Why is it that the world is full of people talking about women's health and empowerment - but few use the M word in public? Menstruation is a basic biological fact that every woman has to face. Yet, even in feminist discourse, one is often hard-pressed to find references to how women, especially poor girls and women who barely have enough to clothe themselves, deal with this monthly event. They use anything they can get hold of - cloth rags, plastic bags, ash and even mud, which can cause health ailments ranging from basic allergies to septicemia. The silence about menstrual health is the result of society's squeamishness about a subject considered "dirty". But recently, I met a group of women who gave me hope that a day would come when the M word could finally emerge from its dark closet.
"I was selling the packets of sanitary pads we make at Goonj at an exhibition. A man came across and said he liked the "pillows" on sale. I told him to buy a couple, rest his head on them and then pass them on to his mother/sister/wife at home," said Shiela, one of Goonj's senior workers. She explained their use to him forthrightly and the man was first embarrassed, then impressed. "He said it was the first time he'd talked about this "taboo" topic with a lady," she laughed. We were sitting in the My Pad unit of Goonj, where 10 women make 250-500 sanitary pads a day from waste cotton. All from rural lower middle-class backgrounds, they told horror stories about the perils of menstruation in the villages. If they used cloth (always in short supply) they felt too ashamed to wash it after use under public hand pumps. Drying the washed strips was another headache; they'd have to find dark corners to spread out their strips of shame. Sometimes, if there wasn't enough cloth, they ended up sharing with their mothers and sisters. "We didn't think about hygiene; only about somehow getting through those five days without mishap," said Malti. "That's why I feel that the simple pad we make must be changing the quality of lives of the women who use them," said Malti. Goonj holds village meetings regularly, handing out free packs to all the women who attend. All the people who work there, men and women, talk easily about the importance of menstrual hygiene and My Pads. "I even present them to all my nieces getting married!" giggled Shiela.
As the women showed me their scrupulously clean workshop, I was struck by their attention to detail. After each piece of cloth was soaked in detergent and disinfected, washed and sun-dried, they'd run magnets over it to ensure no pins or hooks had been overlooked. Then it was ironed and cut into exact strips. It seemed like a lot of effort, I commented. Shiela said, "they aren't just pads to us. They're our way of giving poor women dignity and respect..." Goonj's initiative, Not just a piece of cloth, has won World Bank's Global Development Marketplace Award (2009); Changemaker's Innovation Award (2009) and was recognised by NASA and the US state department as a "Game Changing Innovation" in 2012, among others.
"It's so ironical," said Shiela dolefully. "Just when I started working here and realised how these pads could make my own periods bearable, I hit menopause! So I've not been able to enjoy them at all..." All the women burst into laughter. In the silence that ensued, Malti said: "As a girl, I felt I was in jail when I got my periods. But being here, making pads and being able to give them to my daughters - I feel I've been set free!"