Unlearning Menstruation: From Padman to Padpeople

Feb 12, 2018 | Blog, Culture

Continuing the conversation

Padman: it hardly needs an introduction.  The film, inspired by the life of Arunachalam Muruganantham, has punched a long overdue, pad sized hole in a subject typically defined by shame and silence: menstruation.

Arunachalam Muruganantham

After discovering his wife using dirty cloths during her period because branded pads were too costly, Muruganantham embarked on a journey to discover an affordable solution.  Today, he creates low-cost machines which village women use to manufacture affordable, disposable pads.  His journey has taken him far into unchartered territory – encountering stigma, tackling taboo, and even, as put by actor Akshay Kumar, “starting a conversation on a global level!”

Re-valuing menstruation… because life depends on it!

A long overdue conversation.  In a world where period stories go hand in hand with words like “dirty” and “secret”, it is no small achievement to bring this conversation into the spotlight.  The more conversation the better, as only through speaking can we begin to unlearn menstruation as we know it.  And in the narratives that follow, periods are not dirty, bleeding is not a source of shame, and pickles will not spoil if handled by someone who is menstruating.

As a conversation starter about menstruation and health, Padman is brilliant.  The answers it offers though, are questionable. The rest is up to us: we must listen carefully, ask the difficult questions, and agitate for change.  Over the last week, we have seen various platforms and individuals do just this, read on for a snapshot of some of the current conversations.


Disposable pads: Convenience at what cost?

The #sustainablemenstruation and #cupandcloth challenge started in response to the #padmanchallenge.  In the latter, actors and individuals are challenged to post pictures of themselves holding disposable pads.  Taking this opportunity, menstrual activists have responded by challenging people to post pictures with a sustainable menstrual products, such as reusable cloth pads or cups.

Unbeknownst to many, reusable products benefit more than environment – they can also be a safer option for health.   This lack of unawareness is not surprising given the silence surrounding periods, something reinforced by multinational corporations which perpetuate ideas of shame (but that is a whole other topic!”).

Reusable cloth pads made by Uger. These pads are produced by an economically disadvantaged women’s self help group based in the slums of Udaipur.


Disposable pads can contain harmful chemicals

Disposable pads are commonly whitened with bleach and made up of plastic and chemically treated cotton or wood pulp.  These are potentially harmful because the skin in and around the vagina is highly permeable.  Once these chemicals find their way into your body, they can accumulate over time.  Suffice to say, no women would knowingly wear plastic panties with residual pesticides and dioxins (some of which have been linked to forms of cancer and other diseases), yet this is exactly what disposable pads often are.  Speaking of plastic…


Disposable menstrual products add up to an environmental disaster.

Each pad is the equivalent of four plastic bags.  Multiply this by the months a person menstruates over their lifetime and it can add up to a staggering mountain of plastic waste.  Once in landfill, a disposable pad can take up to 800 years to decompose.  And if not landfill, incinerated releasing toxic ash and fumes, or flushed away blocking sanitation and plumbing systems. In rural areas where there is no formal waste management system this problem is multiplied, often compromising women’s health.

“Sanitary Napkins form the bed of a bathing pond in India: What personal hygiene is like for rural woman”.  Research conducted in Chamrabaad village of Bokaro district, Jharkhand found that the majority of interviewed women washed their menstrual cloths in the same source where they bathed.  17% reported they dispose of their used napkins in the pond when they bathed.


The other padmen

This conversation not only affects men; it needs them.  Men and boys can support hygienic menstrual practices in many ways and through many roles – as husbands, fathers, brothers, students, peers, teachers, leaders, and employers, to name a few.  This raises the question, where do men learn about menstruation?  Too often lack of awareness or misinformation informs the taboo surrounding periods.  In order to change cultural attitudes, both women and men need to understand the facts.  Fortunately, like Muruganantham, there are already various men and boys involved and contributing their care and courage.  More to be said on this, stay tuned.


Where to from here?

In truth, Padman prompts more questions than answers – and this is a constructive thing when it comes to stimulating conversations.  It is one piece in the larger picture of individuals and organisations working to empower women and educate around menstruation…  and in the spirit of teamwork, we challenge Muruganantham and the Padman team to join the  #sustainablemenstruation movement.

Watch this space as we present more articles unpacking and unlearning menstruation…


Let the conversation continue!

A particularly enthusiastic and coordinated supporter of the #sustainablemenstruation, #cupandcloth, #clothpadrevolution, #padmanchallenge



Over the coming weeks, menstrual education and reusable cloth pad organisations Eco Femme and Uger will unpack issues and questions about menstruation in a series of articles.  We welcome you to read on and speak out as we unlearn menstruation as we know it.  Please join the conversation – any comments, stories or questions, contact us at www.ecofemme.org or https://ugerpads.jimdo.com/