By Mehak Siddiqui
This article was originally published at Innovations Stories.
If you walk into a pharmacy almost anywhere in India and ask for a pack of sanitary napkins, chances are you’ll be treated very much like you’re buying contraband. This air of secrecy around a fairly basic hygiene product is a result of the blanket taboo on menstruation. Baseless restrictions prevent women from participating in routine daily activities on account of their bodies being “impure” while menstruating.
At religious shrines and places of worship across the country, blatant signposts urge menstruating women to keep away. Such oppressive attitudes have amassed over generations to incite feelings of deep shame and guilt among millions of Indian women—particularly those from rural areas or low-income families—who have limited access to education and awareness.
Many of them go to shocking extremes to keep their periods a secret and avoid family expenditure on sanitary feminine products. To absorb the flow, some women use unhygienic rags or leaves caked with mud, while others fashion makeshift tampons out of snips of old cloth. Still others use no protection at all, spending their periods in isolation, squatting over pots filled with sand to absorb the blood.
“Women definitely deserve better than this,” says 55-year-old Swati Bedekar, a former schoolteacher who has spent years working to remove taboos associated with menstruation.
Noticing high rates of female absenteeism from school starting in grades six and up, Swati inferred that menarche was a contributing factor. Further investigation revealed a harrowing state of affairs: “Girls were isolated and forced to sit behind their homes for the duration of their period with absolutely no protection,” she recounts.
Having used cloth pads in her teenage years, Swati wanted to be a part of providing women with a wider range of options. “I didn’t just want to provide a product that could help rural women, but rather a process that would make them self-sufficient.”
Swati’s search for an affordable method of sanitation pointed her to the inventor of a revolutionary machine that produces low-cost sanitary napkins. “I contacted him via e-mail and eventually met him in person to know more about the machines,” says Swati. Swati went about creating Sakhi Unique Rural Enterprise, a social initiative that promotes awareness about menstruation and employs women in the production of affordable and biodegradable sanitary napkins.
Production units are set up in villages and low-income urban settlements where women work according to their own schedules. The sanitary pad consists primarily of wood pulp, which is flattened and wrapped in a super absorbent paper fortified with banana fibers that help keep the napkin firm yet soft.
Says Swati, “We’ve used only organic materials in the Sakhi pad, and it has a very comfortable cottony-soft top layer.” She picks a sample off the glass-topped coffee table and passes it to me. It is winged and 230 millimeters long—the set standard for production….
Step 1: Fill the mold with wood pulp.
Step 4: Finished product.
“There is no need to wait around for some external force or authority to come and solve things for us,” she told me. “Solutions to even seemingly complex problems are within reach if only we truly want to find them.”
Excerpted with permission from the publisher; to read more of this article and other human-interest stories go to innovationsstories.com. Photos and videos courtesy of Innovations Stories.