Practice Head, SG Analytics India
& Board of Advisor, FemtechIndia.org
#1 Dip-stick research suggests that sanitary napkins in India, carry harmful chemicals and it’s selling unchecked
On average, a woman uses sanitary pads for almost 1750-1800 days in her lifetime. In recent times urban women have been vocal about using eco-friendly and bio-degradable pads over synthetic pads. It came as a surprise to me when recently a report published by Toxic Links, an NGO did dip-stick research on organic and synthetic pads (6 different types of sanitary pads). The report titled “Menstrual Waste 2022” talks about exposure to VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that increase the risk of brain impairment, asthma, birth defects, diabetes, and a few types of cancers.
The concentration of phthalates was found to be between 0.032 to 0.022 gm in organic and inorganic samples respectively (higher than the 0.1% permissible mandate under EU regulations).
The Indian dip stick study published by NGO, Toxics Link, in a report titled “menstrual waste 2022”, confirmed the presence of phthalates and volatile organic compounds in a total of ten samples, six inorganic and four organic sanitary pads available in the market. The study checked for the presence of 25 key volatile organic compounds and reported the presence of Benzene, Toluene, Chloroform and Acetone.
Physicians will agree that vaginal area is a sensitive part of the body and capable of secreting and absorbing volatile chemicals, making the user vulnerable to serious health risks. What has been reported is just the tip of the iceberg, there is no pan-India study to prove the presence of chemicals nor any reports from anywhere else. This requires more in-depth research, or else the menstruating population in India are at high risk.
Sanitary napkins fall under the technical textiles category in India so do not need FDA approvals. According to the BIS (Approval authority in India), the product manual for Sanitary napkins (IS 5404:2019) does not mention or allow the use of benzene, toluene, or chloroform (there is mention of acetone but there is no % or permissible limits of use). In 2019, 355 million women were menstruating and probably using one of these sanitary pads and in 2022 the number has increased.
#2 “Those five days” – Indian women talks about periods, pain and discomfort (Voice of customer study)
On “Menstrual Hygiene Day” in May 2022, an article was published in DNA (May 28, 2022). The results were based on a multicity survey from more than 6,000 menstruating women (18 to 35 years) living in cities such as Delhi NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Patna, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Bhopal, Indore, Guwahati, Jaipur, Amritsar, Ludhiana, and Kolkata.
79.3% of women responded that they got their periods when they were 12 years or above. Surprisingly the report also touched on the fact that only 30.3% of women had 5 days period. Most of them had more (1.8% had more than 8 days) or less days (28% had 3 days).
Few takeaways are:
53.2% reported sleep disturbances in the first 2 days of periods
67.5% reported they are worried about spotting during sleep
57.3% experienced moderate to severe cramps while 37.2% experienced mild to occasional pain
62.2% admitted that they either never or rarely changed their pads at a public place as they found the restrooms unhygienic in offices, malls, public restrooms, or cinemas
This is one of the few studies where the voice of women was captured through surveys and many more such VOCs are desired from tier 2 and 3 towns of India.
#3 When Indian men felt period pain through an artificial stimulator? Results were unbelievable
Image source: Indian Express Aug 17, 2022
The #feelthepain event was held as part of Cup of Life, an initiative by Ernakulam MP Hibi Eden to promote menstrual hygiene and break taboos at Lulu Mall, Kochi in August 2022. According to the member of Parliament, “I am going to. I did once. It’s not painful. It’s painful in a very irritating way.”
He is absolutely correct, as men, we have never felt or realized the pain that a woman goes through every month due to menstruation. The pain varies, and the discomfort stays. We have all seen scenarios in our homes, office and in public. Our mothers, sisters, colleagues, wife and domestic help all go through this pain more or less every month. I am not sure how many among us support the “No Questions Asked” leave for our team members every time they go through menstrual cramps. Companies talk about empathy and compassion and not many are ready to talk about period pain.
“As a man, I have never experienced period cramps in my life. It was a really painful and an eye-opening experience for me. I gained a lot of insight into the plight of women during their periods. Later, I went and read about period cramps and learnt that about 84% of women experience it.”
Prakash, Digital Story Teller (as told to Indian Express)
Backed by the Kochi chapter of the Indian Medical Association this initiative created awareness among men and the need to talk about menstruation, menstrual health and issues related to those 5 days. The stimulator may not have made a huge change to the women and their pain but it certainly got the people of Kochi and the media talking.
According to WHO data, menstrual pain affects > 94% of young girls aged between 10-20 and 8.8% of women aged between 19-41. In India, it has been reported to increase from 34% to 87%.
In India, it's not talked about though a few companies have started an initiative called “No Questions Asked” leave for employees who go through menstrual pain every month. It’s still at an early stage as most companies are in the planning phase and will take time. But there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel. Hence, the road to awareness is the only solution.
#4 India starts its first Cannabis base medicine trial to counter menstrual pain
New Delhi-based HempStreet initiated this path-breaking trial which is expected to be a year-long clinical trial to help women suffering from Primary Dysmenorrhea. The trial has been conducted in India in collaboration with the Amrita School of Ayurveda (an alternate Indian system of medicine). The trial’s inclusion criteria consider participants between the age group 14-40 years old, diagnosed with primary dysmenorrhea and ones with regular menstrual periods lasting 21 to 35 days and menstruation lasting 3 to 7 days. It will be a randomized double-arm-controlled trial.
Cannabis as a medicine is popular in North America. Few states in the US and Canada have already legalized the use for patients. In India it is still debatable, hence it is not part of the prescription medicine for pain. If this trial is successful, then Cannabis as a medicine (read Ayurvedic form of medicine) will be available for women who face menstrual cramps every month.
Currently, there are rolls from peesafe and other essential oils available in the Indian market. However, they are not effective at all and I can tell from my personal experience from people I connect with and discuss Femtech.
#5 Talking about sex education is still considered vulgar in India
In 2007, the National Council for Education introduced sex education as part of the school curriculum and not as a separate subject. However, sex education was widely opposed and removed in states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Goa. Even talking about HIV/AIDS and STDs is regarded as scruffy and shameful. Though we are the originators of Kamasutra and have temples depicting postures in temples, it is still taboo to talk about sex education.
Currently, FLE(family life/sex education), has been introduced in the Indian curriculum by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development and National AIDS Control Organization that aims to develop emotional stability and adequate decision-making power in adolescents. The analysis from FLE showed that 70% of callers were below 30 years of age, and 21% and 37% of women felt embarrassed to talk to the counsellors at FLE. FLE now focuses on culturally sensitive education.
This is one segment in Femtech where not many entrepreneurs are ready to take risks. Sexual education is not teaching porn. Rather it is educating young minds, men and women on sexual health and related issues. Even when we talk about releasing satellites commercially from Indian space stations in 2022, the other take-off is not meant to be discussed in public.