Imagine being a young girl growing up in rural India. Your family is poor. Your father is a farmer and your mother is a housewife. You want to go to school and break out of the cycle of poverty. But then, you menstruate for the first time, and people tell you that it’s better to stay home during “that time of the month.” First, you make an effort to go anyway because you don´t want to miss school. You try hard to hide that you are bleeding, but there are no hygiene products that would allow you to stay at school for the whole day. You are using old rags, but they are not very absorbent. You can’t talk about this with anyone because this topic is a huge taboo. After several months you have to accept that you can’t attend school during menstruation. After a while, you realize that you cannot keep up with your classmates. Your dream of becoming a successful student starts to fade.
This story sounds dramatic, but it is a terrible reality for many young girls. Menstrual hygiene and the lack thereof is a big concern in rural India. There are over 350 million people in India who menstruate. This includes women, but also transgender people. There are many health issues related to the lack of access to menstrual products, and the alternatives that women are forced to use, including sand, ash, dirty cloths, and newspapers. Further, the lack of menstrual hygiene products is one of the main reasons why young girls drop out of school.
Dr. Bronner’s longstanding cooperation with Pavitramenthe, our supplier of organic and fair trade mint oils in India, and our commitment to community development in rural Uttar Pradesh, offered an opportunity to look for a solution to the problem. A team of Pavitramenthe and Dr. Bronner’s Special Operations staff decided to start a Fair Trade Community Fund project with the goal of addressing this issue.
We started by researching reusable options for menstrual products. We quickly realized that disposable products combined with non-existent waste management in rural villages would result in a disaster. Synthetic disposable pads can take between 300-500 years to decompose. Through our research we found Relief Pad, a company producing washable sanitary pads just outside of Delhi. The product has important characteristics that make it suitable for our local setting: because of the stigma related to menstruation in rural India, you need a product that can be used “under the radar.” The ability for the pad to be fast drying, even indoors for privacy, is very important. Additionally, due to the culture in India, other reusable options such as cups would not be appropriate.
After finding Relief Pad’s excellent reusable product, we organized a pilot project with 50 women willing to test the pads. In August 2019, the women involved in the testing process were trained around general female hygiene issues, including how to use and clean the pad. Despite some initial skepticism, all of the women were truly convinced of the benefits of the Relief Pad after using it for 2-3 menstrual cycles. During a follow-up visit with the women in rural Uttar Pradersh, around the city of Bareilly, it became clear that the pad was really changing the women’s lives.
With such favourable results we decided to increase the scale of the project. With financing from Pavitramenthe and the project’s Fair Trade Community Fund we purchased and distributed 1,000 sets of Relief Pads, each containing four pads, free of charge. Our next target is to supply two women in each of the 2,000 farming households of the Pavitramenthe project, and then consider scaling beyond these farming families. With a fund from the German government agency GIZ, we were able to purchase 1,000 more sets in October 2020 and distributed 380 sets to rural women. We will add another 5,000 sets (each containing four pads) in 2021. Due to Covid-19, training and distribution of the pads is challenging and only small groups can be addressed through video trainings, which slows down the distribution rate. We will arrange more training for women, men, and children in the villages on topics of female and sexual health as soon as group trainings can be organized.
We believe the results from our pilot project help demonstrate the economic and cultural viability of this menstrual hygiene option and are hopeful our program will inspire its use far and wide in India. For me, being able to work with women in India, to help develop and grow this program has been an honour and inspiration. I’ve learned a great deal from my female colleagues and friends in India and like all the projects I work on through Dr. Bronner´s Special Operations team, I again was reminded how privileged I am. Most of us here in the “west” never have to worry about an issue like menstrual hygiene management, which is often taken for granted. I look forward to continuing this work and possibly starting initiatives to address this issue in the communities surrounding our other supply chain projects in Ghana, Samoa, and Sri Lanka!