Akshay Kumar’s Pad Man is set for release. It tells the story of Tamil Nadu’s Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur and activist, who revolutionised sanitary hygiene in rural India by inventing a machine to make low-cost sanitary pads.
My association with the Delhi NGO, Goonj in 2010-11 was my first brush with the crisis in menstrual health in India.
It all began in 2010. Wanting to contribute old clothes, I started browsing their website for dropping centres in south Delhi. I knew that they were was all about the vastra (cloth) — the kapda in roti, kapda aur makaan (bread, cloth and house). I had known that they took old clothes, would repair/cut/modify them and then distribute them among the have-nots.
They insisted that old clothes being contributed should adhere to a certain standard — no torn and tattered clothes were accepted, for instance.
In the process, I came across another phenomenon — the issue of sanitary napkins and lack of menstrual hygiene in much of India. A story on their website about the relationship of cloth with menstruation shook me to the core. It was the case of a woman who had died of tetanus, which she contracted from a rusted hook in the piece of blouse she used during periods. I read about how women in rural areas and urban slums used rags, sand even ash in the absence of clean cloth.
There was more to come — many women used the same piece of cloth among other women of their household as menstrual cycles were different, some used the same piece of cloth for months till it tore off, others still were forced to have their uterus removed at a child-bearing age or face infections and risk of cervical cancer because of unhygienic menstrual practices. This is not to discount the restrictions and taboos they constantly faced.
Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj and a Magsaysay award winner in 2015, while touring Dharavi slum in Mumbai, found that many women wouldn’t even dry their washed cloth out in the sun as they lived in constricted spaces. They would hang them behind doors to avoid being visible to men! As a result, they would end up wearing partially wet cloth, over and over again!
What was, however, an eye opener was the discovery that the organization also provided cloth pads to scores of women in the Below the Poverty Line (BPL) level. A cloth pad? I was intrigued. On further investigation, I found that the organisation converted contributed stitched piece of clothing into an unstitched cloth roll — clothes were first cut, buttons and zips etc removed, washed, ironed and then rolled into a ‘pad’. What’s more, it used no plastic and is, hence, environment-friendly. Several such pads were then packed together and made into what they called ‘My Pad Dignity Pack’. It includes 10 re-usable cloth pads, one undergarment and a lot of awareness about do’s and don’ts of menstrual hygiene.
Piqued, I asked Meenakshi Gupta of the organization on how they got down to doing this. She mentioned how when they started, the team would tour the length and breadth of India trying to understand the crisis in cloth. Slowly but steadily they picked up stories of women and their experiences. In 2004, when the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, the Tamil Nadu government handed them tons of unused cloth. It was then that they thought of cloth pads.
My own experience with cloth has been, at best an irritant, but nowhere close to what so many Indian women face. I was perhaps in Class VIII, when out of compulsion, I had to use a clean and dry dhoti as a pad. I too have washed and re-used the cloth, but I had the luxury of availability of clean water, an antiseptic and disinfectant like Dettol and sunlight. I didn’t have to struggle with any taboo. I now recall how my elder aunt would talk of life in her times — how everyone, of course, used old cotton saris and dhotis during periods, how privacy was never an issue because the men of the household would hardly come to certain sections of the house, which were exclusively the preserve of the women. Hers was, of course, a privileged upbringing.
In 1965, after my mother’s marriage and when with my dad she moved to bigger urban centres, would she discover a Carefree pad and that changed the course of the life of many women in my mother’s family.