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Just A Piece Of Cloth Can Save Lives: Breaking Menstrual Stigmas With Goonj

Shame, silent painful endurance, severe infections or even death – these are few of the many sentiments associated with one of the most ignored human rights issues around the globe—menstruation.

I got attached to this cause last year before a trip to India. I have always wanted to work for an NGO but due to financial constraints, I did not explore that and took up a Technology job instead. Before my trip I realized that something is better than nothing. During my research, I found out about the serious issue that menstrual hygiene is in this day and age. As an empowered woman, I knew I had to step up and help those who did not have a voice. I raised funds and proactively took some kits to India from Days for Girls in USA.

It was disheartening to find out that in India, only 12% women have access to sanitary products. A 2010 study by A. C. Neilsen, endorsed by Plan India, found that most women use old cloth, while the less fortunate, use leaves, sand or dung cakes to soak menstrual blood.

As per the National Guidelines on Menstrual Hygiene Management (2015), nearly 113 million adolescent girls are at risk of dropping out of school due to inadequate sanitation facilities and the lack of sanitary products at school. The situation is alarming. And if this is not a wake-up call, then what is?

Goonj is steering the shift in this mindset with their ‘Not just a piece of cloth’ initiative. Founded in 1999, Goonj is an NGO headquartered in Delhi, India with a strong network of about 150 employees and 300 volunteers with an outreach across 22 states in India. The organisation repurposes 3,000 tons of cotton and semi-cotton cloth that they get annually from across the country to manufacture MyPAD, cheap, sustainable and biodegradable pads. So far Goonj has produced over 4 million sanitary pads produced out of waste cloth which has reached rural population and empowered thousands of women there.

Their production unit in Sarita Vihar, New Delhi, is seamlessly run by a strong team of about 50 women working in the ‘Not Just A Piece Of Cloth’ (NJPC) department. First time visitors and volunteers are given a 45 minute tour of the facility to acclimate them with the entire operation so that the volunteer engagement becomes more meaningful.

During the tour, the ladies employed here showcase the entire production cycle with pride. They cover how Goonj receives quality clothes and worn out fabric in donation and how the team recycles those by cleaning and processing them for MyPAD production. Wearable clothes in good condition are kept on the side to be used in one of the family kits and any material that is not in good condition to be worn, is processed for pad production. Goonj reuses everything you contribute. They do not waste anything. Even clothes in bad shape are converted into scraps for filling the pads.

Once the clothes are washed and sanitized for up to 48 hours, each garment goes through a metal detector quality check to ensure that there are no dangerous hooks or buttons left on them. Many years ago, there was a case of a woman who died of tetanus from a rusted hook in the blouse she used as a pad. This serves as the biggest case study for Goonj and strict measures are taken to ensure proper sanity and impregnability of these pads.

Inside the production unit, cloth is then converted into pads and packaged into a kit containing an instruction manual and bags to secure these reusable napkins. They are cheap, eco-friendly, reusable, and sustainable. Goonj’s mission is to address three critical A’s of menstruation; Access, Affordability and Awareness.

In addition to providing comfort to women during periods, these pads also offer a solution to the sanitary pad disposal issue that the planet is grappling with at the moment. MyPADs also come with instructions and, from time to time, counselling sessions for locals to enlighten the women on the importance of menstrual hygiene in their overall health.

Goonj works with grassroots partners to distribute these sanitary napkins. Another program called ‘Cloth for Work’ incentivises beneficiaries by giving them napkins as a reward for providing labor for their community’s development work. After the tour I got a chance to talk to the women in the Production unit. These women pose as great examples of how creating awareness on social issues like menstruation makes a huge difference in changing ancient, ingrained mindsets. Most of these women are from interior villages and have experienced these challenges first hand. Today, they not only work here with pride and distribute menstrual kits within their communities, but they also speak openly about periods to their family and relatives and also educate masses in their own neighborhoods.

The key message I took away was a feeling of camaraderie between women and a strong community of more aware women. I realized that things that we take for granted in our lives, could be a matter of life or death for someone less fortunate.

While it is easy to talk about social issues from the comforts of our homes, what is our contribution to making a change? Are you ready to be a change agent for millions of women who do not have access to basic day to day facilities?

Here are a few things you can do to help today:

  1. Donate cloth or organize cloth collection camps.
  2. Monetary aid.
  3. Volunteer your time, effort or skills.
  4. Spread the word and organise meetups to discuss this issue with the larger community.
  5. Participate in not just NJPC but many other causes Goonj takes up such as education, disaster relief, and employment campaigns in rural villages.

Come, let us kill the stigma against all menstruating people. Together.

Featured image for representation only.
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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.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

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.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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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.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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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
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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