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There’s A ₹2.5 Solution For The 68% Women In Rural India Who Can’t Afford Sanitary Napkins

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By Darshan Desai

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

down to earth ashuddhi nashakShyam Sunder Bedekar is a successful textile dye and chemical trader in Vadodara, Gujarat. He is also the man credited with popularising the use of sanitary napkins among the poor women in Vadodara and neighbouring areas—a commendable feat when one considers that just six percent of women in the country use sanitary napkins, according to a November 2008 UN report. In contrast, 96 percent women in Europe use sanitary napkins, says the report.

In 2010, the 54-year-old decided to train women in the rural areas and low-income groups in the cities to set up and manage sanitary napkin manufacturing units after he learnt about the issue from his wife Swati, who runs Vatsalya Foundation, a non-profit. Today he has 20 sanitary manufacturing units in Vadodara district and each unit employs eight to 10 women. Bedekar’s team only ensures financing and marketing of the napkins.

Empowering The Poor

“The units had multiple benefits. First, rural women turned entrepreneurs, who further provided employment to other women. This encouraged all the women in their families to start using the napkins,” Bedekar told Down To Earth. The other feature about the initiative is that the machines used to manufacture the napkins are made by Bedekar’s company Smart Enterprise, which has two units in Vadodara. “It costs just Rs 2.5 lakh to start the units with semi-automated machines because we don’t go out to buy these machines,” he says. The napkins are made of cotton and polypropylene through a technology that is used by most popular brands. “The napkins are of the same quality and durability,” he says. They cost Rs 2.50 a piece, which is more economical than the napkins made by popular brands that range between Rs 3 and Rs 15 a napkin. A 2014 study carried out by AC Nielsen and reviewed by NGO Plan India says 81 per cent rural women use unsterilised cloth since they are cheaper and 68 percent said they could not afford to buy sanitary napkins. The study says just 12 percent of the 365 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins in the country despite the fact that the use of alternative sanitary care measures—unsterilised cloth, sand and ash—make them susceptible to infections and diseases such as cervical cancer. The women working in these units are paid 50 paise per napkin and they on an average earn Rs 3,000 a month.

Going The Whole Hog

Soon after the success of the units, Bedekar and his team faced a new challenge—how to hygienically dispose of the used napkin. “With these units, more women in the region started using sanitary napkins but they struggled to dispose of the used napkins because there was no garbage collection and management system in the rural areas,” he says. The problem became so grave that “many women might have stopped using sanitary napkins”.

The innovator in him decided to develop an incinerator to destroy the used napkins. “No technology exists in the country to specifically destroy used sanitary napkins,” he says. “The incinerator had to be affordable and acceptable in the rural environs. So the first prototype incinerator, Ashuddhinashak, was made in terracotta. Then I redesigned it in such a way that the burning was initiated by used or waste paper and not electricity. This would keep the running cost negligible,” says Bedekar. He adds that unlike burning in the open, the process happens in an enclosed chamber. As a result, there is “very little” smoke generated from the units “and the heating lasts for just a minute or two at 290oC, which is much below the permissible limit of over 470oC”. The resultant ash gets easily dissolved in the soil since the napkins are made of cotton and polypropylene.

“It has a reasonable working height, a central section which holds the sanitary napkins disposed in it and also works as a combustion chamber. The chamber is provided with a false bottom—a steel-netted floor that facilitates combustion by allowing enough fresh air to sustain the burning and then the ash gets cleared through the false bottom, emptying the unit automatically,” Bedekar explains. “We have also introduced the same product in reinforced concrete, which is strong enough to withstand transportation by road or rail,” he says.

Growing Demand

Bedekar says the Ashuddhi-nashak is in great demand and they have already installed 2,000 units of the incinerator, which cost Rs 2,000 a piece. “We make a profit of 15 to 17 per cent per piece,” he says.

“It has been installed in many schools under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan. There have been several individual orders as well for the incinerator,” he says. The inquiries increased after the product was exhibited at the festival of innovations held at the Rashtrapati Bhawan in March this year.

“We have installed this incinerator in eight to 10 high schools and it has been of great help. We plan to order more incinerators for the university,” says Harish Joshi, who heads the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Manipal University in Karnataka. Joshi adds that they are using coconut pulp and wood pieces instead of paper for burning.

Even Darshana Suthar, gender officer at the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan cell in Gandhinagar, got the incinerator installed at her office. “We have installed these incinerators at the 109 girls’ residential schools in Gujarat and we are quite satisfied with its performance,” she says. Suthar adds that earlier the hostel toilets would choke because the students would flush the napkins.

About his future plans, Bedekar says, “I wish to popularise Ashuddhi-nashak.”

Featured image source: Ahmad Masood/Reuters

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  1. Nandini

    Excellent gentlemen, lot of this bollywood intolerants should learn from you.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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