These women are not down anymore. They’re making low-cost sanitary pads to take charge of their lives

Manish Soni March 2, 2017 4 min

A sanitary napkin revolution of sorts is underway in Surguja district of Chhattisgarh, busting myths and removing taboos attached to menstruation, and empowering rural women to take ownership of their bodies.

For decades, poverty and ignorance have deprived rural women in India of basic dignity. In the absence of awareness about personal hygiene and access to sanitary napkins, most rural women struggle through their monthly period. Often, girls are forced to quit school when they attain puberty for want of sanitary pads!

Not in Surguja, though, where tribal women use four special machines to churn out thousands of low-priced sanitary pads every month. Operating for 8-10 hours every day, each machine can provide a hygienic menstrual management option for 5,000 women each month.

At present, 15 women are involved in manufacturing sanitary pads, which are delivered to anganwadis, government schools and women’s hostels for sale in over 400 villages of Surguja  

The pads are made from locally sourced agri-waste, which makes them cost-effective, affordable and hygienic. They are fully compostable. The aim is to ensure environmental sustainability and not add to rural and urban waste disposal problems.

The Kiran Self-Help Group (KSHG), founded in November 2014 by then district collector Ritu Sen along with eight tribal women, is at the helm of the revolutionary project. Surguja Science Group (SSG), an NGO working in the field of education and health, is providing technical and marketing help to the KSHG.

Changing the mindset

“Initially, tribal women were reluctant to be part of the initiative due to the social stigma attached to the very word menstruation. But, with our team campaigning in the villages talking about menstruation and the cost-effective sanitary pads, they quickly came on board,” says Anchal Ojha, president of the SSG.

“With the help of Ritu Sen and the SSG, we got a loan and land to start a mini-factory with four machines,” says former KSHG president Anita Yadav.

Tribal women use four machines to make napkins. Each machine can provide a hygienic menstrual management option for 5,000 women every month

Sen helped the KSHG get a Rs 6.5 lakh loan from the Central Bank of India, of which Rs 4.5 lakh was invested in the machines, sourced from Mumbai-based Aakar Innovations.

The land and loan issues settled, a batch of tribal women was sent to Mumbai on an all-expenses paid trip by the district administration for training. “We underwent a week’s training in making sanitary pads at Aakar Innovations,” says KSHG president Sushma Toppo. “After returning, we trained other women and girls.”

At present, 15 KSHG women are involved in manufacturing sanitary pads, which are delivered to anganwadis, government schools and women’s hostels for sale in over 400 villages of Surguja.

Empowering the body, and the mind

According to a report in a local (Hindi) newspaper, of the 68 lakh women in Surguja, 61 lakh have suffered from infections caused due to unhygienic methods adopted during menstruation.

The sanitary pad project is helping women improve their health on one hand, and enabling a better future for them by allowing them to continue with their studies even after puberty.

The sanitary pad project is helping women improve their health on one hand, and enabling a better future for them by allowing them to continue with their studies even after puberty  

The dropout rate of girls in schools in India after they attain puberty is over 20%. One of the reasons they quit school is difficulties associated with menstruation.

The initiative has also helped empower them financially. Every member of the KSHG earns between Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 a month.

Surguja Science Group members campaign in the villages, talking about menstruation and the cost-effective sanitary pads

“The problem is of myths, the way of thinking and conservative backgrounds. The low-cost pads made from degradable materials like bamboo, bark and cotton are empowering these rural women,” says Meenakshi Gupta of Goonj Foundation, an NGO working in community development.

Arunachalam Muruganathan, the ‘Sanitary Man’ of India, who is credited with the invention of the machine that manufactures low-cost sanitary pads, says myths and taboos related to women’s hygiene, especially menstruation, stand in the way of empowering women.

“How can the problem be solved overnight when it took more than 70 years (since Independence) to open up and speak on the issue?” —Arunachalam Muruganathan, ‘Sanitary Man’ of India  

“Low-cost sanitary napkins are helping rural women in many ways. But, how can the problem be solved overnight when it took more than 70 years (since Independence) to open up and speak on the issue?” asks Muruganathan.

He says his machine should be installed in villages all over India. It costs only Rs 1.5 lakh to make, and can be installed easily. His solution had not yet reached this Chhattisgarh district and hence they had tried to look at alternate options.

Gupta adds that access is the main problem in rural India. “It is great to see people like Muruganathan help empower women. His machine and the pads it makes should be made widely available to help end myths and taboos surrounding menstruation,” she says.