A fight against period poverty

Yeay ! So finally it’s a Friday, the only day we have a Physical Education (PE) period where we get to play & have fun .

Oops, I forgot to introduce myself while I was getting excited . Hi, I’m Ria 6th grade student &.. Ohoo! The bell rang and it’s our math class. I should rush because my math teacher is very strict.

What’s with this headache & cramps? isn’t letting me to concentrate. (seeing her ritu)

Ritu : Hey Ria, are you okay ?

Ria  : No Ritu, I have a slight headache & cramps.

Ritu : Is it that time of the month for you ?

Ria  : oh no ! I’m afraid it is .

(Seeing Ria & Ritu disturbing the class, teacher gets angry and asks Ria to leave the classroom. While she is on the way to leave the class, teacher  happen to see a stain on her skirt. Feeling guilty for shouting at Ria teacher leaves the class to talk to her.)

Teacher : Ria

Ria : I’m sorry ma’am, I didn’t mean to disturb the class.

Teacher : I know, why don’t you go to the washroom looks like you got your period today?

Ria :  (sobbing) ma’am I forgot to get my cloth.

Teacher : Oh dear, why cloth? Do you feel comfortable using them?

Ria : Because my mom asked me to do so. But it is not at all comfortable & gives me rashes and irritation too

Teacher : I will talk to your mom about this but for now come with me.

 

We all have read a lot about period poverty and how women put their lives on threat by using unhygienic products during periods which may cause infections or reproductive health diseases. Ever wondered why does period poverty even exist?  A major section of society hesitates to talk about periods even today. Women are embarrassed to buy sanitary napkins from a male chemist or something that we experience in everyday life like chemists wrapping the packets of sanitary napkins while handing over to the customer. Students reluctant to talk with teachers about periods, and a majority of them drop out or remain absent when they start menstruating. With taboos and superstitions in different countries, even an open discussion in schools/ communities is impossible.

Period poverty is not only related to women, even men and transgenders form a part of wider society who needs to be informed. Well-informed masses will help remove stigma attached to menstruation. A lot of issues come under period poverty which need to be addressed. Many dedicated NGOs & social enterprises are diligently working towards overcoming this social issue. Fact is that every individual has to make an effort to overcome this issue and contribute towards an egalitarian society, ask why?  

 Globally, 1.2 billion women lack access to basic sanitation and hygiene as reported by the UN.
As per a report published by UNICEF and WaterAid, about 71% of girls in India are unaware about menstruation before their first period and about  60% of adolescent girls missed school on account of menstruation were 80% still use homemade pads.

There is an emerging need for government agencies to increase efforts to provide proper sanitation and actively participate to create awareness in menstrual hygiene. The government should also include menstrual hygiene management as a component in its health policy and device strategies to address this issue plaguing the country.

Following is a list of individual & groups working towards  better menstrual hygiene

1..Mukti Project
Two young women, Sarva Damani and Ayesha Alam, started Mukti Project to educate people about menstrual hygiene and also to help young girls continue their education. They realised that many female students were dropping out of school due to lack of knowledge on how to deal with menstruation. This led to the birth of Mukti Project, which has widened its scope of activity from only focusing on menstrual taboos to issues surrounding gender inequality and women’s safety in Mumbai.

2.Brinda Nagarajan

Brinda Nagarajan took time out from her job and trekked to some of Uttarakhand’s remotest villages to help the underprivileged. She would go to remote schools and speak to girls about menstruation. She has also conducted workshops to increase awareness about menstruation among locals. Although the women in these villages seemed amenable to change, they continued to use old cloths pads during their periods. Brinda set up a livelihood for these women. They were taught how to stitch sustainable and reusable cloth pads.

3.Menstrupedia

Started by Aditi Gupta, Menstrupedia a friendly guide to periods which helps females during their monthly cycles. The platform has made a great contribution by spreading awareness about menstruation. They also use a website, YouTube channel and comic book for the purpose

4.Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram.
An initiative by the government of India working for adolescent, who also take an active initiative in menstrual hygiene education.

5.Biswanath Chariali
At a time when the government has been spending crores of rupees to improve the overall health of the women of the country, a silent revolution is going on at Biswanath Chariali, that too, without any government help. This silent revolution is being led by Nayan Saikia, who had left a lucrative job at an ITC-owned star category hotel in Bengaluru for a noble cause – to create awareness among the poor rural women of Assam on cleanliness.

Then took loan to set up a sanitary pad machine. Nayan Saikia sells his napkins through rural women at villages at a very cheap rate. Parallely, he has been creating awareness among the village women on cleanliness because he believes that cleanliness leads to a healthy life. He holds awareness meetings in Assam, Kolkata and Delhi.

6.Pravin Nikam

Pravin Nikam is the founder of Roshni Foundation. He started the  period project, a campaign conducted to eliminate the taboo attached with menstruation. He aims to spread awareness among young girls and women regarding their menstrual health and hygiene as well as staying informed about their body and managing their periods effectively in rural India.

