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Pad-Vending Machines Are Not the Answer to Lack of Menstrual Hygiene Awareness. Here’s Why.

In early March this year, key stakeholders in the sector of reproductive health from across the world lauded the movie ‘Period. End of a Sentence’ for winning an Oscar in the documentary category. That a movie about menstruation hogged the limelight and ACTUALLY won an Oscar made several people raise their brows. We at Hygiene and You are clearly elated about the movie creating ripples in the film world. We love that conversations around periods are becoming mainstream and that the world is becoming more accepting of normal female biological processes. However, it’s time to spare a thought to the nature of conversations that are being precipitated in the hoopla around the movie.

‘Period. End of a Sentence’ winning the Oscar is not the first phenomenon to raise such questions. Last year, we had the release of the Akshay Kumar-starrer ‘Padman’. Social media campaigns populated the Internet space, and women posed with their pads as they took up the #padmanchallenge. The government even roped in Akshay Kumar for their public service sanitary pad ads and announcements; we are now forced to watch him peddle around the wrong message before the start of every movie. Thanks, PSAs!

So, what’s the problem?

If I had to TL;DR it, movies like ‘Padman’ and ‘Period. End of a Sentence’ offer a simplistic solution to fairly complex problems. Here are a few inherent problems that beg to be deconstructed:

  • They are movies: Honest to god, this is the very first point that needs to be considered. When movies about seemingly real-life situations and social initiatives are made, those watching them assume that this is the ground reality. I have no problems pandering to the suspension of disbelief while watching an action movie where superheroes miraculously fall from a skyscraper and are completely unhurt. But, this doesn’t hold water for a movie about social issues as people tend to think this is the modus operandi of rural India. As someone who is actively working in the field, let me tell you that the ground reality is entirely different. There is no one solution that works for all, nor does everything change magically with the introduction of a new product. And Akshay Kumar will not pop up with a pad (of really questionable quality) when you desperately need one. 
  • Providing pads is not the answer: Yes, you heard us right. The deep-rooted problems that women face in rural or urban areas cannot be wished away by providing pads. Politicians believe that just providing pads will solve the problems that womenfolk face. What about problems such as lack of knowledge about female reproductive health, menstruation, pregnancy, STDs, etc?

I remember talking to a girl from one of the government schools in rural Bangalore. The girls of the school got a specified number of pads from the government programme every month. However, they weren’t told anything about periods, or about how to even use the disposable pads. The girl in question simply used one pad for more than 12 hours as no one had told her to do otherwise. She was shocked to learn that one must change a disposable pad at least once every 4-5 hours to prevent infections and rashes.

Also, what are the solutions to other problems that girls and women face during their periods like lack of clean water and lack of toilets in schools and workplaces?

  • Is anyone thinking of the quality of the pads? The quality of pads that movies like ‘Padman’ and ‘Period. End of a Sentence’ espouse is indubitably questionable.

    ‘Padman’ talks about Arunachalam Muruganantham’s story of making low-cost pads. The documentary talks about setting up one of Muruganantham’s pad-making machines. But let’s remember that cheaper is not always better.  While everyone is going gung-ho about the wonders of the pad-making machine, it has been noted that the pads are of deplorable quality. In fact, we have heard that the pads start to disintegrate while one is still wearing it. Aiming for low-cost inventions should not come at the cost of compromised quality. Investing in sustainable products of better quality that can last for years is the way forward.

  • Has anyone even thought about disposal? Any solution proposed for eradicating period poverty must provide a proper plan for disposal. Our founder Priyanka Nagpal Jain has one important question to ask: where is the space to dispose of pads used by menstruating Indian women if 100% use pads? You may say, there are incinerators. Why not use them?

Let me entertain you with a little story. I once went to a government school in the heart of Bangalore to conduct an MHM session. All went well until we came to the topic of disposal. The class leader offered to show us the arrangement they had for it. She ushered us into a damp, dark bathroom in back alleys of the school. We had to waddle through mud, slush, and water to reach the bathroom. Once in, she showed us the incinerator that was mounted on one side of the wall. It was connected to a power socket. The incinerator had been sponsored by a local volunteer group and cost around Rs. 1 Lakh. Suitably impressed, I asked her to show how it works. She fumbled for a bit and then said the girls barely use it. Why? Because there is no power most of the times to have the incinerator run. Also, the girls were never taught how to use it; the 1-lakh gadget sat there prettily without being used.

What is a Plausible Solution?

Any proffered solution that does consider problems at the ground level is only creating more problems to solve than solve existing ones. Changes have to be brought in at the levels of policy and decision-making. MHM education and sex education are as important (or more important, actually) as physics, biology, or English. The movies want to make India a 100% napkin-using country. In the quest for this, we don’t have to forget our roots of using cloth; we only need to promote proper use of cloth in a hygienic way, or use menstrual cups.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of hygieneandyou.com. Any omissions or errors are the author's and hygieneandyou.com does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.