Taboos rule certain aspects of life in all society, but their reach is greater in remote parts of the world. Menstrual cycle can ostracise a woman in a remote area to the point that she becomes a pariah in her own family, let alone the society she lives. In some part, a menstruating woman can be confined in a shack built for her. Much to our dismay, it still remains a silent taboo, not to be discussed publicly. Menstruation is a biological cycle of natural changes that occurs in the uterus and ovary as an essential part of making sexual reproduction possible. Its timing is governed by endogenous biological cycles.
This ignorance causes not only temporary isolation but also denies something more crucial, menstrual hygiene. In India’s rural, the matter is so grave that majority of the women are not aware that sanitary napkins should be used, also access to sanitary napkins is far-fetched, owing to affordability. This has induced rural women to resort to using rags, leaves, mud and straw etc, only exposing themselves to greater health risk.
“It can cause urinary infections. These infection at sometimes can be so severe that they can affect their health. They can land up with pelvic inflammatory diseases, infection of the vaginal area or of the local parts. And if they also are associated with urine infection then it can cause their life,” says Dr. Bandana Sodhi, gynaecologist at Moolchand Medcity, Delhi.
According to Jaydeep Mandal, founder of Aakar Innovations, around 312 million women living in rural India do not use sanitary napkin at all. Aakar has recorded that only 2-3 percent of women living in rural India use sanitary napkins, indicating how monstrous hygiene issue is in India’s hinterland where two-thirds of population lives.
Adolescent girls often skip one week of school every month, which after, sometimes, forces them to drop out of school as they can’t keep up with the ongoing syllabus. As per the same data, one out of four girls drops out of school when they reach puberty.
Innovation out of necessity
Arunachalam Muruganantham, popularly known as ‘sanitary pad man’ and founder of Jayshree Industries, is a person who has developed a solution to this problem by bringing revolution in sanitary napkin production. He designed a machine which can produce low cost sanitary napkins meant for rural women.
“It all started with my wife,” he says. In 1998, he was newly married and his world revolved around his wife Shanthi and his widowed mother. One day he saw Shanthi hiding something from him. He was shocked to discover that it was rags, which she used to use during menstruation. When he asked his wife why she didn’t use sanitary napkins, she told him that she wouldn’t be able to afford them. To impress his wife, he went to the market to buy them. As he asked the shopkeeper about the pads, it was handed to him hurriedly as if it were contraband product. When he weighed it in his hand, he wondered why 10 gm of cotton, which cost 10 paise, was priced at cost four rupees. That time the seed of inventing a machine, which could produce cheap and good quality napkins, germinated in his mind.
If Muruganantham has designed a machine, then Aakar innovations, a social enterprise, which focuses on providing affordable pads, went further by producing bio-degradable and high quality sanitary pads known as Anandi Pads for rural women.
Aakar Innovations was founded by Jaydeep Mandal and his childhood friend Sombodhi Ghosh. Both have the exposure and experience of working with grassroots communities, and it was while working with them they realised the gravity of menstrual hygiene.
“We can claim that we are possibly the first company in India to have developed a 100 percent bio-degradable sanitary napkin which can be disposed of in compostable conditions within 90 to 180 days. In addition, Aakar works as a platform where our non-profit arm engages extensively with the community to conduct awareness campaigns in villages,” elaborates Mandal.
Despite these prominent initiatives, a lot needs to be done. Dr Sodhi says, “Firstly girls who have attained puberty should be imparted education on menstrual hygiene. Pictorial presentation will also be convincing. With the barrier broken, people should be encouraged to speak up openly. Also, government and policy maker have a major role to play here.”
As per a UN report, educating women is the single most effective way to improve lives and health of a family and a society at large. However, in most of the developing world around the globe including India, women are often denied of education opportunities. Women constitute 48 percent of the total population in India, however, the women literacy rate in urban area is 79.11 percent as against 88.76 percent for males, and the figures are even lower in the rural scenario where 57.93 percent women are literate as against 77.15 percent literate males.
The government has launched many programmes to encourage primary, secondary and higher education for women. India can reach its true potential as a nation only when its women population is equipped with the power of education. Development on this front means development in other aspects. Such a change can ensure a gradual, if not swift, shift in paradigm and thus such taboo will be laid bare for public discussion. Only then, our women will not face great health risk.