For several communities in India, menstruation is an excuse to treat women as 'untouchables' for seven days every month. They are humiliated further by being denied the right to participate in certain social customs. However, women in the backward Purulia district of West Bengal have managed to destroy taboos related to the monthly cycle through a project that aims at providing better sanitation and hygiene. It also allows some women to earn money.
Young Kalpana Kuiri, 31, used to watch the sanitary napkin commercials on television with great yearning. The rags given by her mother for use during periods were smelly and left her with rashes and an itch on her inner thighs. At 15, Kalpana was eager to buy sanitary napkins. "But, back then, I wouldn't have known how to use them," says Kalpana, now the district coordinator of a Self Help Group, Sathi, which runs a sanitary napkin production centre in Purulia town.
Though most women in Kalpana's village, Sirkabad, watched the commercials and knew about sanitary napkins, they actually had no clue about its usage. The bolder ones wanted to buy them and find out, but the cost was prohibitive. "We belong to poor families. With low water levels in this district, income from farming is minimal. We could not afford the Rs 80-100 (US$1=Rs 49.25) needed for napkins. Also, our parents would have found the whole idea indecent, decadent," reflects Kalpana.
Then last year in June the District Rural Development Cell (DRDC) and UNICEF jointly mooted a proposal for a sanitary napkin production centre at Purulia to provide cheap sterilized napkins and advocacy on personal hygiene. The DRDC fulfilled the infrastructure requirements while UNCEF offered technical support.
Initially, most of the women held back their eagerness for the project, fearing social disapproval. "Men shy away from discussing periods and sanitation related issues. In some convoluted manner, a woman's behavior during her periods becomes a barometer to measure her morality. Even if a wife wants to discuss it, the man considers the topic a tabooed one. They think it's something to hide, something that makes women impure," explains Subhash Chandra Kuiri, an NGO worker and Kalpana's supportive husband.
"When Kalpana joined the centre, my friends were aghast. They said she would become immoral. I had to explain issues such as hygiene, prevention of diseases, convenience for women over and over to convince them," says Subhash.
The unit eventually commenced production with five women, in June 2007. As in any economically backward area, the project finally took off only when the financial benefits became obvious. "I started making about Rs 1,500 per month from my work at the centre. The other women then started asking me how they could join in. Even their husbands became interested. They were willing to overlook the 'menstruation' aspect for the income," recalls Mita Das, 31, of Chapuri village, one of the first to join the project.
The sanitary napkin production centre revolutionized the social perception of personal hygiene in the district. "We realized that it was not just enough to make these sanitary napkins. It was essential that women become convinced about the need to buy and use them," says Mili Ojha, 30, of Jainagar village, one of the early workers at 'Sathi', the SHG, which runs the sanitary napkin making centre.
"We started door-to-door campaigns, meetings and workshops to teach them how to use the napkins and make them aware of the health and hygiene benefits. It helped that with the water problem across Purulia, most women were fed up trying to clean the cloth pieces and rags they were using with the limited water available. Many were suffering from diseases caused by poor hygiene," she adds.
Today Namita Kuiri, 17, considers herself lucky. By the time her periods started, there was access to affordable sanitary napkins. "They sell packs of four napkins for Rs 10. These don't cost much. My mother, Paru Kuiri, works at the centre. She showed me how to use them. I know how she suffered before the napkins were available. Now, I encourage all my friends to use napkins and even talk to their mothers about this," she says.
Namita's father, Shivapada Kuiri, has also endorsed the venture. "After attending some meetings at the centre along with my wife, I am now aware of the health benefits of using napkins. I also understand the biological aspect of periods now and my wife and daughter talk about it openly in front of me. I don't want my wife or daughter restricted from normal life for 7-10 days every month for no fault of theirs," he says. He adds emphatically, "My wife's work at the centre also brings home anything between Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000. This helps tremendously in the education of my three children. I thank God for that."
The sanitary napkins have been a godsend for some men as well. Madan Kuiri, a farmer, is dependent on his wife's assistance in the fields. However, for about 10 days each month, she would become totally confined to the house. "By paying Rs 20 for eight napkins, I have got her back on the farm. She is like a bird freed from a cage and works hard without any qualms," he says. His married daughter, Gandheswari, 18, uses the napkins too and will introduce her 12-year-old sister, Rita, to them in time.
One wonders whether the women will now switch to the reputed brands. "Not at all. The branded napkins are expensive. The few who can afford them know if they switch brands, we will lose our commissions. For the women here recognize our pioneering effort in this sector and show solidarity by buying only our product," explains Kalpana.
Each month, the 30 women work on the two sterilization machines to produce about 900 sanitary napkin packets. Besides retailing, the centre supplies napkins for hospitals, schools and SHGs.
Says a proud Malati Lohar, 31 of Khairipihira village, "Most of the women travel 25-30 kilometers every day to get to the centre. We even stay overnight and work when there are more orders. Seeing the hygiene benefits and economic gains, our families now no longer object," she adds.
"It is a good initiative by self help women groups of Purulia. It is helping them financially and also spreading awareness on hygienic menstrual practices, which otherwise gets neglected," says Lori Calvo, State Representative, UNICEF, West Bengal.
The women who were trained in Chennai have not limited themselves to sanitary napkins. As a step ahead, they have now started production of District Dai Kits (DDK) for hospitals and midwives. "These kits help in the hygienic delivery of babies and comprise threads, blade, cotton pads, cotton and polythene sheets," says Munibala Mahato, 18, of Hesla village, who has recently joined the centre. "I came here without any knowledge of napkins or DDKs. Now, I use the napkins myself and promote the use of the DD Kits and sanitary pads in my village too," she says proudly. The centre has bagged an order for 50,000 DD kits recently from the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Purulia.
"The order is worth Rs 300,000. Our cost of producing one kit is only 75 paise but it's sold at Rs 6. The DD Kits are sterilized at another centre at Burdwan. The profits will be good and add to our corpus, which is used to offer loans for the workers," explains Munibala. Incidentally, Sathi now has a corpus fund of about Rs 150,000.
As for the ordinary the women of Purulia - now free from disease and the hassle of cleaning foul smelling rags with hardly any water - menstruation is no longer a term to be whispered behind closed doors.