7.Maya Vishwakarma

She  decided to not only educate girls and women across tribal MP about the importance of safe menstrual health, but also to provide them safe and effective sanitary pads. Maya has set up a manufacturing unit whose innovative machine was built by engineering-management graduates Anurag and Birag Bohre from Gwalior. Her  target is to reach out to girls at 450-plus schools in 21 districts and educate them about the importance of safe menstrual health to make the entire trek a public movement.In the pipeline is another plan to find donors who can fund the mission to produce and distribute sanitary pads free of cost. For now, Maya who has earned the moniker of ‘Pad-jiji’ is helped by tribal women from Narsinghpur district in running the unit.

8.Goonj


Goonj, set up by Roman Magsaysay Award winner Anshu Gupta, focuses on creating change in rural India by contributing through cloth and other items. The NGO is making efforts to restore the dignity of the rural community. Their initiative ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’ addresses a serious need of women in villages by providing them with clean cloth sanitary pads.

9.Saral Designs

Founded by Suhani Mohan and Kartik Mehta, Saral Designs is a platform that solves problems related to menstruation, hygiene, and sanitation.  They have developed a machine for producing ultra-thin sanitary napkins at a decentralised scale. In 2012, Suhani learnt about the dismal state of menstrual hygiene in India while she met Anshu Gupta, Founder of Goonj. Till then, she hadn’t realised how rural women wouldn’t be able to afford sanitary pads due to their cost. She then teamed up with Kartik and explored ways to make low-cost sanitary napkin.

10.Sacchi Saheli

Sacchi Saheli is a Delhi-based NGO that conducts sessions on menstrual awareness in various slums in the city.  Through their Break the Bloody Taboo campaign, they are aiming to break the common myths among-st girls about menstruation.

 

 

Harsh Realities Surrounding Menstruation Experiences in Slums — (2/2)

The issue of menstruation is not only wrapped in myths and taboos, but lack of awareness and education on menstruation is ingrained in both urban and rural parts of India. Safe menstrual hygiene practices are often guided by right knowledge, awareness, and access where all three are intertwined.

My previous blog dealt with the condition of menstruating women and girls in slum communities of Mumbai and how they are affected by the lack of safe sanitation and proper infrastructure. Situations are different in different areas and are rooted in knowledge and access to the proper material. Talking about menstrual hygiene, it is essential we also look into problems that are faced by semi-urban and rural areas.

To provide last mile access of menstrual hygiene product and information, we collaborated with Precision Foundation to reach out to 625 girls in low-income schools in Solapur district. Through this project, I got a chance to interact with girls from slums communities and semi-rural areas in their schools to understand their perspective on menstrual hygiene and their awareness about their monthly cycle.

Initially, it was difficult to start a conversation on menstruation as the girls wouldn’t interact, they were shy. When teachers intervened and motivated girls to start a conversation, it gradually broke the ice and thus begun a healthy period talk.

With the baseline done already with 250 girls, interestingly, a majority of them were using sanitary napkins as opposed to home-made cloth pad or rags. I already had an idea about their demography and backgrounds. The percentage of girls using sanitary napkins was a whopping 89%. Unfortunately, 35% of these girls did not follow safe methods for disposal of soiled sanitary napkins.

These Zilla Parishad schools are in the vicinity of the slum communities of Solapur and according to the teachers, the situation is worse than it appears. Families of these girls have a meagre income. Although most of them use sanitary pads they use one pad for the entire day, or at the most two pads a day, which is an unhealthy practice. There is also the problem of disposal. Waste collection in slums happens only once a week, due to which the surroundings become unhygienic.

To understand the knowledge improvement in girls, at the end of the project, we conducted an end line survey. The findings were encouraging — 68% girls passed the knowledge they received from these sessions to at least one woman/girl, and 18% spoke about it with two women. And that’s not all — 48% respondents said they were now confident about menstruation, and 69% had begun to follow prescribed practices for pad disposal.

Although a lot has changed with our intervention, I was disheartened to know from the teachers that there were still girls dropping out of schools during menstruation or remaining absent during those days. Furthermore, parents discouraged girls from going to schools and married them off early. Sarita (name changed), a teacher in ZP school says, “earlier teachers would talk about periods, but girls were very shy, with a project like this and young girls coming to educate, these school girls started opening up. But it shouldn’t stop here. More such conversations are needed, more awareness is required not only among the girls but their families too. Sessions should be conducted for boys also so that they are aware of periods at an early stage. True that the absenteeism has reduced and attendance is almost 90%, but there are still 10% dropping out and married off early. That needs to stop somewhere for which parents should be aware of menstruation”.

Another teacher Nandini (name changed) suggested that “Girls need to talk more. In my school, they do not talk much about periods. They are even shy to ask for sanitary pads. That needs to be changed somewhere”.

