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