While the ready-made garment sector in India employs 12.9 million people, one issue that impacts approximately 80 percent of garment workers often goes unaddressed: menstruation. Factories contracted by Western fast fashion brands often limit access to menstrual hygiene in their facilities in order to prevent decreased productivity. This lack of hygiene infrastructure is coupled with exploitative practices that are perhaps even more dangerous. One recent Reuters study conducted in garment factories in South India found that women experiencing period pains were given unmarked pills in order to avoid interruptions to their work. These pills, later identified, were found to have possible harmful side-effects if taken frequently, with many of the workers interviewed experiencing health problems ranging from depression and anxiety, to urinary tract infections, fibroids and miscarriages.
Prachi Gor, a recent graduate of Parsons School of Design’s Masters program, is mobilizing against these abusive practices. With a background in design, Prachi hopes her academic research and educational initiatives will bring about long overdue change. TNFI spoke to Prachi about her work and the path she hopes to pave forward.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Hi Prachi, when you first spoke to us, you referred to the issue at hand as “period poverty.” How would you define that term?
Basically the issue that I am exploring through my research project is the one of the lack of menstrual hygiene in garment factories in India. There are three issues that my research really dives into. Number one is access. So that can mean access to toilets, access to menstrual hygiene supplies, or even access to just time for that matter. The second kind of topic it covers is education and awareness about menstrual hygiene management. The third one is operational policies. Under international labor laws, as well as Indian labor laws there are rules put in place. For example, for every 20 workers, there should be at least one toilet. There are, of course, a lot of laws established about this internationally and within India, but they’re not followed.
Another topic I also explored which comes hand in hand with education is the stigma around periods. For example, when I had a call with an anonymous factory owner in Mumbai, he could not even bring himself to say periods without being awkward. He just called it a ladies’ or womens’ issue. He said in a place like Mumbai, if we focus on these things, then we won’t be able to offer competitive pricing, which means we won’t be able to get business. I feel like everybody that I spoke to kind of just kicks the can down the road and unfortunately it’s the workers that are at the extreme end of this, where they kind of have no say because their livelihood depends on the job. And they are dependent on unit heads who would then be dependent on owners who are then dependent on businesses and international businesses who are then dependent on consumers. So it’s really like a vicious cycle, which I literally just scratch the surface of through the research.
This is something I’m still exploring; I don’t have the answer. But it’s like, who is responsible at the end of the day? Is it us consumers only? Or is it also the retailers? It’s really easy to say that we comply with labor standards and we comply with XYZ, but who’s checking it? Somebody sitting here might be thinking that it’s all going fine down there. But coming from there, I know it’s anything but fine.
So, like I said, there are many angles to this. In my definition, period poverty would be lack of access to various things like educational awareness and financial access. Let’s say a pack of pads cost about an average of, let’s say 40 to 60 rupees. Their daily wages are somewhere around 150 rupees. So that’s essentially half of their wages. [Moving on from] the retailer side, when I think about consumers, I don’t even think we think this is an issue that we consider. Before I started researching for this project, I didn’t even think that that cheap sweater or whatever we’re buying [could be a result of] somebody [who] couldn’t take care of her essential biological needs.
Even if you have access to the information about why fast fashion is bad for environmental reasons and other ethical reasons, I feel like this is never in the conversation. What drew you to this topic when it came time to choose a capstone project?
I wanted to apply for this research grant and I’ve always been drawn to social issues in general. My initial thought was that I wanted to do research on the stigma attached with menstruation. I was raised in an Indian family and my parents are pretty modern, but some of their ways are still pretty conservative. There were a lot of rituals that I would have to follow as a younger girl when I would have my period and it didn’t make any sense to me. I remember I used to always fight with my dad. That’s why this topic is so personal to me because I’ve been someone who deals with all the things that come along with periods; whether it’s stigma, pain, anything and everything. It’s just another bodily function [and yet] there’s so much myth and mystery behind it. It’s been so deeply embedded, especially in so many Eastern cultures that it’s hard to break down that ideology. I guess that was my initial thought that I knew I wanted to do that [topic].
