shubhadra Kayal is a domestic worker in her mid-40s. On her modest income, she can’t afford sanitary pads, and uses these rags instead. In Kolkata’s humid heat, that’s caused her problems.
“I had an infection. The doctor told me. But we don’t understand these things,” she said. “Maybe it lasts for say, up to 2 months. I’ve suffered from this for about 2 years at a time. Suffered a lot. Even had to stop working.”
80 percent of Indian women don’t use sanitary pads, according to USAID.
Instead, re-used cloths are washed in cold water, and used when still damp, breeding infections and sores.
UNICEF research shows 28 percent of school girls stay home when they are menstruating. Indian women also miss up to 5 days of work a month, because of lack of access to hygienic facilities, or because of shame and embarrassment around menstruation.
It means women in the country are missing out on an education and an income.
Money is one barrier, but it’s not the only problem.
“It’s not that I’m not using pads due to financial constraints, that is not the main reason,” explained Swapna Tripathi of women’s advocacy organisation Srishti.
“It’s this ancient mindset of thinking you’re a woman, and you should be ashamed if you get your period. You’re a woman, at this time, you have to remain in the corner of the house. You can’t leave the house,” she said.
6 in every 10 women are excluded from religious rituals when they are menstruating, according to UNICEF.
The Give Her 5 campaign says it has a solution.
Working with 11 NGOs, the campaign is distributing a reusable sanitary pad called the Saafkin.
“We provide a set of two so she has two for the day and much of the night,” said Shivany Swamy. “There’s a quick dry technology inbuilt so it’ll be dry by the next use. It can be used for 12 hours and then washed and reused 70 times.”
Two Saafkins cost 150 rupees, or just under USD$2.50, and they can be used for over a year. That’s about equal to just one month’s supply of disposable sanitary pads.
The campaign is active in western, central, eastern and northern parts of India, and there are plans to expand.
But Preeti Gaikward from the Watershed Organization Trust – Give Her 5’s partner NGO – says while distribution has been met with a largely positive response from women as well as men, there are still basic hurdles to overcome.
“They are very shy and they are not asking to go to the shop and purchase that Saafkin,” she said.
Other initiatives are dotted across India, distributing products like reusable menstrual cups, and raising awareness in rural corners of the country.
These campaigns are working with the Indian government to raise awareness and accessibility.
But Swapna Tripathi says the taboo surrounding menstruation makes their job difficult.
“This women’s issue is still a hidden subject. This is harming women the most,” she stated. “Even today, our society, our offices and courts, everyone feels this is a secret, and talking about it is shameful.”
In July the Indian government raised taxes on sanitary pads, marking them a luxury item, making sanitary pads more expensive than ever.
Shivany Swamy says for any change to be possible, a fundamental attitude shift is needed across the entire country.