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  • Writer's pictureAzera Rahman

Sewing their way to a sustainable menstruation

Updated: Apr 28, 2022


  • The usage of safe menstrual products, such as sanitary napkins, in India, has increased, shows data.

  • Improper menstrual waste management however is a rising concern. The total menstrual waste load generated in India is estimated to be 1 billion pads per month.

  • Cloth pads are emerging as an affordable and eco-friendly option. In rural areas, cloth pads are easier to transition to because women have already been using cloth, but not in the safest way so far.

Almost like in an advertisement for a sanitary napkin company, Chandramani Devi of Bihar’s Sitamarhi district said she felt ‘liberated’ after using cloth pads during her menstrual cycle. “It’s a more comfortable and safer choice, now that I know about menstrual hygiene,” the 38-year-old said. It is also an affordable option. “I make the cloth pads at home, using material easily available around me,” she added, a hint of achievement lining her voice, “Not everyone has the resources to buy a pack of napkins every month. But this, we can afford.”

Cloth pads are emerging as a successful menstrual hygiene product particularly in rural India where they replace scraps of cloth that women usually use as absorbent during their menstrual cycle. Not only is this good news for women’s health but also for the environment, since it’s a sustainable choice.

Menstrual Hygiene Management is crucial to a woman’s health and there has been a lot of push, both from the government as well as from non-governmental organisations, to encourage women into adopting safe hygiene practices during their menstrual cycle. One of these practices is the use of safe menstrual products, like sanitary napkins, menstrual cups, cloth pads, and the likes. According to the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 data, in the period 2019-21, the percentage of women aged 15-24 years who use hygienic methods of protection during their menstrual cycle is 89.4 percent in urban areas and 72.3 percent in rural areas — a rise from 77.3 percent and 57.6 percent respectively and as recorded in NFHS-4 (2015-16).

This implies that there is growing awareness among women about menstrual health. The central government also implemented tax exemptions on sanitary pads and tampons in July 2018, making menstrual products more affordable.

Better choices for body and environment

Menstrual waste management, however, is a different story.

According to the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, if one were to estimate 36 percent women in the reproductive age group in India to be using disposable sanitary napkins — with an average eight napkins per cycle — then the total menstrual waste load generated is 1 billion pads per months, or 12 billion per year.

Under the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, menstrual hygiene products are categorised as dry waste and there are rules in place for both consumers and manufacturers regarding disposal that are aimed at sustainability. On ground, practice of these rules, however, is still not widespread.

One-time use disposable pads take 800-900 years to decompose; one-time use compostable products take three-six months to decompose. Reusable products such as cloth pads, menstrual cups can be used over a longer time and take one-ten years to decompose once discarded.

While sustainable options like menstrual cups are making their way into urban areas, a number of NGOs and start-ups are teaching women in rural areas to make cloth pads that are an affordable, and environmentally sustainable option.

Popular perception paints the usage of cloth as a bad practice during menstruation, when it’s not the cloth that is unsafe per se, but the way it is used that is the problem. Pallavi Sinha, co-founder of Nav Astitva Foundation in Bihar which sensitises women on menstrual hygiene and trains them on making cloth pads, said that the taboo associated with menstruation is one of the biggest roadblocks in ensuring menstrual hygiene. “Instead of washing the menstrual cloth properly and then drying it in the sun, women dry them in some dark corner of the room where no one can see it. Thatis unhygienic,” Sinha said, “We sensitise women that cloth must be washed properly with an antiseptic or detergent, and the dried in the sun before use.” With this in mind, cloth pads can therefore be a safe, sustainable, convenient and cost-effective option. Chandramani, who started making these pads after such a training, said that she stitches together nine layers of cotton cloth, shaped in the form of a sanitary pad, and puts a Velcro (hook and loop fastner) strip behind so that it can be stuck to the underwear. “Now I no longer feel nervous that the cloth will shift if I walk fast!” she said.

NGO Goonj trains women to make cloth pads out of surplus cloth, thus also helping manage textile waste. Photo courtesy Goonj.

Laad Lohar of Ramnagar in Rajasthan’s Udaipur spearheads a similar initiative of making reusable sanitary pads out of cloth and banana fibre, fuelled by the realisation that a lot of young girls drop out of school once they attain menarche because they don’t have access to proper menstrual products. Her motto, she said, is to address the twin concerns of access and affordability of safe menstrual products. “A lot of young girls in my community were not aware of sanitary napkins in the market and those who did, could not afford them. Hence, usage of rags, leaves were common,” she said, thus starting her own venture under the name Kamakhya and now teaches women in her village how to make reusable pads.

Transitioning to cloth pads, for a woman who has used cloth pieces earlier, as is the case in rural areas, is also easier, feels Sinha.

Meenakshi Gupta of Goonj, another NGO that also trains women to make cloth pads, went on to add that since their pads are made of surplus cloth, they help manage textile waste and are therefore sustainable in ways more than one. “Not just in rural areas, many urban women — domestic workers, cleaners, migrant construction workers — cannot afford disposable sanitary napkins. The cloth pads we make, called MY Pad, are simple to make and offer a convenient, sustainable, affordable, and safe way to manage their menstruation,” she said. More than two metres of shredded cloth is used to make a pack of five MY Pads. More than 40 lakh (four million) such pads have been distributed across India, which means more than eight lakh (800,000) metres of discarded cloth has been put to use instead of ending up in landfills.

Most reusable, cloth pads seem expensive, costing about Rs. 35, or more, a piece, while disposable napkins cost around Rs 5-12 per piece. However, since the former is reusable, they can be used over several weeks and turn out to be more affordable. Chandramani who is trained by Nav Astitva Foundation in Bihar, said that she sells the cloth pads at Rs 5 per piece, a small amount since she has just started out. “I can stitch about 10 pads in a day, after doing the household chores,” she added. Her neighbour, Anju, similarly said that she makes these pads at home for herself as well as for her daughter, married and settled in another village.

Banner image: More than two metres of shredded cloth is used to make a pack of five cloth pads made by women trained by NGO Goonj. Photo courtesy Goonj.

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