If access to the right knowledge is provided at an early age, girls become educated about sensitive issues early as well. Awareness sessions need to reach every household in low-income communities in rural and urban areas, municipal authorities need to act and improve the sanitation situation. Providing access to affordable menstrual hygiene product is one side of this larger issue, while other side includes informed masses, awareness in households, and openness to accept the information. In Solapur schools, absenteeism and dropout is 10%, situation maybe grave if we consider entire Solapur, but one thing necessary to change immediately the constant involvement and information sharing. Organisations like Precision Foundation are constantly involved in providing access to education and intervening where necessary and thanks to them that we got to shed light on menstrual hygiene issues in Solapur and for helping us change the picture.

“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”  – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Harsh Realities Surrounding Menstruation Experiences in Slums — (1/2)

The total population of menstruating women in India is about 355 million, of which according to Census data, 31 million women reside in urban slums.

Urban Slums in Mumbai

The UN operationally defines a slum as “one or a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area, lacking in one or more of the following five amenities”: 1) Durable housing (a permanent structure providing protection from extreme climatic conditions); 2) Sufficient living area (no more than three people sharing a room); 3) Access to improved water (water that is sufficient, affordable, and can be obtained without extreme effort); 4) Access to improved sanitation facilities (a private toilet, or a public one shared with a reasonable number of people); and 5) Secure tenure (de facto or de jure secure tenure status and protection against forced eviction).

Mumbai alone has a total population of 12.44 million of which 42% live in slums. Several government reports make it evident that people who live in slums face challenges in accessing proper sanitation. Instances of open defecation are 28% in Mumbai slums as per Mumbai Sewerage Development Project- II and the same data shows that 73% of the slum population depend on community toilets. These community toilets are poorly maintained. There is only one toilet seat for every 50 persons. Often, water supply is erratic and many households have no access to electricity. Poor sanitation particularly causes problems for women and children.

Public toilet and menstruation

Most of the children attending municipal schools are from slums. While implementing one of our CSR projects in schools for adolescents girls, I met Jayshree who lives in the Siddharth Nagar slum of Worli, who explained me the plight of women living in slums and the issue of menstruation. She suggested Saral Designs start a program for sanitary pad distribution in that slum to ease the lives of women staying there. This is how I had my first experience of menstrual hygiene problem in slums.

Jayshree is a middle-aged woman who lives in a 100 sq ft house with her family in this slum which is a settlement located in a hillock. Jayshree is actively involved in putting efforts for social good, having worked on issues particularly of children and women in her community for over 10 years. Before meeting her, I had a vague idea about menstruation situation in slums, but after a couple of meetings with Jayshree over pad distribution, I realized that challenges of menstrual hygiene sanitation are more grave than it appears.  Now, why is menstruation a challenge in slums- 1. Access to safe sanitation, 2. Access to infrastructure and 3. Access to affordable pads.

More than Menstruation

Being on a hillock, this informal settlement of Worli poses a grave challenge in terms of clean toilets. Women who stay high up on the hillock have to come down to access the toilets and by the end of the day, toilets are dirty.

I got a chance to speak to Jayshree’s neighbors who are of the menstruating age-group. They told me about their difficulties in accessing toilets, and proper sanitation in general. Siddharth Nagar has just one community toilet, which has about four toilet seats. Pooja, one of Jayshree’s neighbors, says, “Using the public toilet is difficult, as there are so many people who use it. It is particularly tough when women get their periods. If bleeding begins in the wee hours, sometimes, there is no electricity in the toilets. Also, by the end of the day, the toilet becomes very dirty.”

Slums in Mumbai

In a similar vein, Jayshree’s daughter said that as there is only one community dustbin, everyone throws their garbage there. For her, discarding used sanitary napkins is a challenge. She says, “For us, access to safe sanitation facility is a major issue. If I do not get access to proper sanitation — for example, water supply, clean toilets — there is a fear of contracting reproductive tract infection or urinary tract infection”.

Another woman spoke about problems of accessibility that people who live in slums in hilly areas (such as Siddharth Nagar) face, for example, even when they get access to affordable sanitary napkins, it is difficult for them to access toilets when needed and discard soiled sanitary napkins. Many women who have their houses at the top, have to come down to use the toilet and while menstruating, it becomes even more difficult if they want to access the toilets in the night. Majority of the women here have some or the other infection either due to inability to access hygienic toilets or being forced to use unclean toilets.

Menstruation Matters

It is evident after interacting with women from Jayshree’s neighbourhood in the hillock, that even though affordability and accessibility of sanitary napkin can be solved through technological innovations and awareness intervention, larger issues surrounding women’s health and hygiene will persist if they are not provided with the basic means like water supply and safe sanitation in the form of clean toilets.

Boosting conversations around menstruation, the Saral way!

There is more to Menstrual Hygiene (MH) Day than just menstrual cycle- it is about creating awareness on menstruation, about access to safe hygiene products, access to toilets and disposal methods and in totality it is about everything that helps girls and women manage their periods better.

So why is MH day celebrated on 28th May? Well, that’s because a menstrual cycle is of 28 days and periods lasts for up to 5 days a month on an average. Thus, to celebrate MH Day we decided to boost conversations surrounding menstruation with our partners, experts in the menstrual hygiene space, distributors, NGOs and prospective collaborators at the Annual Open House and break the silence around menstruation. The event was held on 26th May 2018. We also took this opportunity to inaugurate our indigenously built Semi-Automatic Machine SWACHH  1.1 and showcase the world’s first fully Automatic compact sanitary napkin making machine SWACHH 3.0.

