Turning sustainability into self-care: Destigmatizing reusable menstrual products

Reusable cloth menstrual pads.
Reusable cloth menstrual pads.

Šárka Hyková/Unsplash

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Business & Economics, Public Health, Storyfest 2024, Sustainability

“Sulochana is a good motivator. And she has a lot of stories to tell you here,” said Shreya Some, knowingly with raised eyebrows. Sulochana Pednekar shook her head and laughed, but Some was right. Just a couple minutes later, Pednekar was in full swing, passionately educating me on how one cleans cloth menstrual products.

Shreya Some is a climate mitigation, adaptation and policy researcher from Kolkata, capital of India’s West Bengal state. Sulochana Pednekar is a women’s health researcher and an expert menstruation education advocate from Siolim, a village in Goa state. I got to interview them both even though they have different research fields thanks to one significant overlap: a scientific literature review titled “Enabling factors for sustainable menstrual hygiene management practices” published last August. This paper is co-authored by four researchers: Sulochana Pednekar, Shreya Some, Kajal Rivankar & Renuka Thakore. It reviewed studies from 21 different countries and compared levels of awareness and access, as well as common benefits and concerns for various menstrual products (some of which I hadn’t even heard of before): menstrual cloths, disposable pads, biodegradable pads, tampons, reusable cloth pads, disposable cloth pads, and menstrual cups.

Some and Pednekar did not meet through sustainable menstruation research; actually, they roomed together at an environmental economics conference eight years ago. While chatting, Pednekar‘s personal openness with reusable menstrual products and enthusiasm for destigmatizing menstruation presented Some with new information about sustainable menstrual care and piqued her curiosity about researching it. 

The first story Pednekar told me began with her first period. The stigma in her joint family started immediately: Pednekar grandmother suggested that her mother pull her out of school at least when she was on her period, and menstruating people were prevented from participating in puja (Hindu religious ritual) and served food from a distance. Pednekar has worked on projects interviewing other women in Goa and finds that she is not alone. Some women found themselves even having to wait outdoors during religious practice or if guests knew of their menstrual cycle.

However, being able to choose what menstrual product to use can have an incredible effect on how much exposure someone has to that stigma. In Pednekar case, using a plain cotton cloth like many people around her came with the problems of cleaning it, which often interfered with school because she couldn’t stay for extra classes if there was risk of leaking. As Pednekar noted in an article she wrote, “At least 23% of girls in India leave school when they start menstruating and the rest miss an average of five days during each monthly menstrual period.” It wasn’t until she began constantly traveling and walking as a field worker that she regularly used commercial disposable pads. Some, who currently also travels consistently for work, agrees; her lifestyle made her unsure that reusable products could work for her. Disposable pads weren’t always affordable, but without them, Pednekar said, “It was always that this would otherwise stop me.” 

It needs to be a choice because every individual knows their own situation the best. People’s concerns may range: Whether they have enough water supply to clean cloth products, whether there are discreet places to dry them, whether the water supply they use is safe to rinse a menstrual cup with, whether there are incinerators to discreetly dispose of disposable products (a rising phenomenon in India), whether the product triggers virginity taboos, and also simply whether products are available and affordable. I mentioned complications I run into while trying to use a menstrual cup, and Pednekar nodded firmly. “Until and unless I try myself, I said no, I will not promote anything which I don’t believe in,” she said. “If I am satisfied with it, then I will believe in it. And I will promote it.” In Pendekar’s and Some’s world of menstrual health activism, bettering lives is the key to adopting sustainability.

In fact, because of climate change, these sustainable product choices could be made a lot more available. It’s easy to get stuck in pessimism and mournfulness due to climate change, but if there’s one hopeful side to it, it’s that climate change forces our communities to take big steps planning and preparing for a changing world. For example, the review covered one case where Nepal’s government provided reusable pads to communities after an earthquake in 2015, and reusable pads were adopted widely and successfully. While natural crises like earthquakes or climate disasters are not our choice, they shake up norms, creating opportunities — and necessities — for changing our ways.

The question is whether people will be left behind. Will we change to have better, more inclusive norms? I asked Some and Pednekar if they feel hopeful that menstrual health will be taken into consideration with new sustainability and policy changes. They didn’t seem to think improved menstrual access will primarily come from policymakers. Pednekar helped draft mandatory menstrual hygiene management guidelines for all schools in India with the Indian Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation in 2015, but through her research it seems that these guidelines have not been widely implemented. “For the state where I am, it’s a very big work in progress. This thing is not in the priority agenda of the policymakers,” Some said. Although in some ways the sentiment is there, funding for menstrual health research, product innovation, ensuring bathrooms for menstrual care management, and education is nowhere near top concern. 

Some and Pednekar unanimously agree that equity will come mainly from menstrual health education — for all genders, not just girls. While governments can promote sustainable products for the environment’s sake, the way to true change is by making sustainability a good, available choice for each individual. Some’s and Pednekar‘s study found that awareness of alternative menstrual product options was low across the globe. Pednekar, as an ambassador for menstrual access project Eco Femme, has provided reusable cloth pads to family members who may not have tried them otherwise. After attending a workplace talk about incinerators for menstrual products, Some’s mother began thinking about how that could help their residential community. People want menstrual health practices that they can sustain, and communities will champion sustainability themselves when they are enabled with knowledge and access to these options. 

As we move into a world being reconfigured by climate change, I really admire this humanizing two-pronged approach of environmental sustainability and human equity — rather than pitting the two against each other, realizing they can be the same goal. People can choose various reusable menstrual products, not just because the burden of climate change forces them to, but because their quality of life matters. 

“I will continue to work. And we need to create more people to do this work, see if we can create more replicas of me,” Pednekar said, laughing. Pednekar said, laughing. Pednekar and Some inspire us to imagine more inclusive future communities as we readjust to climate change. And they remind me that uplifting ourselves and each other can and should be part of loving our environment.

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