[Laadli Media Award Winner] Is one which is 1ft x1ft, reusable, thin, costs less than Rs. 3, and most importantly, helps women get a fighting chance at life!
Half of India is made up of women, all of whom menstruate for a total of about 2100 hours in their lifetimes; yet leaving aside the metros, only 3% practice menstrual hygiene in any form. Most haven’t heard of or seen sanitary napkins, and those who have, can’t afford to buy one.
Stories about how women in the remote villages of India deal with their natural monthly cycles are enough to churn the insides. Women from the Saharia tribe of Sheopur revealed in a study by WaterAid, that they spent ‘those’ days locked up in a dinghy cow shed. Any available material, from rag cloth to straw, ash, mud and paper is used. Sometimes, more than one woman in a household shared the same rag cloth, washing it repeatedly. A teenager in Dindori district, MP had to have her uterus removed due to an insect that had entered the straw she had used on a day without electricity. Deaths have been reported due to rusted pieces of hook in the cloths used and the most horrific of them all, a centipede that travelled inside from the mud.
The affordability question
“I asked my educated wife why she used such nasty rags during her menses. She talked about our child’s milk budget getting cut otherwise”, says Muruganantham, noting how the American companies that dominated the Indian hygiene market produced sophisticated pieces that even literate, lower middle class families could ill afford. The entrepreneur from Coimbatore spent the next 11 years trying to come up with a way to make low cost sanitary pads. The problem is exacerbated amongst the economically disadvantaged in rural areas – where resources to realise even basics like food are scarce, a napkin is but a wanton luxury. “Women scarcely talk about their own needs. We had to first elevate them to a level where they believed that their personal wellbeing mattered, before we could address this issue”, says Ruchika Gandhi, Delhi co-ordinator of the NGO Goonj. Goonj has been pioneering the effort to make and distribute reusable cloth sanitary pads – used cloth is measured, cut, washed, ironed and sterilised; the package is then sent to the far flung areas of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Bihar, UP and other States, sold for as low as Rs. 3 for a packet of 5.
The period that changed lives
A study by Maria Fernandes of WaterAid in the villages of Chattisgarh found that girls dropped out of school once they attained menarche due to absence of sanitation facilities and the fear of being teased by boys. For a majority of the women who worked on the fields for 7-8 hours at a stretch and defecated in the open, menses spelt a direct threat to their livelihoods. Bad hygiene practices also lead to a plethora of illnesses, “from urinary tract infections to cancer”, says Gandhi. WaterAid’s study indicates that besides affordability and lack of awareness, access to napkins, ways to dispose and the embarrassment of stains were other barriers that prevented adoption.
That which cannot be named
“When I first went to the local store to buy a napkin, the shopkeeper looked around furtively, wrapped it in multiple newspapers and a black plastic bag and quickly thrust it in my hands. I felt like I was smuggling something”, chuckles Muruganantham. Difficult religious, social and cultural implications associated with menses preclude any discussion, even among women, making it that much harder to create awareness and implement a solution. In the initial years, Muruganantham had to test out his prototypes himself using fresh goat blood from the butcher, “as the girls in the neighbouring medical colleges would run away the moment they heard the sound of my moped. I even wore the blood filled napkins myself to test out their absorption capacity!” Fernandes had to first rid her male field assistants of their inhibitions and educate them before they could start working with the villagers. Goonj held village fairs to help women come forward and “start talking comfortably about the issue, something that women traditionally never did”, says Gandhi.
The pad that liberates
Muruganantham today distributes his affordable sanitary pad machine that can make 120 pads in an hour, to 18 States in India, only through Self Help Groups (SHGs) and educational institutions. “Dignity must never be unaffordable”, he says. “The key is to create a sustainable livelihood option for women, and empower them directly without the use of middlemen. Villagers in Kashmir are now producing surplus quantities using the machine and even selling it to neighbouring chalets” he ends, the pride visible in his voice.
In a first of its kind initiative in Chattisgarh, the Mahalakshmi SHG along with CARMDAKSH and WaterAid, established a production unit in in the remote Navapara village, Pali, to cater to 62 villages where women had no access to health centres and had never used a napkin. Sold for as low as Rs 2.5, it has created viable employment opportunities for the tribal women, who have gone as far as disposing even used pads safely using composting pits earth-friendly incinerators.
2000 pads get sent everyday from Goonj’s processing centres to remote areas. The high point of the “Not just a piece of cloth” campaign, according to Goonj, was witnessing rural womenfolk in Bihar handle the awareness stalls confidently; some even displayed their own innovations in making cloth pads at the melas. If not Goonj, then what, is a question we often ask the villagers, says Gandhi. “When they respond expressing an interest to continue this effort, we are happy at the substantial change in mindset. These were the same women who didn’t even wear undergarments, forget pads!”, she exclaims.
And that is the story of how an “unclean” process that has for generations made people squirm uncomfortably can be turned on its head to generate a “clean” way of regaining dignity, health, education, employment and empowerment. Have a happy period!
This article won the Laadli Media Award for the “Best Article on the Web” in December 2010. The awards are instituted by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Population First, for gender sensitivity in media reporting.
Muruganantham: 577, KNG Pudur Road, Somayampalaym,
Coimbatore 641018, firstname.lastname@example.org