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) 

Saral Open House

On 26th August, we hosted our very first ‘ Saral Open House ‘ for those interested in getting to know what we do, a little bit more.

We are so grateful to all those who attended the event and to those who supported us throughout.

We truly appreciate all of you out there!

Here are a few glimpses of the successful  Open House event at Saral Designs. We hope you enjoy them and share your thoughts about it with us.

A full house at Saral Open House
A full house at Saral Open House
Our CTO during his session on the manufacturing unit
Our CTO – Kartik Mehta during his session on the manufacturing unit
During the tour of the production area
Vijay Prakash  with the guests during the tour of the production area
A happy team member during the sales session
Kalyani Joshi our Sales lead during the sales session
The guests blowing away their troubles during the balloon activity
The guests blowing away their troubles during the balloon activity
During our favorite balloon game with the guests at the Saral Open House
During our favourite balloon game with the guests at the Saral Open House
Our guests checking in at the Saral Open House
Our guests checking in at the Saral Open House
Suhani Mohan with the Founder of Red is the New Green at the Saral Open House
Suhani Mohan with the Founder of Red is the New Green at the Saral Open House
A happy Saral Team , enjoying the success of the event
A happy Saral Team, enjoying the success post the event

Taxing periods in India — the old & the new way

We all know that sanitary napkins are going to be taxed at 12 % GST. But, many of us are still unsure of its implications as a consumer and manufacturer. 
As most discussions currently revolve around the impact of GST on sanitary napkins and why sanitary napkins should be made free, we have our very own Suhani Mohan breaking it down for us in a lay man’s term.
#taxfreeperiods #lahukalagaan #healthfirst
Read more to find out.

That Time Of The Month

23% of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating
66% girls are unaware of menstruation

3%

“That time of the month” campaign will impact 1500 girls.The campaign will involve conducting 3 Menstrual Hygiene Awareness sessions per school and improve access to good quality sanitary pads, by supplying each girl with her annual need of 24 packets. The awareness session will be conducted by experts of Sukhibhava Foundation and Saral Designs will provide best hygiene products to manage periods.

Through this campaign, we aim to enable girls to manage their periods safely, hygienically and with dignity.

It only takes Rs. 999 to equip one girl with knowledge and habits to fight reproductive track infections, missing days of school and lack of confidence.

Contribute Now

awareness

Knowledge and Implementation Partner

Sukhibhava Foundation
www.sukhibhava.org.in

Sukhibhava Foundation, is a social enterprise working in the intersection of urban health, community change and empowerment. We aim to change the narrative around this by creating awareness about menstrual health and providing access to affordable sanitary pads to women and girls from underprivileged communities. We create a behavioural change from biological, sociological, gender-related and rights perspectives.

8 people who broke menstruation taboos!

There is a lot of amazing work happening across the globe on menstruation. People have broken taboos in different ways, by being and by doing. Here is a list of 8 such amazing people!

  1. Kiran Gandhi
    1
     A musician and a Harvard graduate, 26 year old Kiran, completed the London Marathon during her period without a pad or a tampon, bleeding free, giving out a strong message to the world.
  2. Anshu Gupta
    2Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj and a Magsaysay award winner, believes that that the problem lies in the fact that menstruation has been made into a women’s issue. Goonj turns cloth into an affordable, clean and easy to use napkins for rural women.
  3. Co-Exist
    3To break the taboo of menstruation , a Bristol based firm Coexsit has introduced a “period policy” where they provide women leave if they suffer pain during periods.
  4. Dilip Kumar
    4
    To cater to the menstrual needs of urban poor women, Dilip founded a social enterprise Sukhibhava, which works from distributing low cost napkins to organizing information sessions.
  5. Aditi Gupta
    5 Aditi has been working in shattering the myths and educating women and girls about menstrual health and hygiene through her website, Menstrupedia.
  6. Nasreen Jehan
    6
    A fifteen year old student from Bihar, Nasreen Jehan, proudly wears a yellow and red beaded bracelet on her wrist to keep track of her menstrual calendar and talk about menstruation with my friends.
  7. Prakriti Kandel
    7
    15 year old Prakriti Kandel writes her novel, Imposter, a story set in a society where menstruation gives women superpowers.
  8. Anushka Dasgupta8Anushka, a high school senior from Kolkata, shared a picture of her stained pants on Facebook as she wanted to start an honest conversation about the existing menstrual stigma.

We, at Saral Designs, love them for their kickass work. We aim to contribute to field by making affordable high quality sanitary pads and making them available in areas where they are needed the most.

Designing a Better Menstrual Hygiene Future

At Saral Designs we have one primary focus in mind- to make sure that one day each woman has access to the right products during her periods. As a nation, we are far from that goal right now.  Only 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women have access to the right products. The 88% women who do not have access to the right products  resort to unsanitary means such as cloth and husk sand. The biggest barrier for them is affordability. And our experience has shown that often when a product is unaffordable, there are a lot of myths surrounding the use of the product. This compounded by the fact that periods is already a taboo topic makes our job difficult, if not unsurmountable. We are here to change the conversation, speak scientifically about our bodies, and make sure that we are constantly moving towards a situation where every woman has access to a period pad and uses it without apprehension.

23% of the girls drop out of school when they start their periods. This is something we are pushing to change as well. The more girls that drop out of school, the less we are able to affect mindsets and move towards a more equitable society. So this definitely needs to change. We take small steps towards it, for example by Suvidha our sanitary napkin vending machine that allows for girls to have access to sanitary pads even in school.

But we realise that the first step towards changing any of this is to start by changing the conversation. Keeping this in mind, we held activities over the span of three days from 25th-27th May in Karjat, Maharashtra to connect with women who have not had access to resources so far or have been subject to taboos that can have crippling effect on their health. This was a part of our effort to do something meaningful for Menstrual Hygiene Day.

Each day around 70 women participated in our activities. Our activities were designed to involve them in getting a conversation started around periods, “educate” them about the right products and the right  and get them to burst the myths that have surrounded conversations around periods in their communities. We decided to create awareness by the means of games.

We made them blow baloons and then think of the things that are bothering them..we made them burst the baloons (as a symbol of forgetting their miseries and enjoying, many women are often crippled by their troubles and have stopped being carefree). For us, any significant conversation starts with a happy state of mind.

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We made them play Chinese whisper. At the end of it, like most times with this game, they got their phrase wrong. This was an attempt to show them how period myths propagate and inaccurate stories spread.

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The last game was that of passing the parcel. The box had a period related question. If you get it right, you get a gift. Questions were testing their knowledge on myths, and general knowledge based on biology of periods.

We also had FAQs around access, affordability, safe disposal and other things.

We are still growing and our attempts are a step in the direction of our goals. If you want to get involved or want to buy our products, write to us at contactus@saraldesigns.in or +91-9029330401. You can also purchase our products at the following e-commerce websites: AmazonShopcluesEbay

This Menstrual Hygiene Day let’s strive to create a better future where girls don’t need to drop out of schools due to periods and women don’t need to be crippled due to lack of access or not knowing the right information.