The event received a warm response from curious minds wanting to work in the health & sanitation sector. The attendees involved experts from across India from varied sectors like garment industry, development consultants, local entrepreneurs and professors. The guests showed interest in all the sessions that were hosted by vibrant members of the Saral team which included Suhani Mohan (Co-Founder) talking about the importance of menstrual hygiene day and our journey as a startup in this industry so far. Since a lot of participants were curious to know in depth about the pad making process, Suhani’s session was followed by Kartik Mehta’s (Co-Founder) taking the stage to explain the history of sanitary napkins and its process of manufacturing, along with the raw materials required to manufacture the pads. We organized a gallery walk for all our guests where we demonstrated and explained to them the pad making process through our semi-automatic and automatic machines.

We are happy to have received such a thunderous response from NGOs, entrepreneurs and corporates who are willing to create a positive impact in the menstrual hygiene space either via setting-up our machine, through awareness about MHM in different parts of the country or even through direct distribution of sanitary napkins at the last mile. We look forward to strengthening our relationship with these new partners and embarking on a new journey together.

Here are a few glimpses from our Annual Open House 2018 !!

One with all the guests who attended the Open House
Kartik Mehta and Suhani Mohan explaining the history of sanitary napkins
Demonstration of Active Ultra pads
Fun and interactive sessions
Guests viewing our automatic machine
Launching our semi-automatic machine – “Swachh 1.1”
Team Saral Designs after the success of the Annual Open House 2018

On a Journey of Creating Menstrual Awareness: Social Media v/s Grassroot campaigns

R Balki’s Padman is set to release today and there is already a lot of buzz on several social media platforms around the “Padman Challenge.” Bollywood has come out to support the movie by posting pictures on social media with sanitary napkins and adding captions such as ‘holding a pad’, ‘nothing to be ashamed’ etc… Most netizens are supporting this as well. It is certainly good that more and more people are coming out and promoting menstrual hygiene and with mainstream faces of Indian cinema promoting such a crucial issue; it is bound to gain momentum. But hopefully, this won’t die post the release of Padman.

In hindsight, posing with sanitary napkins and uploading pictures on social media, will hardly do any good to the population which is living in the void and who barely have any idea surrounding menstrual hygiene issue. Come to think of it, 70% of the population lives in rural India, but not all have access to sanitary napkins. According to a census report of 2011, over 40 crore women live in rural India, while the composition of women living in urban India is around 18 crore. The rural women population is more than double the number of women living in urban areas. Brands that have garnered popularity among women in urban areas are Whisper and Stayfree, but these same brands are not accessible to the population living in rural areas and they are also not affordable.

Posting pictures on social media is just one aspect of creating awareness regarding menstruation, but on a broader spectrum, the pressing need is to create accessibility and awareness among the masses. Accessibility of sanitary napkins is low in India with only 16% using sanitary napkins, while the rest resort to unhygienic materials like husk, newspapers, cloth etc. 23% school girls in India drop out of school once they start menstruating. This is just one part of the problems!

State and Central Governments have taken initiatives to provide free sanitary napkins to girls and women in rural areas, civil society organisations too are working towards promoting menstrual hygiene, but that alone is not going to help. Problems around menstruation are larger than the solutions that are aimed for. Often we come across consumers who use ONE sanitary napkin for 24 hours, and such practices are unhygienic, leading to various infections such as reproductive tract infection, urinary tract infection and other fungal infections which affect a woman’s overall health in the long run.  We also come across consumers who wash their pads before disposing them off. There are myths surrounding certain menstrual hygiene practices that are passed down from generation to generation or are created in terms of religiosity. Hence, awareness needs to be created regarding disposal of pads and proper usage.

At Saral Designs, we follow a holistic approach with an aim of creating a better future in menstrual hygiene and sanitation using product design, machine technology and innovative delivery mechanism. As a women’s health start-up, Saral produces high-quality sanitary napkins that can be compared to the best multi-national products in the market and are available at half the price. Saral Designs has initiated a social campaign “Hichak Kaisi” in collaboration with Bitgiving and RadioMirchi to support 10,000 school girls from low-income backgrounds with accessibility to free sanitary napkins for one whole year. The campaign will offer support to 10,000 girls by providing sanitary napkins and conduct Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) awareness workshops with them. The campaign extends to one year thereby giving the girls enough time to get accustomed to menstrual hygiene practices, while simultaneously, workshops will be conducted on MHM and myth-busting every 3 months to meet the girls and understand their issues. With this, our focus is on building both, awareness as well as the distribution of sanitary napkins.

While we are happy that celebrities are supporting the menstrual health issue, we believe that the problem can only be solved collectively by spreading awareness where the accessibility is scarce and resources are low and a large population joining this movement in creating menstrual awareness. Join us in spreading awareness and helping thousands of girls across the country by supporting our social campaign “Hichak Kaisi” and ask yourselves #WhyBeShy.

