Menstruation or periods are an integral part of a woman’s life. Yet this topic remains a taboo, even in urban parts of the country. In India’s rural hinterlands, the situation is even more abysmal, with lack of exposure and awareness on critical areas like menstrual health and hygiene.
Moreover, with commercially-available sanitary napkins being highly priced, women end up using dried leaves as well as dirty cloth during that time of the month, putting them at a greater risk of infections. Even if conventionally-available disposable pads were provided to these women, it would result in an environmental disaster.
To overcome all these challenges, Saukhyam Reusable Pads came into being. It is a project of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, an NGO that has a consultative status to the UN’s ECOSOC. When the Math adopted remote village clusters in 20 states of India in 2013, with the goal to transform them into role models of sustainable development, that’s when the foundation was laid for their pads project.
In an exclusive chat with Health Shots, Anju Bist, co-director, Saukhyam Reusable Pads tell us all about the motivation behind this project, what makes these sanitary napkins different from the rest, and how they are fighting the stigma that surrounds menstruation.
Although the market is inundated with a range of sanitary napkins, these are out of reach for women and girls in rural areas. Not many know but these napkins also pollute the environment, adding insult to injury. That’s exactly what Saukhyam aims to change with their low-cost, hygienic and biodegradable pads.
“Non-biodegradable pads pollute the planet for 500-800 years after being discarded. Tomorrow we will be gone, our children too and their children as well, and many other generations, but the pads we have used and discarded today will be still around polluting the planet. If the pads are burned, even in incinerators, they lead to the release of dangerous toxins such as furans and dioxins. Pads contain plastic and burning plastic is never a good idea. These were some of the reasons why we began production of Saukhyam Reusable Pads,” explains Anju.
That’s not all—the price of most non-biodegradable pads is also a pain point. Anju adds that on average, women spend Rs 1200 per year on such pads, and that amounts to half a lakh rupees for a lifetime cost of 40 years. On the other hand, reusable pads from Saukhyam are much lower in cost, and serve as a more hygienic alternative.
“The lifetime cost of reusable pads is only about one-tenth this amount. For Saukhyam pads, one can get a starter pack with 5 day pad pieces for Rs 280. A value pack with an additional night pad and a pouch costs Rs 440. With proper care, these pads last for 4-5 years. Even if one needs to purchase it eight times, the total cost only comes to about Rs 3500. This is about half of the cumulative cost of disposable pads, even if one were to consider the Re 1 Suvidha pads available in Jan Aushadhi stores,” adds Anju.
Besides affordability, accessibility too features as an important part of Saukhyam’s vision.
“Our team is trying to build the last-mile delivery network, so that these pads can be easily available and accessible to all. For this we are fortunate to have partnerships with the state rural livelihood missions in some states, and several other organizations to on-board women micro-entrepreneurs. They can then empower other women, and bring about a change in their communities,” says Anju.
These women conduct awareness workshops that serve as the focal point for distribution and sales. Over the course of the next one year, they are looking at expanding their team to reach the most remote and rural parts of India.
“Reusable will become mainstream and disposable will come to be known as the old-fashioned idea that it is – we are moving ahead with this conviction,” asserts Anju.
“There is a well-kept secret about commercially available pads that most of us do not know about. Trees are cut in order to make 99% of disposable pads globally available today. The absorbent material in disposable pads is cellulose fibre or fluff pulp and it is derived from trees. It is mainly made in the same manner that paper is made,” explains Anju.
On the other hand, banana fibre is used to make Saukhyam pads. Although it is also a kind of cellulose fibre and derived from trees, there is a huge difference between the two, says Anju. “The banana tree fruits only once after which it is cut. Banana fibre is extracted from agro waste and no living trees are harmed,” she adds.
With growing conversations around a circular economy, using banana fibre was a step in the right direction, feels Anju. “About 360 million women in India need sanitary pads every month. How would these pads contribute to our circular economy? The modern, informed woman is beginning to shift to reusable menstrual products. Saukhyam pads are made from banana fibre and cotton cloth, and can be reused for upto five years,” she says.
Disposable pads are also a driver for climate change, but because menstruation is a taboo subject, this does not get discussed often.
“We had the opportunity to collaborate with the AIWC (All India Women’s Conference), when Saukhyam was presented at the UN Climate Change Conference in 2018 in Poland. It was perhaps the first time the link between disposable pads and climate change was openly discussed,” says Anju.
The modern, informed woman today is concerned not only about the environment but also her health. She knows that most disposable pad brands have chemicals that are harmful for her. Moreover, she knows that reusable is the smart choice, costing less than 10% of the amount one would spend on disposables.
Anju feels there has been a greater shift in perspective, post the pandemic.
“After the lockdown started, we resumed shipping and production in the third week of April 2020. Since then, we have received 78% of orders as bulk orders from communities. The remaining 23% were online orders. This, indeed, is strong testimony to the fact that people everywhere are beginning to see the need for sustainable products that safeguard both our health and our planet’s health,” she concludes.