Meanwhile, I was also studying my fashion management course at Parsons and in our program, we discussed so much about everything that is wrong with the fast fashion industry. And I just thought this was a great intersection: exploring menstrual leaves every month as a reason for bias. I was just exploring all these topics and I worked on a research proposal for a grant. I didn’t get that one, so I just thought I’d just explore it by myself in my capstone. I just made it real during my capstone.
How did your personal background, as a designer and being from India yourself, inform your work on the intersections between menstruation and fashion?
My background in design and the few years of experience that I’ve had back in India as a designer gives me so much more awareness. I did work and study in Mumbai. I’m not just talking about one job, I did multiple internships. I used to work in what we call sweatshops [in the U.S.]; [in India] we just call it workplaces, because that’s just how it is everywhere. I studied textiles and design, but I majored in textile design. Even during the process of those four years, we’ve done so many field trips and have been to so many different places where handicrafts are done: artisanal places and large textile factories. Until I came into this program to study management and started looking at this side, I didn’t even understand. Let me just put it this way. It’s obvious that the standards of living in both the countries are way far apart. Even if we’re considering the poverty line, it’s so far apart, that I didn’t fully understand it until I came here and went through this program.
[Once] I became a consumer in the West myself, I noticed and identified shopping behaviors and the kind of impact retailers and brands have. In India I didn’t grow up with that kind of an emphasis on brands that have that much of an impact on the daily lives of the people. Because we just have street vendors and stuff like that. It’s a luxury there to be able to buy from branded stores, it really is! I only realized then that there’s so much abstraction due to the distance. Like here versus there to be honest it’s so different.
Another thing I’ve recently started [is] to use my creativity [to talk about these issues]. I started with just my Instagram, for example. I’ve been able to create art books and videos myself. [I hope to explore] not just what I researched, but also how I present it and how I’m able to share it with everybody else. My design capabilities have to make so much of a difference there. Because if you have an idea and you can’t talk to people about it or make an impact, then it’s stuck there essentially.
Your work also touches on the bureaucratic and managerial barriers to addressing menstrual hygiene in the garment industry. How do you see advocacy for menstruating workers moving forward even with these constraints?
Brands will only look at what fits in their budget. They’re saying their design team has to match what the sales team needs and has to match what the production team can give. Everybody’s just focused on their own issues. The same with the factory: they care about how many brands they can get on board, how much work they can find that they can make money to even give the workers and cut some profits for themselves. Maybe that pressure can only come to brands from the consumer side. And I don’t see why brands could not even use this as an advantage. These changes would obviously help brands move towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals of 2021.
I have this tagline that I usually put after my videos: let’s make women’s periods, our business. UNICEF itself has this amazing case study, parts of which are in my paper, about why and how women workers’ health environment is a good business strategy. That’s something that I want to posit further. I don’t want to just keep exploring the issue, but see how there can be some sort of implementation to change this. I don’t think a lot of the factories even acknowledge that this is an issue. I mean, everybody does talk about health and wages, but this is such a subsection that I don’t think it’s even considered.
Could you tell us about your new initiative, Fashionable Flow?
Fashionable Flow for right now is an initiative that’s basic aim is to educate people that such an issue exists and it exists for a variety of reasons. The fact that somebody who’s just making clothes for other people to wear is not able to take care of their basic human needs. That’s the first message I want to get across, to educate people that these are XYZ things that happen because of fast fashion. And I hope that I can start small by talking about it on social media because that is the place where we all look for information now. I hope to be able to dig deeper into this research with more facts that in time garner that kind of support from my followers, from the people who believe in the cost.
To support Prachi’s initiative and learn more about this topic, follow @Fashionable.Flow on Instagram or @FlowFashionable on Twitter!