Is publicity about periods an end in itself? What does this do beyond promoting the upcoming film Pad Man?
By Sowmya Rajaram & Priyanka Sutaria
At the directive of Bollywood star Akshay Kumar (in a strategic and successful PR campaign for his movie, Pad Man), hoards of celebrities populated social media with pictures of themselves holding pads which have been removed from their packaging and held wide open… for all the germs to settle in.
We get it—this was a PR stunt for a movie. And it was well-intentioned (as well-intentioned as a movie promotion can be). Our movie stars have hardly been known for their gumption when it comes to speaking up on the issues that matter (just look at what happened to Swara Bhaskar, who dared speak up while the rest stayed silent on the Padmavat controversy). Still, many said ‘Yay!’, because when Deepika Padukone holds up a sanitary napkin, it means she might make a fan who follows her on Instagram learn a little about menstruation, and bring it out of the shame-soaked realm it’s been cloistered in. Just maybe.
Hold on, though. There’s more to this conversation than just a flimsy photo-op for a movie. It’s also about the millions of women across the world who do not have access to these pads, or for that matter, social media, to follow Kumar’s hashtag ‘challenge’. It’s about people and communities which come together to create biodegradable menstrual hygiene products and offer basic human dignity to all those who menstruate. The prime example, of course, is the entrepreneurial venture by so-called original Pad Man, Arunachalam Muruganantham himself. Or ventures such as Anandi, which has spearheaded compostable pad production across India. It’s about the tax on sanitary napkins, which in India are classified as ‘miscellaneous’ and not ‘necessary’ items. It’s about fighting the stigma around a natural, biological process; one that leads to 23% of girls in rural India dropping out of school, and keeping 28% of these girls away from school during their period because they lack clean and affordable protection. It’s about finding ways to make managing your period environmentally and economically sustainable, because pads contain plastic that doesn’t degrade.
From Muruganantham’s biodegradable pads (a system which has unique forms scattered across the world, an example being Uganda’s AfriPads) to silicon menstrual cups, there is much more to menstrual hygiene than pads that promise fragrances and leak lock channels.
Which is why many are circumspect about the push for sanitary napkins and the campaign to make them tax-free on social media; this so-called sanitary napkin revolution that even Pad Man pushes. Yes, some women do use unsanitary methods, but the reality is that statistics (such as one that goes ‘only 12% women in India have access to sanitary napkins’, used in Pad Man as well) is incorrect, say social workers who have seen the ground reality of menstrual health in India. According to an article in Swarajya Magazine, this statistic is the result of a study with a sample size of 1033 women, which is smaller than some villages in country. For these women, natural methods such as rags and cloth are, simply, the easiest and most convenient method, one they may not want to give up for industries that have been painting the sanitary napkin as a panacea for all evils.
Not everyone agrees, though. Take Aditi Gupta, co-founder of Menstrupedia, a menstrual health awareness organisation which 'aims at delivering informative and entertaining content through different media…', who created the comic in 2014, to make awareness about periods fun. Apart from the book which is available in multiple languages, Menstrupedia is also developing grassroots awareness about menstruation, and sharing information about puberty and bodily changes through their blog and social media.
Gupta believes that in a country where women often have little or no access to menstrual hygiene products, what product they choose should be left up to them. She says, “I have used rags, so I will not say that rags are a good alternative for managing periods.” Not everyone can use cloth pads (take for example, women who work in fields and do not have the liberty to wash, dry and reuse their products constantly) or even menstrual cups (she says many women find the idea of insertable menstrual wear uncomfortable and abhorrent).
“We cannot demand of those who bleed that they be environmentally conscious when all so-called sustainable products are unavailable or unsuitable. Is it really for their betterment if everyone has to abide by monolithic standards of how they might menstruate, that is be the ‘ideal’ period-having person? Is that not an unfair standard?” she asks. She believes that it is exploitation of the menstruating when these products are heavily taxed as luxuries in an unequal society, especially when good-quality products are not always readily available to people who menstruate. “At the end of the day, if products like sanitary napkins were available for a cheaper cost, it would make the lives of many better,” she says.
Urmila Chanam, founder of ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign which seeks women's right to dignity and good health when menstruating, is circumspect. She believes that more than a simplistic sanitary napkin revolution, India needs to facilitate real awareness about menstruation and break the myths, taboos, and traditions which govern it. Chanam finds that while there isn’t any problem with big pharma creating an awareness about periods, it is a shallow kind of awareness which tackles only one aspect of the issue. “Everybody is thinking about pads, but no one is thinking about the gender inequality in our homes! What if men had periods? Women and girls are treated like second-rate citizens, and it reflects in our attitudes towards them when they bleed.” The wave of awareness, then, is not intersectional, it does not cross class,caste, or location lines.
Chanam also questions the urban stronghold of this ‘menstruation-awareness’ movement. At the end of the day, these products are created with the desire to increases sales. Big pharma is likely to find a sustainable market for this, and only urban locations suit their economic interests. “What about rural India?”, Chanam asks. “ My personal experience in the grassroots is that women and girls do not have access to this knowledge. And it is often because they are women.” Still, like Gupta, Chanam believes that it is the right of the menstruating individual to choose what is suitable for them; whether that is cloth, plastic pads, or menstrual cups.
So here’s the thing. The cost of menstruating in this world is far more expensive than many know or understand. It isn’t just the hygiene products (pads, tampons, menstrual cups) we invest in. We also pay the cost of pain medication, hormone supplements, and birth control pills to regulate and survive our period. We pay the price when doctors refuse to diagnose us when we complain of acute pain, simply because they do not believe it could be that painful. We bear the burden of the emotional labour which goes into explaining menstruation to those who do not menstruate; in exchange for bleeding three to seven days a month, we receive ignorance.
So thank you for sticking up a stray pad for us, Akshay Kumar—really, thanks for the publicity. Thank you for giving this discourse the celebrity photo-op that grabs eyeballs. Now, it’s time to go beyond and actually consider the nuances and cost of a period. And that, my friends, is about much more than a sanitary napkin.
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