Click on the link given to contribute: www.bitgiving.com/mirchi

CSR Champions

Corporate Social Responsibility is a management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders. As per the government’s mandate, businesses with annual revenues of more than 10bn rupees (£105m) must give away 2% of their net profit to charity. Areas they can invest this money in include education, poverty, gender equality and hunger.

We at Saral Designs understand the importance of collaboration for the greater good. We believe in leveraging available resources and utilizing it for creating a lasting impact. In the last one year, to increase our reach and improve last mile access, we have partnered with over 5 companies working towards eliminating the problems around menstrual hygiene.

Distribution of Active Ultra pads in collaboration with Precision CamShafts

Our partnership includes conducting awareness about menstrual hygiene among women and girls across all age groups, social and economic backgrounds. The awareness program is focused towards the menstrual education of girls, educating them about the biology behind menstruation and best practices which need to be followed at the time of their menstrual cycle. To properly understand the need of each school or community we select to work in, we first conduct a pre-test to see how much the women know about menstruation and the conduct a post-test to analyze the impact of the awareness session conducted by us. After each session, we distribute to girls and women free packets of ‘Active Ultra’ sanitary napkins sufficient for one cycle. A typical MHM session conducted by us covers the following topics:

  • Menstruation and body anatomy
  • Puberty and changes in body
  • What is menstruation?
  • Learningmenstrual cycle
  • Sanitation, hygiene& products
  • Hygiene practices during periods
  • Track your periods & Myth-busting
  • Right disposal practices for used pads
Students explaining the reproductive system during a session in Ghatkopar, Mumbai

We recognize our limitations as a social enterprise and know how imperative it is to partner with local NGO’s and individuals for the smooth execution of the program. In the past two years, we have developed strong partnerships with over 25 such non-profit organizations having well-built networks in the most remote parts of the country.

MHM session conducted in collaboration with Saksham Foundation

In a recent survey conducted by us to track the increase in knowledge about menstruation, health benefits and usage of hygienic menstrual products in the schools we work with, we found the following:

  • 100% of the girls went back and discussed the awareness session with either their mothers, sisters or friends
  • 82% girls used Active Ultra pads that were given to them.
  • 97% of the users found the pad quality to be excellent/good
  • Teachers from the schools observed a drastic reduction in the number of girls taking half day/ full day leaves due to period emergencies.

So far, we have :

Our Reach

But our work does not end here! There is still a long way to go and we will continue to make sanitary napkins more accessible to women, create awareness around menstruation and ensure every woman has a healthy period!

Students from a school in Chembur, Mumbai post the session with Active Ultra pads

Reaching the last mile through our Door to Door model

Menstruation is a taboo topic in India, because of which women are unaware of various menstrual hygiene products available in the market. 80% of women in India currently do not use sanitary napkins due to lack of awareness, affordability and access to quality menstrual hygiene products. This not only has an adverse health impact leading to reproductive tract infections and tetanus but also leads to workplace and school absenteeism. There is an evident need for menstrual hygiene awareness and good quality products in rural India, but there is not enough being done about it. As an organization that works in the menstrual hygiene space, we have tried multiple models with lesser cost, higher margins, fixed salaries, free samples distribution, etc. and at every step made mistakes and learned a lot from them. After spending 2 years in rural Maharashtra, we have finally arrived at a model which would work best given our vision and goals to drive change in this sector.

 This blog post aims to shed light on our Door to Door model which is very different from the models that large-scale and small-scale companies follow, because it makes sure that our product has a better reach that other companies fail to achieve, creates awareness on menstrual hygiene and health in rural areas and provides employment opportunities to women in villages. Through this model, we reach the most interior parts of our country, especially those, where a topic like menstruation, is not openly talked about.Our Door to Door model focuses on developing effective partnerships and building strong distribution systems, thereby helping us grow our sales networks and creating last mile access. We are able to do this with the help of Sanginis, who play a vital role in our program. A Sangini is a friend and guide to women in villages. She is their confidant with whom they can discuss anything about menstruation, a familiar face, a woman who will patiently listen to all your concerns, queries and provide any information you need about periods. A Sangini is also a trained village woman for sales and goes Door to Door educating people about menstruation.

We first identify Senior Sanginis, who are experienced healthcare workers and partner with them to create awareness about periods and for sale of Active Ultra sanitary napkins at the last mile. The Senior Sanginis are then provided training by our team on everything they need to know about menstrual hygiene. These Senior Sanginis select Sanginis from different villages who are appointed to go Door to Door and create awareness about periods. 

The selection of the right Senior Sangini, keeping in mind the role she plays in the community, is extremely crucial.  Senior Sanginis are usually associated with local NGOs, ASHA workers, Health officers, village Sarpanch etc. The selection criterion of a Senior Sangini for the implementation of our program broadly depends on;

Once we have identified the right Senior Sanginis, the next step is their capacity building. We do so by conducting intensive training sessions and orient them about the prevalent issues and how to create a demand for the product. Senior Sanginis and Sanginis have a set of responsibilities as mentioned below:

We provide our product directly to the Senior Sanginis reducing intermediaries, due to which each of them earns a higher margin.  With good financial incentives and a strong motivation to help other women in their localities, Sanginis proudly and effectively sell our products. Besides the profits from sales, we also incentivize them to organise sessions for awareness creation.

