Thursday, February 08, 2018

Sanitary pads on big screen

Arunachalam Muruganantham revolutionised the production of affordable sanitary pads. The film Pad Man will depict his journeyArunachalam Muruganantham is a simple man. He doesn’t come from a privileged background. After his father died in a road accident, his mother toiled in the fields as a daily wager to feed her four children. Arunachalam took up jobs as a farm labourer, a welder, a yam dealer to chip in to the family’s income. When he got married to Shanthi, he was possessed with a deep sense of love and protectiveness. One day, the new husband saw his wife doing something rather suspicious. She was scouting for dirty rags on the sly. After much prodding, his shy young wife revealed that she used those pieces of cloth during her menstrual cycles. A shocked Arunachalam asked her why she did not use the sanitary pads available in the market. Pat came the reply. If she paid money for those, there wouldn’t be money to buy milk and vegetables.This conversation set the young man on a mission to impress his wife and find a way of making affordable sanitary pads for women in rural India. The journey was long and arduous. Arunachalam was stubborn and persisted even after his wife, mother, friends and family left him and he was told to leave the village.
His perseverance bore fruit and today, the pad-making machine he made sells for around Rs. 75,000 and is used in 23 states across India. His invention hasn’t just opened a market of sanitary pads and given employment to women, it has also been monumental in spreading menstrual hygiene in rural areas. Arunachalam has given talks at IIT Delhi, IIT Mumbai, IIM Ahmedabad and at Harvard University. His family reconciled with him, the village accepted him back. Now, a biographical film starring leading actors from the industry, is set to hit screens on Feb 9.
Akshay Kumar is playing the lead role – as Arunachalam – in the film Pad man set for release on February 9. The internet is viral with photos of celebrities and common people posing with a sanitary pad. The campaign reinforces the central idea of the film that the taboo revolving around menstruation needs to be wiped off from our society.  During the course of his research, Arunachalam discovered to his utter disgust the women in villages, or even in urban areas for want to money, use newspapers, dry leaves and even ash during their cycles. Those few who use cloth don’t often dry them in sunlight because of shame and so there is no proper disinfection. While these details don’t make for an exactly pleasurable reading, remember that these are real grassroots problems that still trouble unprivileged women month after month. A 2011 survey by A C Nielson found that only 12% of women in India use sanitary pads.
A major barrier in spreading hygiene awareness is the taboo associated with menstruation in our cultures. Menstrual exclusion is still prevalent and often enforced. Most communities tend to exclude women out of the family’s daily routine for the period of the cycle. Strict rules are adhered to which leave the women feeling left out and lonely. In Nepal, menstruating women are expected to leave their house and stay by themselves in “menstrual sheds” outside the village. They are susceptible to unfavourable weather conditions, attacks by wild animals and vulnerable to assaults by men in such a situation. Age-old customs, enshrined in religious institutions bolster the taboo and exclusion of women.
In 2015, the issue of menstrual exclusion made national when a priest of Sabarimala temple in Kerala, reportedly talked to the media about a machine to scan if it is the ‘right time’ for a woman to enter the temple. The temple worships a celibate deity and doesn’t allow entry to women in the reproductive age. The open letter by a young woman called Nikita Azad and her Facebook campaign “Happy to Bleed” became viral. The Sabrimala controversy brought the talks of menstrual exclusion on a national platform. Women (mostly Hindu) are forced to follow strict rules for three days that often end up making them feel like outcasts in many families in rural and urban India. The life and struggles of Arunachalam and the recognition of his efforts in India and across the globe has helped change things. In 2016, Arunachalam received the Padma Shri to applaud his work in the field of menstrual hygiene and innovative product design that has made affordable sanitary pad manufacturing and sales possible.
Now, the film directed by the talented R Balki (whose past successes include Cheeni Kum and Paa) takes forward a crucial theme of Akshay Kumar’s body of work. Kumar’s last film was also on a topic pushed under the carpet – need of toilets. The government has made it a priority in its Swaccha Bharat mission, and many cynics wrote off ‘Toilet – Ek Prem Katha’ as an outright propaganda. It takes guts, however, to invest money and energy in a project that is guaranteed to be ridiculed and laughed off at the onset. I can’t think of other actors who could put themselves on the line like Akshay Kumar did by being a part of the film. The appeal of Bollywood still reigns supreme and this mode of story-telling gets a far bigger – and engrossed – audience than other media at least in our country. A film like Pad man, with lead characters that also include the talented Radhika Apte and Sonal Kapoor, may be more successful in facilitating introspection and change than public service advertisements.

