The marketing team of Padman have managed to turn the #PadmanChallenge into a social media campaign. The likes of Aamir Khan, Deepika Padukone, Katrina Kaif and Akshay Kumar are seen posing with sanitary napkins in their hand on Instagram to erase the stigma around menstruation. However, this author debates how Bollywood unfortunately, even when trying to be on the right side of things, doesn’t quite get it entirely right. Let’s get one thing straight, Arunchalam Murganantham is a hero. In an area of the world where educated men still begin to curl their shoulders awkwardly at the mere mention of menstruation, for a man from small-town India to approach the topic with such candour, sincerity and innovation is incredible and at the time he chose to do so - was desperately necessary. When asked, "What did you use before sanitary pads?" many of the women from the pre-Arunachalam era's answers were shocking for just how basic, uncomfortable and mainly useless they were.
To imagine that 1 in 5 Indian girls drop out of school because of the shame and problems associated with menstruating, when the first sanitary pads were available commercially to women in the west in 1888 is heartbreaking. So yes, almost two decades ago when Muruganantham came up with his low-cost sanitary pad machine (it cost $1000 as opposed to the regular machines that cost $550,000) this was revolutionary. And a biopic about him isn't just important, it's really bloody well deserved. Hat's off to Twinkle Khanna whose short story about Muruganantham - The Sanitary Man Of Sacred Land in her book The Legend Of Lakshmi Prasad - is what kicked off the conversation that led to her finally producing the film starring her husband. It's no secret that she's had a deft hand in reshaping Akshay Kumar post such degrading sexist disasters such as Kambakkht Ishq, and Pad Man is a step in the right direction. Not just for Akshay Kumar who is seen as a red-hot-blooded leading man, but for the Indian film industry itself.
And yet, once again, even in their wonderful attempts to “raise awareness”, they haven’t quite got it right.
They could have made a brilliant film (one so good that it even prompted The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw to grant it a four-star review), and left it at that. Instead, the marketing team came up with a "social media promotion plan" that took what was a great, honest biopic, and turned it into a conversation that questions very seriously whether the Pad Man team are simply living under a rock. The promotion plan was simple - we'll get people to pose holding a sanitary pad talking about how they aren't ashamed of talking about menstruation. What followed, of course, were hundreds of images of people holding up unused sanitary pads, smiling proudly and proclaiming they bleed/ respect women bleeding and challenging their friends to do the same. So, let's break down the lifespan of a sanitary pad, and why the Instagram challenge so vociferously being promoted, is a problem. A huge one. For everyone.
In 2011, with only 12% of Indian women using sanitary pads we were already facing a horrific problem with disposing of them. In weight, in case you were wondering, we're talking over 100,000 tonnes of garbage per year.
That’s over 1 billion pads being disposed of per month. What happens after a woman efficiently wraps her sanitary pad up, covers it in tissue paper or plastic and drops it in a bin is disgusting. Not for her of course, but for the civic authority who must unwrap it, and manually segregate it, then dump it at the nearest landfill. These workers in India are not given masks or boots or gloves any more than the average village girl is given a pack of tampons, and the consequences of touching sanitary pads often a few weeks old can be lethal. Soiled/ used pads accumulate bacteria and spread disease at an alarming rate. But that isn't even the worst part. Here's where things get really grotesque. A sanitary pad, even after its expiry date, after you have used it after it’s neat throwing away...has a lifespan of approximately 800 years. That's not a typo.
Currently, 300 million women in India do not have access to safe menstrual hygiene products. Imagine when they finally do and that product happens to be a sanitary pad. What this means for the Earth isn't a gender-based concern. It's a disaster waiting to happen, for everyone. So what are some of our better options that don’t involve a wasteful gimmick?
Eco-friendly pads -Aakar Innovations and The Better India are setting up a biodegradable, eco-friendly sanitary pad unit that even employs women from rural communities. You can donate to the project here: milaap.org/fundraisers/freetheperiod?
-Cloth pads such as Eco-Femme’s (also a Tamil Nadu company) can be used up to 75 times each and are natural and cost effective.
-Bamboo Fibre Pads
-The Menstrual Cup is a silicon cup that lasts ten years and frankly should be something the government, women’s rights groups and NGOs look at giving out for free in rural areas alongside the information that must obviously and necessarily precede it.
A huge hullabaloo has been made over the taxation of sanitary pads, with the organisation SheSays starting a campaign under the name #LahuKaLagaan, and I’m with them but the problem isn’t just the tax. It’s bigger and more long-term. At this point, in order to solve the issue of feminine hygiene, while protecting the planet, bringing down waste and controlling overall community health and hygiene standards, the only way forward is the menstrual cup, the greatest issue with it, unfortunately, being the queasy conversation of how to use it. The cup is worn internally while a woman is menstruating. And the lack of conversation around it at a time when a film could have been used to raise the question of “What next?” shows us, like I said, how Bollywood unfortunately, even when trying to be on the right side of things, doesn’t quite get it entirely right. Sure, the film, the Instagram challenge, the conversations starting are a step in the right direction, but it’s a step too slow, and perhaps I’m not the only one, who wishes from our heroes just a little bit more. Karuna Ezara Parikh is a writer and poet living in Kolkata. You can reach her on Twitter: @karunaparikh and Instagram: @karunaezara/ @ezarawrites