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Eco-Entrepreneurs promise Indian women a safe period

Mar 11, 2015

For millions of girls across India, menstruation, in absence of proper sanitary napkins means five days of solitary confinement.

Women Napkins

Pune: Period. While the English dictionary gives several meanings for this rather ordinary word, millions of women around the world associate it with discomfort, pain, and embarrassing memories.

For hundreds of thousands of girls across India, menstruation means five days of solitary confinement; it’s the one reason behind many being forced to drop out of school and also being subjected to discriminatory social practices. Caught between superstition, ignorance and poverty they end up using anything from straw, ash and tree bark to even cow dung and dirty rags to absorb the flow. Consequently, stories about disease and death are legion.

But this is not a story that enumerates the trials that women face during ‘those difficult days of the month’; it’s about a bunch of people who are using innovation and entrepreneurial skills to make their lives easier and free from the crippling burden of taboos. Kathy Walkling is the brains behind Eco Femme, an Auroville, Puducherry-based all-woman group that produces and exports cloth sanitary napkins by the same name to 14 countries in the world. An entrepreneur by accident, she has been working for more than a decade now towards promoting “menstrual practices that are healthy, dignified, affordable and eco-positive”.

“In a conservative social milieu, a single use sanitary pad does signify freedom – from being isolated, from losing days of work and wages,” remarks Walking. But whereas it is a boon for many, it also results in escalating the vulnerability and drudgery of another set of people – the waste pickers, who are most often women. According to Pratibha Sharma of SWaCH, a waste-pickers’ co-operative in Pune, Maharashtra, “In a country like India, garbage is handled by waste pickers and conservancy workers and they use bare, ungloved hands.” Imagine, then, their plight because the modern-day, mass manufactured sanitary napkins are completely non-biodegradable. Sharma says, “We are risking the health of waste pickers, often women themselves. Would anybody be willing to handle their own soiled pad once it has been thrown in the garbage?”

“It was hygienic disposal of pads that got me into the business of making cloth pads in the first place,” shares Walkling, adding, “If each one of the over 300 million menstruating women in India used disposable sanitary pads it would result in over 58,500 million pads ending up in landfills every year.” When she first came to Auroville in 1997, she was taken aback with the lack of knowledge about menstrual hygiene among women as well as the improper disposal of pads.

Loath to transfer the problem of collecting unsanitary garbage to someone else, she experimented with making reusable cloth pads and sewed a few for her personal use. Although, initially Walkling did feel ‘squeamish’ using the handmade pads very soon things changed, “It felt like I was taking charge of my body, taking complete responsibility for something that is so much at the core of my identity as a woman. Believe me, it was quite an empowering feeling.” At the same time, she points out, these sanitary pads guarantee a toxin-free period. Incidentally, most disposable pads are made from low-density polyethylene plastic polymers, bleached wood pulp and super-absorbent polymer gel that can take up to 800 years to decompose. Apart from being environment-friendly, the Eco Femme pads also help women save money. Use of a single cloth pad is equivalent to 120 disposable tampons or pads over a five-year period.

More often than not, it is the lack of access to safe products that adversely affects women’s health. Over 70 per cent Indian women suffer from some kind of Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) in their lifetime and a higher incidence of cervical cancer is also linked to this. Inadequate protection during the menstrual cycle leads to adolescent girls (12-18 years) missing 50 school days annually while 23 per cent drop out of school altogether.

“It was extremely frustrating and puzzling to see girls missing school every month,” says Dhiren Pratap Singh of Azadi, a non-profit that focuses on empowering girls and women so that they can go about their daily activities irrespective of their periods. Right out of college, as part of their work for a social good foundation, Singh and a few friends decided to teach marginalised children in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. However, the motivated teachers ended up learning why girls invariably fall behind in their schooling.

Singh and Azadi co-founder Ameet Mehta “landed on a surprising discovery: even with financial support, girls were missing school when they were menstruating. The absence of access to female hygiene products was leading many of these girls to eventually drop out of school”. Thus, Azadi was born out of a mission to make menstruation a non-issue. While they manufacture affordable, 100 per cent biodegradable Azadi sanitary pads, “raising awareness and improving education around the importance of sanitary pads and how they significantly improve female health and hygiene” forms an important part of their work.

If absentee girl students drove Singh and Mehta to start up the Azadi venture then a missing cook led Sambodhi Ghosh on a search for viable menstrual hygiene solutions. On a fellowship in Dhoan, a village in the Western Ghats, he observed that women kept away from work and incurred critical financial losses as they underwent solitary confinement at home during their periods. Moved by their difficulties, he, along with Jaydeep Mandal, thought up of the inexpensive, compostable Anandi pad.

“It [the taboos] has as much to do with ignorance as it does with the lack of access to hygiene products,” states Mandal. Around 88 per cent women and 64 per cent girls lose wages for two to four days every month owing to their monthly cycle and for the average impoverished woman this loss of livelihood amounts to five years of unearned wages over a lifetime.

By collaborating with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the National Innovation Foundation (NIF), Aakar Innovations, the social enterprise floated by Ghosh and Mandal devised a machine that produces bio-degradable sanitary napkins from agri-wastes such as banana fibre and bamboo.

At present, Anandi pads are being produced at 12 units across rural India, with expansion plans for another 50 within the next year, offering a sustainable source of income for 600 women and an eco-friendly menstrual product to 1,50,000 rural women. One pack of eight pads sells for Rs 20 and the earnings are wholly controlled by the women self-help groups that manufacture and distribute them chiefly through women’s group meetings in the villages.

Conversations that do away with myths, taboos and misinformation that shroud the issue of menstruation as well as availability of affordable products can truly transform women’s lives at the grassroots and promise a happy period.

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