First appeared in The Goan Everyday


Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Decency trumps birth control, safe sex

Given India's population surge, greater awareness is more urgently needed than debating questions of decency

The government, in an advisory issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry on Monday, strictly asked TV channels not to air advertisements selling and promoting condoms during prime time. The advisory invoked Rule 7 (7) and Rule 7 (8) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, banning an “advertisement which endangers the safety of children or create in them any interest in unhealthy practices or shows them begging or in an undignified or indecent manner.” It further states: “.. All TV channels are hereby advised not to telecast the advertisements of condoms which are for a particular age group and could be indecent/inappropriate for viewing by children. Indecent, vulgar, suggestive, repulsive or offensive themes or treatment shall be avoided in all advertisements."
The development reportedly follows a request made by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) earlier this month to the I&B ministry to take a call on such ads and their telecast timing. Consequently, the ministry swiftly responded: “It has been brought to the notice of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that some channels carry advertisements of condoms repeatedly which are alleged to be indecent especially for children. Such advertisements may be telecast between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. to avoid exposure of such material to children."
Population control and safe sex are an undeniable goal of the country teeming with hyperactive youth. A recent Times of India article quotes research published in The Lancet, a respected scientific journal, that claims that 1.6 crore abortions take place in India annually, with 81% carried out at homes, mostly with the help of off-the-counter pills. Take another example: In September, a new condom advertisement, released just before the Hindu festival Navratri, drew protests from a Surat-based group. The ad, featuring Sunny Leone, was displayed on hoardings and carried a message in Gujarati “play but with love” that obviously hinted at the nine-nights long dancing festival. Of course, cultural pride was at loggerheads with the messaging and a city-based group Hindu Yuva Vahini staged a protest; the particular ad was soon pulled back. So what next is on the cards - surrogate advertising for condoms? 
Coming back to the advisory, if the issue was to "safeguard" children from indecent exposure, there is an ocean of information out there, other than television, which can evade all types of censorship unless a blanket ban and trip back to the pre-Internet era is on mind. These are the perils of having being technologically advanced and culturally adapted. Why just target condom commercials? Because they deal with the very pertinent aspect of pleasure and reproduction - and because discussing the same is still not considered kosher? Well, here's some news - advertisements of many other products are sensual in nature and put women as the object of desire even though what they are attempting to sell is a far take from something pretty useful as condoms - chocolates, mango juices, ice creams, deodorants, perfumes, underwear, soft drinks, even inverters and cement(!). 
Given the examples above, the government's move, in targeting condom ads alone, is questionable. On the other hand, if it were to perform a sweeping censorship of whatever is deemed "indecent" based on its mysterious, subjective standards - and factor in the brutal crimes reported 24/7 from all parts of the country - we might have a drastically limited list of things to see on television. It is a rather ambiguous process of determining what is "decent."
India's population surge, spike in sexual assaults and child abuse cannot be denied. Greater awareness is more urgently required than debating questions of decency. Of course, a prime-time ban is not a solution. But, let's move away from the ban a bit and focus on the ads by themselves. Here's the thing, if we leave aside the moral-policing laced decision, and consider the type of advertisements that exist on Indian television - it is undeniable that most commercials in general - and condom advertising in particular - has focussed just on erotica and sensuality. The same issues and flip sides that are raised now to reject the ban, unfortunately, they aren't sufficiently raised by the commercials either.
When it comes to condom ads, there are hardly any glimpses of responsible messaging that promote the responsibility, safety and birth-control aspects. The need for being more open, by portraying women as choice-makers is also lacking. While contraceptive ads do picture coy women intent on respectful family planning, condoms have culturally and commercially been assigned a strictly male domain. This, when the product is by far the only popular scientific way to safeguard both partners from sexually transmitted diseases. Women are vulnerable from a health stand-point if they were only to rely on contraceptives. But, how many women do actually go and purchase a pack on their own. That would be too "indecent" even if it were at the cost of their well-being.
The idea of "decency" is in play with the notion that it is alright, even macho, if men get into a pharmacy to buy a pack of condoms. But, more often than not there are scandalised judgements if a woman does so. A YouTube video captured the comments and discussions that followed a woman's attempt to buy condoms. The sexist comments, which bring up the question of decency time and again in the conversation, completely overlook that fact that sex involves two people and both have equal rights to ensure their safety. 

- First published in The Goan Everyday