To ensure that we are addressing the problem from all angles, we also conduct several other activities to increase access at the last mile and to educate people about the problems surrounding menstrual hygiene.

Awareness sessions in schools/colleges: One of the best ways to reach a maximum number of girls is by approaching local schools and colleges. MHM sessions are conducted in schools and colleges to create awareness about menstrual hygiene followed by a product demo at the end of every session.

Donation Campaigns: We run a campaign called ‘That Time of the month’ in collaboration with Milaap to raise funds for girls who cannot afford sanitary pads. This campaign sponsors girls in school with six month supply of sanitary pads. Once girls start using pads from the beginning of their periods, they slowly build a habit of how to maintain good hygiene during periods and eventually become loyal customers of the product.

Awareness drives in communities: There is a continuous need to engage with the women of the village even after conducting the above-mentioned activities. 4-5 months post the campaign and door to door sales, we organize for a community level awareness session for the women and girls of the village. We train the Sanginis to conduct these awareness sessions in the villages they are from and have visited.

Door to door Sales: Sanginis visit approximately 30 women per day, ask questions, collect relevant data and in case anyone faces any problems or wants to know more about menstruation, one can discuss it freely with the Sanginis. Sanginis are also trained to talk about hygiene practices to be followed during periods and menstrual products available in the market. The Sanginis also keep a stalk of the sanitary napkins with them, therefore anytime someone needs the pads, they can directly approach the Sanginis in their village and buy it from her. 

This model has been adopted by us to increase last mile access after extensive research. Our learning’s from it have been huge and we are constantly experimenting and modifying our model given the changing times and preferences of the consumers.

We currently have a presence in 80 villages across Maharashtra and work with over 100 Sanginis in these villages. In a recent survey conducted we found that 100% Sangins that we collaborate with, take pride in spreading awareness about menstrual hygiene apart from the additional income they earn because it ensures better health of the women in their village. Our ultimate aim as a women’s health start-up is to ensure that 23% girls go back to schools, the health burden of 70% of women who suffer from reproductive tract infections is reduced and every woman has a healthy period!

“How we exported our first sanitary pad making machine to Bangladesh!”

Access to menstrual hygiene is a basic human right and the fight to provide this basic necessity to every woman is something we are working towards at Saral Designs. Availability of sanitary napkins is a huge problem in our country, especially since most good quality pads produced, are either imported or very expensive. In my experience of working in this field for 2.5 years, I have observed that the commercial manufacturing machines that make high-quality pads are high-speed, expensive (10 crore – 40 crore) and require huge marketing budgets for selling nearly 20 million pads every month. These machines which are imported from countries like China, Italy, Germany are meant for bulk manufacturing, making it difficult for small-scale businesses to sell such huge quantity of pads.

In India, most machines developed are manually operated and are unable to produce ultra thin pads. Being a part of India’s first hardware start-up that has designed a one of kind automatic sanitary napkin making machine, our aim is to create access at the last mile and set-up machines in different locations, enabling local manufacturing and distribution.

Swachh 2.0 Manufacturing Unit

To put to test this decentralization model of ours, we recently exported our first machine- Swacch 2.0 to a local entrepreneur in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Ariful Forquan identified the need of female garment workers in nearby factories which causes several women to miss work or use unhygienic materials during their periods like husk, newspapers, ragged cloth etc. As a factory owner himself,  he faced a lot of problem due to the regular absenteeism of female workers. When he delved deeper into the matter, he found out that the problem is prevalent mainly due to lack of access and availability of high-quality menstrual hygiene products in the local markets. After extensive research and meetings with many manufacturers, Ariful realized that with manually operated machines, the product quality is poor and the model cannot be scaled, while the high speed lines require very high investments to start off. The hunt for a solution to this problem, led Ariful Forquan and his business partner Dr.Kalam to meet with Saral Design’s Founders Suhani Mohan & Kartik Mehta.

saral designs team sanitary napkin machine
Ariful with Saral Designs Team

Once the deal was finalized, we vowed to provide our new Production partners with an end to end training on running a sanitary pad making business. Our operations head put together a 3-week training program for Ariful and his team where each member from Saral Designs conducted detailed sessions depending on their field of expertise. It provided a holistic experience of running a business.The training involved interactive sessions on the following topics:

  • Technical know-how: In-depth understanding of the machine, how to operate, maintain it and explanation of all manuals related.
  • Pad construction: Making and Composition of sanitary pads, quality check and control, Raw material performance.
  • Sales and distribution: Support with partnerships and proposal writing, introduction to training modules etc.
  • Design and marketing: Packaging and designing of pads, content generation for social media, marketing techniques on different platforms.
Dispatching raw materials and the machine to Dhaka.

