India needs a mass shift to reusable options to ensure affordable and sustainable menstrual hygiene for all. The disposable pads currently in vogue are not only unaffordable for most women, they are also an environmental disaster in the making. This was said, ahead of the World Menstrual Hygiene Day, by Anju Bist, Co-Director of Amrita Self Reliant Village Program run by Mata Amritanandamayi Math. Known as the “Pad Woman of India,” she is the person behind the award-winning Saukhyam menstrual pads made of cloth and banana fibre.
Earlier this year, Niti Aayog selected Saukhyam for its flagship Women Transforming India award.
Disposable sanitary pads are not good for the environment. They are expensive and pose a health risk to users because of the chemicals and toxins they contain. Dioxins are found in trace amounts on many disposable sanitary pads. These are carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors. The absorbent material in most pads is made by cutting trees. Also, the recurring cost of buying disposable pads adds up to a big amount over a woman’s lifetime. Reusable pads have none of these disadvantages but offer the same functionality, and hence need to become mainstream. “To popularise reusable pads, these should be included in the ongoing schemes by various state government of free distribution in schools. This would reduce the financial burden on the governments too, as reusable pads cost only about one-tenth the amount if the recurring cost of disposables is taken into account. Reusable pads need to be made available in rural areas on priority due to the prevalence of poor menstrual hygiene,” said Anju Bist.
“Poor menstrual hygiene is associated with developing several infections like reproductive and urinary tract infections, fungal infections, aerobic and anaerobic infections and even Hepatitis B. Reusable pads can go a long way in enabling women from poor background and rural areas to maintain menstrual hygiene. These are light weight, easy to wear, rash free, non-allergic and free of harmful chemicals,” said Dr. Radhamani K, Head, Dept. of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Amrita School of Medicine, Kochi.
Once a woman uses reusable pads, there is no going back. Talking about her experience with Saukhyam pads, she said: “We are seeing a definite increase in use of reusable pads over the last few years. Most of the customers are millennials. The younger millennials are buying these pads for themselves, while the older ones are buying for their daughters too. The first thing that most users experience is complete freedom from rashes, and even easing of period cramps over time. Since reusable pads have no chemicals or toxins, the period experience becomes much easier and wholesome for women.”
Anju Bist added: “The first 1-3 months are crucial when users are trying to make the switch to reusable pads from disposables. For those who are successfully make this shift, the user experience is far better compared to disposables. Most women do not return to disposables once they experience the comfort of reusable pads.” A study published last year in BMC Women’s Health based found more than 77% acceptability among women users in India for reusable pads. Considering their increasing popularity, India last year notified ISO standards for reusable pads.
Dispelling the misconceptions regarding hygiene of reusable pads, Anju Bist said that so long as one cares for them in the correct manner, such as washing after every use and drying completely before storing for next use, reusable pads are totally hygienic to use. “These are not very different from the undergarments we use. We tested the microbial load on a brand new and a reused pad and found no significant difference between them,” she added.
Saukhyam Pads, launched in 2017, are the world’s first reusable pad brand which uses banana fibre, one of the most absorbent materials found in nature. It has the capacity to absorb up to six times its dry weight, making Saukhyam pads super-absorbent. More than 500,000 Saukhyam pads have been sold till now, which is helping prevent the emission of 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually. This has also additionally eliminated 43,750 tons of non-biodegradable menstrual waste from the planet. Saukhyam began as a research project in Amrita University and is now a full-fledged social enterprise.
Said Anju Bist: “Due to growing demand, we are now scaling up production of Saukhyam pads. We currently have a presence in eight states including Kerala, UP, Bihar, Jammu, Uttarakhand, Punjab, West Bengal and Odisha. Most of our sales happen online and through our rural resellers. This year, we are expecting a revenue of over ₹ 1 crore from the sale of Saukhyam pads.”
Taking about the challenges in achieving universal menstrual hygiene in India, Dr. Radhamani K said:
“The main issues are lack of awareness about reusable pads and limited access. Gender inequality, cultural taboos and poverty also cause menstrual health needs to go unmet. Menstrual cups are popular reusable options also that are seeing a great deal of traction. For young girls whose bodies are still developing, reusable pads are however the better choice.”
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