Consider this: over 70 per cent of Indian women say their family cannot afford to buy sanitary napkins for them. Many girls miss at least 60 days of school every year, either because they do not have adequate sanitary protection or because their schools do not have proper toilets. One in five girls drops out of school on reaching puberty, according to a research by AC Nielsen and Plan India.
Consequently, a monthly event that should be a normal part of the lives of half the country's population hides behind a cloud of shame and fear.
"We have to understand that this is not just a women's issue, it is a bigger human issue," says Anshu Gupta of Goonj, the NGO operational in 21 states across India that converts 1,000 tonnes of used clothes, household goods and other urban discards into usable resources for the rural poor.
Goonj's award-winning 'Not Just a Piece of Cloth' (NJPC) campaign seeks to address this problem. It started around the 2004 tsunami when Chennai was flooded with old, donated clothes that had no takers.
"We signed an MoU with the Tamil Nadu government to sort and distribute the contents of a hundred trucks. Some of the clothes were too damaged to be worn. So, in a makeshift workshop there, we converted them into hygienic sanitary pads," says Gupta.
Goonj has since distributed over 2.5 million pads (called My Pads) amongst economically underprivileged communities across the country. NJPC's focus isn't simply on manufacturing and distributing sanitary pads; it aims to mainstream the issue of menstruation at the national level.
A visit to Goonj's My Pad manufacturing facility in Delhi is an eye-opener. Women working there carefully disinfect, wash, cut and iron out old cotton to make pads that are then placed in cotton bags along with an undergarment. Talking to them makes me realise how different society would be if the taboos around menstruation were to disappear. No wonder, then, that the NJPC campaign has won international accolades and awards, including the World Bank's Global Development Marketplace Award (2009) and Changemaker's Innovation Award (2009), and was recognised by NASA and the US state department as a 'Game Changing Innovation' in 2012. As I look at the mountains of old clothes being sorted at the collection centre, I realise the enormity of the campaign.
Over the years, Goonj has built collection centres all over India and receives over 1,000 tonnes of material every year. Not only is the production of My Pads an easily scalable enterprise, but it also offers a biodegradable alternative to conventional sanitary pads even as it addresses a vital needs.
In the last 10 years, Gupta and his cohorts have seen what access to this basic product can do. "Often, girls drop out of school when they attain puberty because of lack of sanitary protection. Empowering them with information about menstruation as well as pads could curb this disturbing tendency," says Gupta.
India also accounts for 27 per cent of the world's cervical cancer deaths (thought to be related to inadequate menstrual hygiene), almost twice the global average, according to World Health Organisation. My Pads could make a substantial dent on this figure amongst the rural poor.
Most importantly, Gupta says, powerful social change will occur when we, as a society, remove the shroud of silence enveloping menstruation. "Menstruation in India has been used as a tool to further oppress women in traditional society. By talking about it openly and disseminating accurate information about it, we want to change this," says he.
Earlier this year, Gupta and his team began a global campaign, 'NJPC - A Million Voices', to mainstream the (non)issue of menstruation. This includes a questionnaire about experiences of menstruation that men and women across the world can fill out. Although the project is still in its nascent stages, Goonj has received interesting testimonies. One girl reported that she's not given sufficient warm clothes when she menstruates in winter, as her family fears the clothes would become polluted. "Simply by talking about such things, we're hopefully creating attitude change," says Gupta.
Goonj is also sending relief supplies for flood victims in Jammu and Kashmir. "An intrinsic part of our relief effort here, as always, is a large supply of My Pads. Few people wonder how women victims would cope with their monthly period when their homes and belongings have been swept away," Gupta says. Meanwhile, at the My Pad unit, Shiela Devi assiduously irons each piece of cloth before it is folded into a pad. I wonder aloud why the ironing is necessary and she says, "I feel so proud that by making these pads, I'm giving women the respect they deserve. They have to be perfect."
Learn more about Goonj at goonj.org; fill the NJPC questionnaire at njpc.goonj.org/lets-get-started; Next fortnight: the inspiring story of two brothers who started a hospital for birds on their rooftop