Once Ariful and his team left, we crated the machine and prepared for its departure to Dhaka.  The task of transporting a 300 kg machine across the sea, was executed effortlessly .

However, our job was not finished here! We still had a to install the machine in Dhaka and ensure it was up and running smoothly. To help our partners understand the expected timeline to set-up a Swacch machine, we broke down the process right from finalizing the deal to beginning production into steps as shown below:

On reaching Dhaka, we immediately got to work and within two days assembled the entire machine. We started production of sanitary pads from the third day and everything else fell perfectly into place! We stayed there for 7 more days to support them with any unforeseen issue that might arise pertaining to the machine.  We left Dhaka with a feeling of accomplishment and self-assurance for having successfully completed the job at hand.

sanitary napkin making machine
Vijay installing the machine in Dhaka, Bangladesh

The set-up of our machine in Bangladesh has instilled confidence in the entire team of Saral Designs. It has reassured us that our decentralization model when implemented across the countries in need of it, will create last mile access, provide job opportunities and empower women. There is a clear and evident need for better menstrual hygiene products especially in developing countries but due to lack of access to such quality pads, the demand is not adequately met. We at Saral Designs are here to ensure this gap disappears and that every woman lives her life with dignity and confidence.

Sanitary napkin making machine
Inauguration of Sokhi Production Unit set up in collaboration with Saral Designs

 

“A great way to break a taboo is to be vocal about it and raise awareness”- by Raivat Patnana

Before I talk about my experience at Saral Designs, I’d like to tell you about myself. I hail from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and have done my schooling in Delhi Public School, Vizag and a couple other schools. Currently, I’m in my fifth year in the dual degree program offered by the Department of Engineering Design in IIT Madras.

As a part of my academic curriculum, it was mandatory for me to pursue a six-month internship in the field of my interest. For the same, companies from various fields came to my department for interviews. Of these all, I was looking for specific companies which were offering work in the field of product design. Only a handful of these companies were offering this field of work. One such company was “Saral Designs”. As an added motivation, Saral Designs is a Social Enterprise. I have always wanted to work in a Social Enterprise to understand the kind of impact they are able to create through their work depending on the cause. All these reasons led me to take up this internship.

During the course of my internship at Saral, I’ve had a lot of technical and social learnings. I designed various mechanisms and components, sent them for manufacturing, assembled and tested the machines during my internship. Hence, I had to work through complete cycles of design processes. Though I had designed devices in the past, I had never had the opportunity to complete an entire cycle of it before. This was a learning experience; I had to look at the same product through different perceptions at different stages of the design process. In addition, I was working on an entirely new design concept for this company. This was a ripe new avenue for me to ideate and design in. My overall experience at Saral Designs has been enriching and an exciting one.

As this company is committed to improving the situation of menstrual hygiene in India, I’ve learnt quite a lot about menstrual health since my joining. Well, this is embarrassing now. Prior to my internship, I didn’t know what menstruation actually is and how it affects a woman’s body. I remember a vague description from my ninth grade biology textbook where they described the biological process of menstruation. However, I didn’t remember the “word” and there was nothing about the pain it causes, among others. It was an eye-opener for me. Periods are not something people I know openly talk about. Having worked for 6 months in a start-up that focuses on menstrual health, I find myself being more comfortable and understanding of this phenomenon.

Unfortunately, menstrual health is a “hush” topic in India. In 6 months I have become more aware of how my surrounding reacts to a taboo topic like this. Let me share an experience with you that I recently encountered. I went back to my campus for a midterm review about a month after joining the company. For the same, I had to make a presentation telling what the company was about and what my work was. Since the company was involved in the manufacturing of Sanitary Napkins, I took a pad and displayed the product to my class. At once, the entire class started murmuring among themselves, and people were staring at me and the pad in a weird way as if I had committed a crime and was publicly displaying it. It took them a while, but by the end of the day, some of them came forward and appreciated my efforts to break the taboo around this subject. My lesson from this experience: “A great way to break a taboo is to be vocal about it and raise awareness”.

 

 

 

Erasing a Taboo One Step at a Time

It wasn’t until 23 that Acumen Fellow Suhani Mohan first learned the magnitude of India’s menstrual hygiene problem. That’s because, despite being born into a highly educated family in Mumbai, Suhani hardly spoke openly about her period, let alone discussed menstruation with other women.

“Menstrual hygiene is a topic nobody really talks about in India,” she said. “For a very long time, it was something even in my family I wasn’t supposed to talk to my brother or father about. It was only a conversation between the mother and the daughter.”

Suhani isn’t alone. Across India, menstruation — although a natural part of a woman’s life — remains a deeply rooted taboo shrouded in secrecy, silence and shame. The social stigma not only stifles access to affordable, reliable products but also perpetuates India’s long history of discrimination against women. 

(Photo courtesy of Saral Designs)

Today, more than 80 million women lack access to sanitary napkins in India and roughly 200 million girls lack awareness of menstrual hygiene. As a result, they rely on makeshift, unhygienic alternatives, such as newspapers and old rags, that increase the risk of infection. In fact, around 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by negligent menstrual hygiene. Without safe, clean options, women continue to put their health, livelihood and dignity at risk.

