December 29th, 2016
Today we met with Ms. Laxmi Murthy and members of both Vikalp Design (http://www.vikalpdesign.com) and Jatan Sansthan (http://www.jatansansthan.org)
to discuss their work in education on reproductive health, particularly menstruation, with young people in Rajasthan.
We dove immediately into talking about UGER (meaning a new beginning), a reusable feminine pad. UGER has a clever and well thought out design. The inner layer is white, to allow women to track any changes in the color of their discharge, and alert them as to when they need to consult a doctor, or wash their cloth. There are two snap buttons, so that UGER may rest securely attached to underwear. In addition, UGER is made of several layers, so it easily expands when hung to dry quickly and completely. During education seminars, women are taught how to make and hand sew their own reusable pads, so that they may become self-sustaining, free from buying more and more.
Even with this practical design, UGER, like many reusable products, is a hard sell. It requires care and maintenance as opposed to disposable products that require very little. In addition, the middle and upper class are not using UGER, so villagers have little desire to: it is not an “aspirational product.”
Before pads became available in villages, cloths with sand or ash (to provide absorbency) were used to trap menstrual flow. But, now, pads are widely available in villages. Companies (such as P&G) often come in and distribute free samples, perhaps a month or two of free supplies. This is not a selfless act, as women quickly become dependent on them. From there on out, women will spend a hefty percentage of their little pocket money on disposable feminine products. Due to the cost of disposable products, women use the products hours past the recommended duration, increasing the risk of infection and other health risks.
In addition to the financial cost of disposable products, the plastic from disposable products has a huge environmental effect. In rural villages, with no formal garbage disposal, the plastic accumulates. It is put with other waste (though most of the other waste is organic: food scraps and feces) into the fields, reducing crop yields. It is burnt, releasing carcinogens. It may also be eaten by cattle, bloating their stomachs as they are unable to pass it through. Many cattle, fat with plastic, become unable to have calves or produce milk.
Ms. Murthy argues that for UGER to have an effect in rural villages, it needs to also be accepted by the middle and upper class (within the upper and middle class, 6-10% of all waste generated is from disposable feminine products). To make such a change, education is crucial.
In India, there is no government supported sex education within the schools, and conversations on sex and reproductive health at home are often non-existent or vague. There are many negative health consequences that stem from this lack of conversation, and many myths surrounding menstruation; for example, if you see a pad, you are likely to be bitten by a snake. Not surprisingly, this contributes to the resistance of reusable pads. Women are hesitant to let their pads dry in the sun; instead, they are often not completely dried and stored in women-only spaces (domestic spaces that often include types of human and animal waste). These myths can lead to poor hygiene, and ultimately create shame around a natural and inevitable process. This shame, often the straw the breaks the camels back: attendance of young girls in school plummets once they reach puberty (if you’re interested in this topic, check out this article for a concise summary and recently released study ok attendance after education and distribution of reusable pads: http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/12/28/506472549/does-handing-out-sanitary-pads-really-get-girls-to-stay-in-school).
Because of this, work is done to reduce the shame associated with menstruation. My favorite of these campaigns is a “Break the Silence” bracelet. Women make their own bracelet to represent their own cycle: they pick a red bead for each day of their own period, then complete the bracelet up to 28 beads with yellow beads.
I think of my experience with menstruation in the United States. It is a topic I avoid with male members of my family (in fact, the only time it is discussed is when my brother calls me a “monstrator,” a hideous reflection of the perception that all of my moods are controlled by my hormones), with my male friends. It is a private affair I am expected to deal with quietly; I should not inconvenience anyone with the knowledge of my body’s natural processes or the waste from my menstruation.
I also think (and continue to now, typing this) about if I would adopt this product…how hypocritical of me to sit here and endorse it, if I would continue to rip open a new tampon every day of my period. So, I bought a pack of UGER panty liners. I think I will experiment with the biodegradable tampons without plastic applicators I have leftover from a backpacking trip, and perhaps try a Diva cup.
In addition to menstruation, a lot of effort also goes into safe sex education. There are trainings, for both young men and women, on contraception, disease, pregnancy and abortion. Symbols and diagrams are important here, as it is crucial to provide understanding to people with a range of literacy skills. However, Ms. Murthy discovered early in her career that there was no such thing as a universal symbol. An “X” to us means no or wrong, but she tells us people in the village interpret it as two crossed sticks. In addition, we may wrongly assume people understand a check mark as good or acceptable, as it is often interpreted as a ladle or another kitchen tool within the village. To combat this, Ms. Murthy asked the villagers to draw their representations of things and ideas. Below are two examples, from their website.
She now refines and uses these symbols, generated by the villagers, to maximize understanding. In addition to being aware of the interpretation of visual aids, it is also important to consider the backlash experienced when children bring informative phamplets with nude illustrations home to conservative parents. Often, the educators will use audio presentations to avoid this problem. In addition, “pop up” books have been created, leaving the character clothed the majority of the demonstration, with a peak of what’s below only when needed. In this way, the modest culture is respected, while still providing accurate information to students.
Uday pointed out during our meeting that UGER faces a lot of the same problems as improved cookstoves do. Both technologies would provide tremendous benefits if adopted, but experience failure after failure. Both aim to relieve seemingly simple problems, but encounter interconnected webs of social justice, gender, and environmental degradation. Both challenge and aim to alter years of tradition and societal norms. Both try to promote a product that is not aspirational and not used by the middle or upper class (women in the villages want disposable products and gas stoves, not reusable pads and solar cookers).
Personally, I think both are also extremely hypocritical. We promote these products abroad, yet, in the United States we use disposable products and seem to have a separate kitchen appliance for everything type of cooking (one cookstove vs. a microwave, stove, oven, toaster, electric tea kettle, etc. most Americans have). We aim to reduce the carbon footprint of the most marginalized, without trying to change our own.
I am learning a lot about and in India: the culture, the environment, gender inequalities, methods of cooking. But, I am also learning a lot about myself. I am learning that I too have a lot of work to do to reduce my impact on the Earth, that in these matters only a “we,” not just an “I” or a “them,” will do.