Bad Experience With Sanitary Napkins Prompted Her To Make Eco-Friendly, Reusable & Cost-Effective Cloth Pads

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“When I switched to cloth pads about four years ago, I felt the difference in comfort and usability. However, I was hesitant to discuss this with my family and friends, for fear of being mocked at, as I was reverting to a traditional method of using cloth during periods,” shares Abhirami Prakash.

“But once I opened up about my choice, I received unprecedented support from everyone, as all of them were facing troubles with commercial pads. They were unaware of any viable alternative,” she adds.

To make more women understand the benefits of cloth pads, Abhirami Prakash started Pirai in July 2018, which manufactures high-quality, handmade and cost-effective cloth pads.

Abhirami with Pirai products.
Abhirami with Pirai products.

Speaking to Efforts For Good, she shares the adverse implications of regular sanitary napkins and explains why sustainable menstruation is the need of the hour.

Advocating menstrual education

The news of a 12-year-old girl in Tamil Nadu committing suicide after being period-shamed in school shook Abhirami Prakash. “On her suicide note, she left the question about what her fault was to deserve such a treatment. Shocked as I was, I resolved to generate menstrual awareness among all women to uproot the age-old taboos and irrelevant stigma around it,” says Abhirami Prakash.

Abhirami, spreading menstrual awareness among young girls
Abhirami, spreading menstrual awareness among young girls

Working as a naturopathy physician in a multi-speciality hospital, Prakash frequently conducted cervical and breast cancer awareness campaigns for rural women and young girls. She discovered that the women in remote villages had little idea about normal menstruation. “I understood that before talking about diseases, women must be educated about the normal bodily processes, physical and emotional changes that a woman undergoes throughout her cycle,” she explains.

Switching to cloth pads

In Kerala, the garbage collectors will inquire if your trash contains disposed sanitary napkins. If yes, they will inevitably refuse to carry it. Every month, those few days might pose an added hassle for you to find newer ways of disposing used pads. Be it looking for dump yards everywhere or burning the pads, only to create a foul-smelling vortex of smoke that clouds your dignity as a woman.

Cloth pads by Pirai are well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing
Cloth pads by Pirai are well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing

“Even if we bury them in some corner of our own yard, it takes around 500 to 800 years for these commercial pads to decompose. Rainwater seeps through them and pollutes the groundwater. Very few of us are aware of this,” she says.

While organising widespread campaigns in schools and rural belts, Prakash unearthed many lesser-known facts about the regular pads we all are accustomed to using. “Aside from my unpleasant personal experience with commercial napkins, I learnt that a woman produces around 130 kg of menstrual waste in her lifetime, most of which is as non-biodegradable as plastic. With more and more chemicals being added to commercial sanitary napkins, it is causing more harm to the reproductive organs than help,” explains Prakash.

The darker side of the immaculate white pads

The bright white pad is actually bleached with dioxin, a highly toxic environmentally persistent pollutant. Studies have revealed that dioxin alters the healthy microflora and pH balance of the vagina, and gives rise to abdominal pain, bloating, hormonal imbalance and even endometriosis in the long run.

Why cloth pads are better

At Pirai, clean cotton flannels are manually panelled together to make cloth pads in three different shapes, lengths and textures – as per the flow level of the user on respective days of the period. Completely free from chemicals, the pads contain the underlining of biodegradable polyurethane which makes it leak-proof. Customised with buttons and wings, Pirai cloth pads feel more comfortable than regular pads, as Prakash assures.

A cloth pad can be easily washed and reused for up to two years. Not only this, a set of cloth pads for 2 years is sold at around 1200 rupees at Pirai; while the average expense for regular sanitary napkins would amount to minimum 5000 rupees in two years.

Addressing the queries and misconceptions about cloth pads

“The first time I spoke about cloth pads at a rural camp, women were bombarding me with questions. Most of them thought cloth pads would be as unhygienic as the dirty rags they initially used,’’ she shares.
“Our ingrained attitude makes us think menstrual blood is impure. I always emphasise to everyone how period blood is just another bodily fluid like saliva, mucus or tear. If you feel period blood is dirty just because it comes out of the vagina, do you consider a newborn baby impure as well?”, asks Prakash.

All about Pirai cloth pads

Unlike the popular notion, washing cloth pads is quite hassle-free. “Soak the used pad in soap water for 10-15 minutes, rinse and dry in sunlight. Never use hot water though,” Prakash elaborates.

How women received the cloth pads

Sustainable menstruation in India is yet to be popularised through mass media. Abhirami Prakash encourages women of all ages to use cloth pads. In her experience, the young girls were very receptive and even urged their mothers to turn towards cloth pads. For menopausal women as well, cloth pads proved to be a boon of comfort as they face unpredictable bleeding and need to use pads almost all the time.

“However, the young women between 25 to 35 years are quite reluctant to use cloth pads as they doubt the effectiveness, suited to their busy lifestyle. I still have a long way to go to convince them,” shares Prakash.

The challenges along the way

Finding the right material to compete with commercial sanitary napkins happened to be the primary challenge for Abhirami Prakash. After successfully achieving the right texture, Abhirami decided to employ local women for making these pads instead of professional tailors. “My main motive was to spread more awareness. Training unskilled workers to perfect the art and science of a cloth pad was another major challenge for me,” she adds.

The workers at Pirai with their children

Message for everyone

Menstrual awareness is the first and last takeaway of every discussion on periods. “We have to dissolve the stigma around a normal biological process, and women cannot do it alone. The opposite gender often shies away from this topic considering it solely women-centric. It’s not. Logical-minded men have to come forward to encourage more awareness,” insists Abhirami Prakash.

For more information kindly write to [email protected] or call 9791501445

Also Read: Fire & Termite-Resistant Pallets From Coconut Husk That Save 200 Million Trees A Year

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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