This was news to Suhani — until she met Dr. Anshu Gupta while volunteering through her job at Deutsche Bank. Dr. Gupta is the founder of Goonj, a social enterprise committed to breaking the myths around menstruation and providing safe solutions to low-income women. As he shared the challenges facing low-income women, Suhani felt ashamed for being completely unaware of the problem. “I never crossed my mind that when I spend 100 rupees ($1.50) a month to manage my menstruation, how a woman, whose entire family earns less than 1000 rupees ($15) a month, would manage hers,” she said.

Compelled to learn more, Suhani embarked upon a 15-day train tour across the length and breadth of India to understand life in the rural countryside. As she visited village after village, she began to realize the extent of the disparity, particularly in remote, low-income communities where access to sanitary pads was extremely limited and high-quality products were nonexistent.

Seeing the reality of the situation firsthand, Suhani began to question her path in life. Her role at Deutsche Bank was a sought-after job, but was she making a real difference? Being a volunteer was great, but was it enough? “Dr. Gupta showed me how many people were suffering,” she said. “That sense of urgency really made me see that it’s important. You can’t be in silence anymore.” She started to educate herself on all aspects of menstrual health and explore how she could use her skills and training from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to improve the circumstances for her fellow Indian women. 

(Suhani (right) and Kartik (centre) with the beginnings of the team that would become the social enterprise Saral Designs.)

She teamed up with Kartik Mehta, a fellow IIT alumni who studied engineering design and worked in machine design and development for companies like General Motors. Together, they researched the sanitary napkin industry to understand the existing products on the market. They discovered a gap: not only were companies producing substandard products, but they also didn’t have the means to scale and reach the women truly in need. In December of 2015, tech-savvy Suhani and Kartik began drafting a design for a machine that would automate the production of low-cost, high-quality pads and a business plan that would empower local manufacturers to scale these machines.

“While technology is making our lives easier, we believe that technology also needs to be used to address critical challenges that affect a huge segment of the population,” Suhani said.

As they developed their idea, Suhani applied to become an Acumen Fellow, hoping to learn how to turn their vision into a real, viable business. She and Kartik were having trouble getting their company off the ground, but she quickly learned she wasn’t alone. As a Fellow, she found a community of like-minded individuals who helped her think through her business model and break down the complexity of the problems she wanted to solve. “The Acumen Fellowship gave me another lens to look at problems, the adaptive lens, as we call it,” she said. “If I am part of the problem too, I will not be able to solve it…that lens has helped me a lot.”

Image Courtesy Saral Designs
Photo courtesy of Saral Designs

 By June 2015, Suhani and Kartik had quit their jobs and founded Saral Designs, a social enterprise that provides access to quality, cost-effective menstrual hygiene solutions and helps women embrace their womanhood with dignity. Their machine had been built, their new and improved pad designed; they were open for business. Now all they had to find were customers.

At first, Suhani turned to her friends and family to test out the product but, trying to be supportive, they failed to give her real, critical feedback. So Suhani, along with the other women on Saral’s team, ventured into Mumbai’s slums to see if they could find low-income women — the customers they ultimately wanted to serve — willing to try Saral’s pads. At first, they didn’t get very far but eventually, a few women opened up to them.

“Since the topic is so taboo, they would call us inside their houses,” Suhani said. “Once you get inside their safe space, we would sit down and have a conversation, woman to woman. What really worked was that we were talking the same language as them, and we were making them feel that their voice is really really important. That doesn’t happen in those communities.”

Of the 15 women they met that day, 14 of them purchased a Saral napkin. These women were instrumental in helping Suhani and Kartik fine-tune their super thin, highly absorptive Active Ultra pads. A few of them even became Saral brand ambassadors, helping to secure new customers and distribute pads throughout the slums. Today, Saral Designs has sold more than a million pads, using every channel from door-to-door sales to Amazon. The company has also partnered with schools across Mumbai to install vending machines and raise awareness among adolescent girls. In India, 113 million girls, ages 12 to 14, are at risk of dropping out of school due to the stigma of menstruation.

(Through Saral Designs, Suhani, bottom right, is working to raise awareness of menstrual hygiene for Indian women and girls and stop the stigma around menstruation.)

For Suhani, this is only the start. Now 26, she is looking to find more effective distribution channels to reach the millions of women without access to high-quality hygiene solutions, like those she met on her journey across rural India. She also wants to see if Saral Designs can replicate its model of distributed manufacturing for other essential consumer products.

“Entrepreneurship is a marathon,” Suhani said. “It’s not a sprint. It may happen that you get acquired and you’re out of it in five years but, when you start, that should never be the motivation. We are working toward a future where women will have access to a variety of services and products for their health and hygiene at a price they can afford.

The unnecessary shyness and stigma around natural biological processes like menstruation, puberty, sexuality and defecation need to end. When we start talking about these topics openly, innovations in these sectors will happen at a much greater rate.”

(This article was first published on Acumen Ideas)