What does it mean to be a man working on the menstrual hygiene issue? The idea may sound enthralling, but it is equally challenging. Over the last three years, I have been working in the field of menstrual hygiene. I left a cosy corporate job (which I’d joined soon after completing my education from IIT Madras), looking to solve issues faced by the society. I happened to meet Suhani, who would soon become my co-founder at Saral Designs. It was Suhani who introduced me to the crisis of menstrual hygiene in India and other developing countries where a majority of women lack awareness, accessibility or cannot afford menstrual hygiene products.
Soon I was convinced that I wanted to do my part in solving a problem which is not faced by men. This was a life-changing decision. However, many of friends were sceptical about this idea and asked me whether I was passionate enough and if I would be resilient enough to solve a problem that I have never faced, and never will. But, there was no looking back. My conviction was strong and I was clear that I wanted to empower women by providing them with an essential menstrual hygiene product which would be hygienic and affordable. This was enough to set me out on an entrepreneurial journey for improving the quality of women’s lives. Hence, we developed the world’s first automatic, cost-effective, sanitary napkin-making machine “SWACHH” that produces high-quality, affordable sanitary napkins.
In the last 3-4 years, there have been many incubators, accelerators, conferences which have come up during Women’s Day and throughout the year – women in business, women in entrepreneurship, women in technology, clean technology, etc. While all these are very important to encourage more women to break the glass ceiling and participate in the workforce, there is only a thin line between ‘giving’ and publicising ‘equal opportunities’. We have been a part of many such opportunities – but to our surprise, a lot of them have only been open to the women in the teams concerned. In many cases, it’s also been expressly stating that they would only want a woman to attend a workshop or an inauguration and not in the capacity of the roles of the people involved in the organisation.
As a feminist myself, I often wonder: is this how we are going to build equal opportunities? The current trend works for a female-only team, but for building a more sustainable model for empowerment, we need to see how both men and women can work together. The theme for this International Women’s Day is ‘Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists Transforming Women’s Lives’. Let us make sure that on this Women’s Day, we recognise both men and women who are working towards transforming women’s lives.
Here are a few small steps towards creating sustainable means to attain gender equality:
1. We start involving men in discussions around menstrual hygiene and sex education – have ‘puberty sessions’ for both boys and girls, make men know about what their wives go through during their periods, what the difference between consensual sex and rape is, and so on.
2. We start recognising the men who are working on women-related causes and making role models out of them, so that other men no longer feel alienated by the word ‘feminism’ and can be a part of the change which is needed to build a just society.
On this note, we want to celebrate the men who have purchased sanitary-napkin making machines from us and have started their own businesses despite many odds. For example, Ariful Forquan, our production partner from Bangladesh says, “With technology from India, I am able to provide pads to marginalised garment workers in Dhaka at a very affordable price.” Ashish Srivastava, who runs an NGO called Shiksharth in Sukuma, Chattisgarh says, “With our campaign, our staff in the tribal areas of Sukma used the pads for the first time and experienced how hygiene leads to healthier life.” SivSankar, who is a textile businessman in his previous avatar, says, “I am setting up sanitary napkin manufacturing machines for my wife and daughter.”