Periods in India: eco-friendly alternatives to pads (2/2)

Our Observer makes videos about different types of eco-friendly menstrual pads on her YouTube channel.
Our Observer makes videos about different types of eco-friendly menstrual pads on her YouTube channel.


In the poorest regions in India, many women can’t afford sanitary napkins when they have their periods. Not only are they expensive, but they also create additional waste in a country that already has problems with pollution and rubbish. Some NGOs and start-ups are thinking outside the box to come up with other ideas for Indian women when they have their periods – options that are both affordable and environmentally friendly.

This article is the second half of our investigation on the particular challenges facing Indian women when they are menstruating. In our first article, we looked at how women who can’t afford sanitary napkins face increased health risks.

You can read it here: In India, some women use soil and ash to soak up periods

After a new 12 per cent tax was introduced in India last May, the price of sanitary napkins skyrocketed in India. Many women’s rights groups protested, saying that this could cause health risks for women who are no longer able to afford these items. However, these groups also started to campaign for easier access to cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternatives.

Disposable sanitary pads “a very lucrative business”

Our Observer, Priyanka N. Jain, 31, knows all about the negative environmental impact that disposable sanitary pads can have. She has spent the past three years trying to raise awareness about eco-friendly, reusable alternatives through her YouTube channel and her website, Hygiene and You.

For companies that make disposable pads, it is an extremely lucrative business [not only are there a lot of women in India, but because the products are disposable, women have to keep buying them]. These companies do huge marketing campaigns, claiming that the cloth that many women use to absorb their periods is unsanitary [Editor’s note: The health concern is not from the use of cloth, but when the cloth is not properly washed and dried, allowing bacteria to flourish]. These companies spread the myth that disposable pads are a perfect product and many women believe it.

“Reusable products are the better alternative”

In a video published on August 18, 2017, on YouTube, Aditi Gopinath, a young Indian woman who is a member of an association called Green the Red, which is dedicated to creating a culture of dealing with menstruation in a sustainable way, explained the social and environmental impact of widespread use of disposable pads.

These used pads are either going to end up in a landfill or they're going to be sent out to be incinerated. You're either going to send out tonnes of toxic chemicals into the atmosphere or these pads are going to take up significant amounts of space in a landfill where they're going to hang out for the next 500 to 800 years.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team chose to highlight a few different projects aimed at improving hygiene and women’s health while also reducing the environmental impact of products used for menstruation. Our team spoke with Jain about the advantages and disadvantages of each product.

Saafkins: "The best option for people with the lowest income"

Photos published on the "Give Her 5" website.

I think this is the best option for women who are extremely poor and live in rural areas. Many of these women do without underwear – it’s a luxury they can’t afford. That means that traditional pads, which you attach to underwear, don’t really work for these women. Saafkins has an elastic waist band so you don’t need to be wearing underwear. I tried it. It’s not the most comfortable option, but it is very absorbent and it’s easy to use and wash. It dries quickly. It’s also very durable (on average, you can reuse it about 100 times). What's more, the cloth is treated with an antimicrobial product.

"Give Her Five" is an organisation that offers Indian women Saafkins underwear at a subsidised price. Women pay about $2.50 [€2] for two pairs.

The menstrual cup: "Ideal for active women"

Here you can see a variety of different menstrual cups – some of which are produced in India, others abroad – lined up so you can compare their size and shape. [Image is a screengrab from an explanatory video produced by our Observer.]

I’ve been using a menstrual cup since 2006, when I was studying architecture in the UK. Using a cup means there is no risk of leaks – you can go swimming no problem. One cup can last up to 10 years. This option also preserves the good bacteria in your vagina.

In India, however, there are a lot of false rumours about menstrual cups, including that they can damage the hymen of women who have never had sex – which some people say is equivalent to losing your virginity. In India, most women who use cups are married. They live in the city and live busy lives, and don’t have time to wash reusable pads.

Another issue is the cost. If you buy a cup, it can cost several hundred rupees (100 rupees = €1.30). Not all women are willing to make this investment.

Washable pads

Traditionally, women use cloth to absorb their menstrual flow – so washable pads are like the improved version of this traditional practice. In India, you can buy washable pads in all different shapes and sizes. Quite a few different brands produce them, so they vary in cost, too.

However, our Observer spoke with a lot of different women during various conferences and workshops, and many said they were unsatisfied with the washable pads on the market. Jain decided to use their feedback to launch her own line of products.

In a video that she shared on her YouTube channel, Jain compared and contrasted different washable pads available in India.

Old bits of fabric used as basic washable pads

These photos show the different steps in the production of Goonj sanitary napkins. Bits of fabric are gathered and washed, then ironed and turned into pads. Photo published on the association’s website.

The Goonj association makes extremely simple washable pads from old cloth and then distributes them in poor communities in India. The Goonj pads aren’t as great as some of the other kinds available, but they are free and clean. Moreover, during distributions, members of the association take the time to explain to women how to properly wash and dry pads to avoid the risk of infections.

This comic was made to teach girls

about their periods

This free comic, which is available in 11 languages, teaches girls how to properly wash and dry reusable pads, and how the female hormonal cycle works.

Menstrupedia is a comic strip for girls that is available in several different languages. I highly recommend it. It’s well done and funny, even – it reads like a story. Unfortunately, many women don’t know much about periods and think that it is dirty and even shameful. They aren’t able to teach their daughters about good practice. That’s why this book is so important.

Other, less convincing, solutions

There have been other attempts to answer the “period problem” in India, including pads made from biodegradable banana fibres. Another person came up with a simple machine that can make disposable pads cheaply. Some women from poor communities get jobs making these pads.

Our Observer wasn’t too impressed with these two initiatives, which got a lot of press coverage, both nationally and internationally.

She says that the banana fibre pads aren’t that absorbent and that they are only biodegradable under very specific conditions. She had mixed feelings about the second initiative. While she liked that it helped improve women’s access to safe and hygienic products – thus reducing health risks – and also provided a source of income for women from poor communities, she said that the pads are not particularly environmentally friendly.