Girls in their teens in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, brought up to consider menstruation as something that is "unclean", are now educating their mothers about how it is a normal part of growing up. This remarkable change has been brought about by a small sanitary napkin vending machine that has been installed in government schools here.
First of its kind, this machine has given many adolescents the confidence to talk openly about menstruation and menstrual hygiene - subjects that are still kept under wraps in most Indian homes. Even today many Indian mothers are too embarrassed to talk to their daughters about menstruation and many still continue to use pieces of cloth that are washed and re-used. It is a well-established fact that the dropout rate of girls in schools, particularly in villages and small towns, increases after they reach puberty, and the difficulties of managing menstruation is seen as an important contributory factor.
Over the years, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in India has been trying to address these issues by introducing various initiatives targeted at adolescent girls. By facilitating the creation of the sanitary napkin vending machine, it has made an important breakthrough.
Interestingly, the idea of the vending machine came, not from some development officer, hotshot engineer or marketing whiz kid, but a young girl from Krishnagiri. In 2007, during a workshop on hygiene organised by UNICEF Tamil Nadu in Kuppichiparai village in Krishnagiri, Sukanya (name changed) innocently asked the authorities, "Sir, I saw this machine at the railway station in which I put in a two rupee coin and it showed me my weight. Is it possible to have similar machine that can give us sanitary napkins?"
That got the experts thinking. After extensive research, UNICEF Tamil Nadu contacted several companies that manufactured vending machines and put the idea of making a customised sanitary napkin vending machine to them. The first prototype was manufactured by a Chennai-based company and installed at a government school in Kanchipuram. "But this machine had many drawbacks. It did not have enough storage capacity. It was also impossible to find out just how many napkins were left or if there were any at all and sometimes the girls ended up losing their money. Also, the machine was powered by electricity so whenever there was a power cut it stopped functioning," recalls Arputhasamy Devraj, Water and Sanitation Officer, UNICEF Tamil Nadu.
This led to further improvisations. Finally, the Napivend, a coin-operated automatic sanitary napkin vending machine, was created. Manufactured by Faraday Instruments, a Coimbatore-based company, the machine is marketed through its subsidiary, Visaga Techno System.
All government schools in Coimbatore have this wall mountable machine, which has a day's battery back-up so that it doesn't stop functioning during a power failure. It is simple to operate: When a two rupee coin is dropped inside, a sanitary napkin pops out. The machine has a glass panel so that the girls can see whether there are enough napkins before they put in their money.
The machine costs around Rs 14,000 and, depending on the model, comes with a storage capacity of 20, 40, and 60 to 100 napkins. "We can supply machines as per specific requirements for different places such as government hospitals, primary health centres, schools, colleges, railway and bus stations, public toilets, highway petrol stations, hostels, and so on," informs Parimala, Marketing Coordinator, Visaga Techno System. However, at present these machines are operating only in government-run girls' schools and colleges. "I think it's a good idea to start with schools and colleges and later introduce it in public places. This will help girls, who are the primary users, to overcome their inhibition in walking up to one of these machines in a public space," she adds.
Sure enough, the NapiVend is a big hit among the girls. Murugambal, 14, a student of Government Girls' High School in Mekala Chinnampalli, is a happy teen. "The machine is very useful. I regularly take home sanitary napkins for myself and for my mother," she says.
While working on the concept of the NapiVend, UNICEF also came up with the idea of another machine for the proper disposal of used napkins. So, Faraday Instruments came up with a compact electric incinerator. It costs Rs 18,000 and can destroy 100 napkins per day or 15 napkins in half an hour.
The benefits of the Napivend are there for all to see. Observes Dr N. Shankar, who practices in Krishnagiri, "The vending machine and incinerator have certainly helped girls in a big way. And thanks to them, even their mothers are now aware of the ill effects of poor menstrual hygiene. They have started following clean habits and also take care to dispose off the soiled napkins properly."
Following the success of these machines in Tamil Nadu, where these machines are installed in Coimbatore, Erode, Selam, Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Cuddalore and Pondicherry, states like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala governments have also initiated the process of installing them, with Madhya Pradesh and Bihar also showing keen interest.
But while the Napivend may have had a positive impact, there is still a lot that can be done in this area, feels Devraj. "The vending machine is just one aspect of hygiene. Clean drinking water and water for toilets is also essential. For the want of facilities like proper toilets, and so on, there are many who stop coming to school once they start menstruating. Nonetheless, the Napivend will definitely check the drop out rate of girls," he adds.
Incidentally, UNICEF Tamil Nadu has also trained women Self-Help Groups in the state to make sterile sanitary napkins. These napkins are sold loose at Rs 2 (US$1=Rs 47.14) each and not in packets, so that rural girls can afford them.