For the last 10 days, a beautiful black box from Carmesi, with a print of black and white bamboo twigs, has been sitting on my desk. It’s a new brand of natural sanitary napkins and the box mentions this upfront. Yet I have not felt the need to hide the package, as I would have if it were a pack of my regular brand of sanitary napkins.

Not much has changed when it comes to conversations around menstruation. Most women still speak about it in hushed tones. Even my neighbourhood chemist continues to wrap the sanitary napkin packet in a newspaper and hand it over the counter in a black plastic bag.

“During our research, launched a year ago, we noticed that women hide their sanitary napkins under their clothes in their cupboards. They were not even comfortable letting their husbands see the packet," says Tanvi Johri, founder and chief executive officer of Carmesi. The brand, launched a year ago, was initially named Elize.

The stigma and shame surrounding this monthly phenomenon has worked to the advantage of manufacturers and sellers of sanitary napkins. A Mint article in May quoted Bhawana Chanana, associate professor in the department of fabric and apparel science at Lady Irwin College, Delhi University, as saying that people choose sanitary napkins based on cost, design and packaging. According to Chanana, this was due to lack of awareness of hygiene parameters, like safety and pH range.

Packaging by Carmesi.
Packaging by Carmesi.

The market for sanitary protection in India is dominated by international companies like Procter and Gamble’s Whisper and Johnson and Johnson’s Stayfree, which have a retail market share of 50.4% and 24%, respectively, according to Euromonitor International, a market research provider. These companies price most of their products at the mid- to low-level to make them affordable, given the low penetration: Per capita consumption of sanitary napkins is just four units in India compared to 69 units in North America and 72 units in Western Europe, according to Euromonitor.

Over the past decade, research papers have raised questions over their safety, the Mint report noted.

The past year has seen attempts to raise awareness around menstruation safety, hygiene, affordability and experience. Reactions to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) categorization of two movies on the subject, Phullu and PadMan, seem to illustrate this.

Phullu, a small-budget movie based on taboos related to menstruation in rural areas, released in June with an A certificate. The certificate attracted criticism. “A movie on menstruation awareness is not an adult film. Censor board has lost its mind. #Phullu," tweeted Dr Safin @HasanSafin. The Akshay Kumar starrer PadMan, slated to release in February, has got a U/A rating.

On 22 January, the Supreme Court stayed proceedings in all high courts on petitions challenging the imposition of 12% goods and services tax (GST) on sanitary napkins. A Jawaharlal Nehru University student, Zarmina Israr Khan, had filed a petition in the Delhi high court last year, describing the tax on the napkins as “illegal and unconstitutional." According to Khan, puja samagri, kajal, kumkum, bindi, sindoor, alta, plastic and glass bangles, hearing aids, passenger baggage, contraceptives had a “nil" tax rate, so it would only be fair if the same was done for a necessity like sanitary napkins.

As awareness of safety and hygiene increases, brands like Carmesi, which retails at a price of close to Rs350 for 10 napkins (2.5 times the price of Whisper, the largest sanitary napkin brand), are gaining acceptance.

At the other end is a budding cottage industry looking at affordability amongst the poorest of the poor. In this space operate entrepreneurs like the Padma Shri awardee Arunachalam Muruganantham, on whom the movie PadMan is based. Muruganantham has invented a low-cost sanitary-pad making machine that he has marketed to non-profit organizations and women’s self-help groups.

But we haven’t even scratched the surface. Even if per capita usage doubles to eight units by 2021 from four units in 2016, as forecast by Euromonitor International, it will remain a fraction of the usage in the US and UK.

There is also a need to ensure safe disposal systems for used sanitary napkins. “Used sanitary napkins need to be treated at par with biomedical waste. There has to be proper collection and disposal guidelines," says Jinoj K., chief executive officer of Wager Hygiene, a maker of health and personal care products, including sanitary napkins that are over 90% biodegradable. Jinoj, who is also the founder of the Kochi-based Centre for Hygiene Research and Development, an NGO working towards menstruation hygiene, says even biodegradable sanitary napkins are not the right solution—they still should not be disposed of as regular waste.

There is a need, then, to find more comprehensive solutions.

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