Global Development Institute Blog

By Mariana Lopez, PhD researcher, Global Development Institute

A recent study in rural Jharkhand, India found that 17% of the women dumped their sanitary pads in the same pond where they bathe. “If you search the bottom of the lake, you will find the whole bed covered with napkins.”

Research has been conducted on various dimensions of menstrual hygiene, including: the origins of menstrual taboos; health issues associated with tampons; the effects of accessibility to sanitary products on girls’ education, hygiene and rights and the dynamics behind the advertisements of menstrual hygiene products. However, an aspect that remains understudied are the effects that these products have on the environment and on the livelihoods of waste pickers.

In developing countries, especially in rural areas, it is taboo to burn used pads near places of worship or to keep menstrual waste at home, so women collect used pads and discard them in open defecation fields, rivers or waste dumps. In cities, as a result of proper disposal mechanism, school and public toilets bins are often overflowing with soiled pads. For these reasons, it is not unusual for waste managers to pick up soiled menstrual hygiene products, sometimes manually, which exposes them to infections and diseases. Incidentally, in some emerging markets waste picking is predominantly done by women, usually as an informal occupation, because it offers flexible working hours and it requires no education and little training.

Source: UrbanUpdate

Today, the commercialization of disposable menstrual hygiene products is unravelling in ways that are hampering the environment. This situation is particularly relevant for emerging markets where increased consumption is being driven by population growth, women’s increasing participation in the economy and the prevalence of local menstrual taboos.

To understand and potentially mitigate the environmental effects associated with these products, it is necessary to analyse the interactions between commercial processes, environmental effects and gender relations in the form of menstrual taboos. These taboos along with commercial processes, inform women’s choice of menstrual hygiene products, the ways they use and dispose of them and consequently, their effects on the environment. In a study conducted by Dasra, 75% of the girls in India admitted that they felt ashamed of disposing menstrual waste with other domestic waste or giving it to waste pickers. In Latin America, Euromonitor reports that because the tampon category is still in the early stages of growth, manufacturers are increasing their efforts to promote higher-priced applicators to first-time users. The need for an applicator is built on the notion that women will never have to touch her vagina to put in a tampon and risk getting dirty by touching her own blood. Applicator tampons are higher-priced and made of non-biodegradable plastic, which means that they have a greater effect on the environment compared to other menstrual hygiene products.

For this research project, a Global Production Networks framework is being used to map the connections between the commercial processes that lead to the final product, including raw material inputs, manufacture and distribution through to the consumer, as well as its final disposal. This mapping will serve to provide a holistic view of the connections between commercial processes and to explore the interactions and tensions between actors and institutions that shape the environmental effects of the disposal of menstrual hygiene products.

This study also draws insight from the literature on Gender, Environment and Development to investigate how the multiplicity of roles that women play as consumers and waste generators impinges upon the environment. This approach recognizes that women are not a single homogenous group and that the analysis of the relations of different groups of women with the environment must take into account factors such as class, caste, ethnicity, age and socio-cultural affiliation.

The combination of a GPN and GED insights provides an analytical framework to explore how the environmental effects of these products, which are driven by increased consumption, are also configured by gender relations. Furthermore, studying how female waste pickers engage with soiled menstrual products, and exploring whether they have access to these products to manage their menstruation, could potentially elucidate an overlooked manifestation of inequality around this commodity.

The findings of this study will make significant contributions to the literature on Gender and the Environment and potentially to the debate of environmental governance. This study can show that overcoming both unsustainability and gender inequality requires challenging existing social norms and global power relations that simultaneously contribute to environmental destruction and systematic discrimination based on gender.

Mariana Lopez is doing a PhD in Development Policy and Management and wrote this blog as part of her research on “Gender-Environmental relations in Global Production Networks.” If you would like to know more please contact her directly via email.