In Focus

A village in Kerala shows long term solution to sanitary waste disposal


In 2019, the village council distributed 5500 cloth pads and 500 menstrual cups, for a subsidised rate with the help of a non-governmental organisation

Muhamma, a village in the Alappuzha district of Kerala in India, is likely to be the first synthetic pad-free village in India. The village is sending a larger message about how a three-sphere model for sanitary waste disposal focusing on education, national organization, and sustainability can work.

In 2019, the village council distributed 5500 cloth pads and 500 menstrual cups, for a subsidised rate with the help of a non-governmental organisation. 

The initiative was “supplemented with awareness campaigns teaching people how to use these reusable alternatives, and the importance of them,” an article published in the latest edition of the Lancet highlights.

As India overtakes China as the world’s most populous nation, menstrual hygiene management and safe disposal of sanitary products is becoming a growing concern.

While 36 percent of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary pads, improper waste disposal  is a health hazard. One sanitary pad could take 500 to 800 years to decompose as the plastic used is non-biodegradable

“When flushed in toilets, super-absorptive materials like polyacrylate absorb water, resulting in sewage backflow. This poses its own health problems for individuals living near water pipelines and canals,” the article reads. “Menstrual blood infected with HIV or hepatitis retain their infectivity in soil, risking water safety.  Conservancy workers unblock water systems often without proper protective equipment, exposing themselves to toxins and pathogens.”  

As stigma is deeply entrenched, and is influenced by cultural, religious, and patriarchal values, in many parts of India, there is a long history of perceiving menstruation as an impure phenomenon, restricting women on their periods from cooking, bathing, praying and even entering the main part of the house. With social stigmas associated with menstruation, products are thrown into nearby fields and unused wells, flushed down toilets; buried, or burned in people’s backyards. While more well-off individuals can afford to pay for private waste collection agencies, it is still unclear where this waste is disposed of.

The Lancet article argues professionals and social workers could provide education on menstrual hygiene management to young girls and boys, especially focussed on tackling social stigmas around periods.

It says reusable sanitary products should be encouraged as a more sustainable alternative. Menstrual cups and reusable cloth pads can last from 2 to 10 years, depending on manufacturer and customer use. Benefits of such products include reduced usage and safe disposal of commercial sanitary pads, reducing the health and environmental impacts. 

However, reusable period products are not widely used in India as there are fears around insertion and removal of menstrual cups breaking the hymen, with many women worrying they may ‘lose their virginity, since the virginity is culturally associated with intact hymen.

“These beliefs could be challenged with educational workshops destigmatising sexual health and virginity,” the article reads.

It argues that the national government must take initiative to organise safe sanitary product disposal. “The onus should not exclusively be on individuals, local charities, or non-governmental organisations. A centralised system is needed to create sustainable solutions for the long-term,” the  explains.

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