Black polythene, a complimentary paper bag, and some awkward gazes! This perfectly sums up every Indian girl’s monthly visit to a shop for buying sanitary napkins. The huge deal of shame attached to menstruation becomes more evident with the lack of open discourse on the subject. While the majority of our male counterparts’ understanding about periods is limited to their imprudent giggles during a chapter on reproduction back in their teenage, women often feel a discomfort when it comes to speaking on the topic in public domain.
Despite it being entirely natural, the whispers followed by a complete silence speaks volume about the taboo status of it.
Endeavouring to challenge the stigma associated with menstruation Deane de Menezes’ “Red is the new Green” initiative aims to create awareness and intends to educate people about sustainable menstrual waste disposal methods, in addition to making cheaper pads available to all.
Speaking to Guardian 20, Menezes talks about her year-old journey of fighting the taboo and installing sanitary vending machines and incinerators in Mumbai.
A 23-year-old Statistics graduate from St. Xavier’s, Menezes was never sure about feeling for a cause this vehemently until this one instance that changed it all.
She recalls, “It (the campaign) started because I got my period when I was at work and I did not have a pad. I had no access to it and I had to go to a chemist to get one. That’s what got me thinking; if I in spite of having such a comfortable life and easy access can face these problems, imagine how hard it must be for somebody with no access to napkins and no money either.”
While for most of us the contemplation majorly ends with a sumptuous dinner and a good night sleep, Menezes got herself engaged into a lot of research, met and spoke with people and was finally determined to work towards normalising menstruation, related hygiene practices, and appropriate waste management techniques.
“It opened my eyes when I spoke to ladies who could not afford pads and it was a reality check to see how we take things like periods for granted. I met sanitation workers and cleaners who spoke about menstrual waste and how demeaning it was to deal with it, not to mention how unhygienic and unsafe it is for them. I felt that I had to do something in my own small way and I needed to get started. This is what basically fuels the project,” she says.
Menezes, who in collaboration with some non-profit organizations and private sector companies holds sessions on menstrual hygiene also confides in about her initial inhibitions on speaking about the subject. And though today she is committed to empowering other women to strike a conversation about periods, she states that “while young girls and childrenn were extremely eager to know more, share and discuss, older women found it tough to open up because of years of conditioning.”
“They were told at a young age that periods are dirty and that their body is impure. Some find it hard to grapple with the fact that there are people out there challenging these norms. But we handle all of them with love and most importantly, patience. You have to empathize with them and understand that they are coming from another generation and we need to rationally explain it to them. And it is heartwarming to see that some actually change and express their own thoughts about menstruation,” Menezes added.
Having installed a total of five sets of machines (each set consisting of a sanitary napkin vending machine and a sanitary napkin dispenser) in schools and hospitals, Menezes believes that educating men about menstruation is equally important.
“Men are largely left out from any menstruation related talks and as a result, they grow up to become fathers and grandfathers with no idea about menstruation except that their wives and daughters need sanitary napkins from the chemists. We want to break that. We want menstruation to be discussed in class just like any other subject would be. We want boys to ask questions, understand that periods are normal and be supportive of their female classmates.”
She continues, “We firmly believe that the stigma related to menstruation will be broken and gender will not be an issue going ahead. The road ahead is not easy, but with sheer persistence and constant reasoning, we believe this will happen. The men we have spoken to (we have a few on the team as well) have been extremely supportive. For starters, they claim to know the menstrual cycle and its working better now and they know more than just PMS.”
“Red is the new Green” initiative, which is also working towards making cheaper pads more accessible, encourages women to have their own opinions about periods and is also supportive of them using healthy alternatives to commercial napkins like cloth, menstrual cups, and reusable pads.
“We understand that there is a large section that prefers using cloth pads, either because they cannot afford sanitary napkins or just because they are more comfortable with the cloth. We support that as well and educate them about good practices of washing, cleaning and taking care of the cloth so it is hygienic and safe to use. I firmly believe in giving them the correct information, educating them and letting each person form their own personal view about menstruation, good, bad or ugly. We tell them the pros and cons about disposable pads and reusable pads and let them decide because it’s their right. Women have been forced upon with so many beliefs and myths, this is time for us to challenge it and change it,” says Menezes on being asked about few substitutes to sanitary pads.
Talking about expanding the campaign geographically, she says that it would take some time since the project is also concerned with managing the vending machines, stocking and restocking the pads, and training the staff.
“Often sanitary napkin vending machines are installed and only after a few months they become useless because of lack of maintenance. Even now, the machines (they had installed) are working and we have received great feedback about their usage. We do plan to expand geographically but don’t want to compromise on quality because it is very easy to install a machine but it takes a little longer to bring about a behavioural change,” says Menezes as she signs off.