When we launched the gynaecological health camps for women in the slums of Indore, the first thing we did was to conduct detailed discussions with the women as to what their problems were and what they were doing to address them. Initially we were a bit apprehensive as to whether the women would open up and come to the camps for clinical examination. Many women eventually didn't. This led us to spend more time in discussions with the women to gain their confidence. These discussions have led to very good insights into how society works.
One example that is striking is that of the management of menstrual hygiene. This is a problem area mainly because of the patriarchal taboos surrounding it. Women in India, mostly use cloth during the menstrual period and then wash and dry the cloth in the shade for reuse. They have to dry it in the shade because it cannot be dried in the open under the sun because it is against the patriarchal norm that anything to do with menstruation is dirty and should be kept private. for poor women in urban areas this has become a serious problem because of lack of space which results in lack of privacy. Matters have been further compounded by the unavailability of cotton cloth for use during the periods. Earlier women used to tear old sarees to use as menstrual cloth. However, cotton clothing has become expensive and so in most cases poor urban women wear only clothes made from synthetic materials which cannot be used for menstrual purposes because they do not absorb the menstrual blood.
There is a school of opinion that favours the use of sanitary napkins by poor women and it is suggested that the Government should reduce the taxes on these, as they are now categorised as luxury items and also subsidise their price. There are also many innovations for making sanitary pads which are much cheaper. In fact under the Integrated Child Development Programme, subsidised sanitary napkins are being supplied to adolescent girls and women from the Anganwaris or child care centres. However, the problem of disposal of the used napkins still remains for poor urban women due to the patriarchal taboo. The subsidised napkins are few and far between because they have been supplied only to a few women and most others will have to buy the expensive ones from the market which is difficult given their poverty.
So even today, cloth washed, dried and reused remains the most favoured option for poor women. Given this fact a solution has emerged in Indore. In the slums in which these poor women reside, the small shops sell red pieces of thick felt cloth as shown below which are used by the women during their periods. These cloth pieces have good absorbent qualities and are cheap to buy. Three pieces of cloth are sold for Rs 20 and they last for six months. A larger piece of cloth with strings at the end also is available at Rs 30 for three pieces for use by those women who do not wear panties and have to tie the cloth. They can be washed and hung out to dry outside also because of their deep red colour which camouflages the blood stains. Though most women still dry them in the shade there are some who dry them in the sun.