Sexual Reproductive Health & Rights

Unlearning for sustainability

Posted On
Tuesday, May 8, 2018


Shama Karkal

CEO, Swasti

The signage inside ladies restrooms at Bengaluru Airport (the only one in India that I know of)- sanitary napkins available on request – makes me smile. I am thrilled by the attention to menstrual hygiene products in the past year. Whether the demand for removing the tax on san-naps during GST implementation or the murmurs generated by mainstream Bollywood movie- Padman, people are talking more openly about menstruation and hygiene products.  Menstrual health is still a taboo topic, rarely discussed, even among well-educated women, so I am totally loving the conversations so far.

I believe that unknowingly, the conversations are about choice and informed decisions. As an adolescent at menarche, I was introduced to sanitary napkins and for a large part of my adult life, I didn’t know that there were other menstrual hygiene products that I could choose from. As I look back, I find this strange as the 90s weren’t really the dark ages and I’ve been on the internet for the longest time. I’ve realized that while media of any kind will make certain types of information available easily, topics such as menstrual health or menstrual product choices aren’t.

My own journey of choice is recent –  when about five years or so ago I heard about menstrual cups. If you’d like to find out more, join the conversation at Green the Red; you’ll learn from a community of women and find out about a range of menstrual hygiene products. I also like the Hygiene and You channel on youtube, available in 4 different languages, for the products and topics discussed.

I’m an advocate of the menstrual cup but also I know that it takes time to get used to it and the mental barrier is much harder to overcome. A cloth is an easier alternative but has strong taboos associated with it. The poor village girl or woman forced to use cloth becoming empowered when they use a san-nap is a visual that most of us can relate to.

My own mental barrier to cloth was broken about 2 years ago. Aunty flow came calling late one evening, just after I had checked into a hotel in Pune. My usual supply was missing from my bags and my assumption that the swanky hotel I was in would have essential feminine hygiene supplies was misplaced. Not up for a 20-minute walk in search of a medical store, I put off the trip until the following morning, when I was driving to Mumbai, visit

I used cloth for the first time and discovered that despite the image that advertisers have burned into our brains, a cloth is definitely comfortable. Fast forward to the morning, my hunt for a medical began. On a 149 km, 2.5-hour journey from Pune to Mumbai, I couldn’t find one open medical store!  Was it was because I started the journey at six in the morning? It was only after reaching Mumbai, that I found a medical store.

Post this incident, I have stopped using sanitary napkins entirely, moving to a combination of cloth and cup. I’d encourage all women and girls to consider cloth and the cup for a safer and sustainable way to manage menstruation. By going back to the cloth, we are challenging a taboo and norm that has been created over the past few decades which has identified cloth as being inferior or only for those without means. It’s time for informed decisions about products that affect our body and planet, not based on just the market and the media.

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