NEW DELHI, INDIA — Prachi Kaushik was 14 when she got the “girl’s secret.”
Her mother gave her an old cloth and a list of prohibited spaces: the kitchen, temple, playground and school. She told her never to discuss her “secret” with anyone.
The eldest of three, Kaushik grew up in Jhajjar City, not far from Delhi, India’s capital. Here, like in many other parts of the country, there is a deep-rooted silence about women and their menstrual cycles. This culture of silence stems from the belief that women are impure during their periods.
It also creates barriers to accessing affordable hygiene products.
Kaushik, now 32, says she’s missed many days of school over the years. That trend continued into 2007, when she began a postgraduate program in the University of Delhi’s political science department.
“I got periods and I missed my college for many days,” she says.
When friends asked why she was absent, Kaushik explained that she was raised to believe that she was forbidden to enter certain places, including the classroom, while on her period. There was another reason too: she did not feel confident moving around campus wearing cloth pads that were prone to leaking.
She says she was surprised to learn her friends never missed classes while menstruating because they used sanitary pads, which are more absorbent and hygienic than the cloths she was using.
So, Kaushik started using them, too.
“I felt so good and confident,” Kaushik says.
Taboos around periods are decreasing here as more women openly discuss and even make and sell high-quality hygiene products at lower costs. Much of the recent innovation around menstrual hygiene is credited to the hit 2018 Bollywood film “Padman,” which was based on a real-life Indian activist, his sanitary pad-making machine and the impact of his low-cost hygiene products on the lives of women and girls. The movie sparked a nationwide discussion about menstruation.
After the film’s release, celebrities, athletes and high-profile community leaders worked to overturn a 12% tax on sanitary pads, which was rejected by Indian voters in July 2018.
According to a health survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare from 2015-16, 57.6% of women in India use sanitary napkins instead of cloth or other products. The majority of them are found in urban areas.
But in rural parts of the country, local health workers say there is still work to be done around menstrual rights and access to useful products.
In rural areas, one in five girls drops out of school after they start menstruating, according to research done by both Nielsen and Plan India in 2014.
Education is the answer, says Sunita Dahiya, a health worker in villages throughout India’s northern Haryana state.
“Women struggle to understand what is happening with their bodies and it’s very important to spread the information until everyone becomes aware,” she says. “Only then the taboos can go.”
Aliya Bashir, GPJ India
Kaushik says that the struggle to access sanitary napkins continues beyond school.
After graduating she worked with local NGOs and then the Ministry of Women and Child Development, hoping to help solve the issue of access to sanitary napkins. Frustrated by the slow pace of progress, Kaushik started Vyomini, a social enterprise working to tackle socioeconomic and environmental problems associated with menstrual health and awareness in rural India.
Kaushik calls her initiative part of a “Green Menstruation Movement.” And she’s not alone. More Indian women are getting into the business of sanitary products.
Alakshi Tomar says she and her friends always wore uncomfortable bulky, accident-prone sanitary pads during their periods. So, in 2017, she and her friend Shivangi Bagri came up with an idea for a menstrual product to replace pads altogether. Their invention, a cup that catches the menstrual flow, is called the TruCup.
“The cup is available in different sizes and is very comfortable to wear and can hold blood for 10 to 12 hours without any fear of leakage,” Tomar says.
TruCup costs around 999 Indian rupees ($14) and can be reused for up to five years.
It’s a perfect example of the Green Menstruation Movement, Kaushik says.
Kaushik’s own enterprise, Vyomini, trains women entrepreneurs in rural areas to manufacture and pads made from organic raw material. The pads are sold under the brand Rakshak, which means “protector” in Hindi. They cost from 55 Indian rupees to 135 Indian rupees (77 cents to $1.88), depending on size and thickness.
“I didn’t want to pity women by distributing pads once and leave,” Kaushik says. “I want them to realize the need of using low-cost, environment-friendly pads, and also earn money by manufacturing or selling themselves.”