Menstruation can make a girl, a woman an outcast. The first time Sombodhi Ghosh, 27, co-founder of Aakar Innovations, experienced this first-hand was while he was living in Chandanapuri village in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra in 2011. “I had engaged a neighbour’s wife to prepare my meals since I could not cook on a chulha," says Ghosh who holds a BSc in Microbiology from University of Calcutta. One evening, he was told to manage on his own for the next five days. “I asked if the lady who cooked was ill but all I got was a silly, uncomfortable grin for an answer." Later, someone explained that when women in this part of the world menstruate, they are confined to a room. But when it came to women who had to earn their livelihood, things were different. In Orissa while working with labourers on cashew plantations, Ghosh realized discomfort or staining during periods did not really keep women away from work because that meant losing the 30 daily wage. “It was hard to see their humiliation," he says.

His friend and the founder of Aakar Innovations, Jaydeep Mandal, 27, had been exposed to menstruation and its many taboos (women not being allowed to visit a temple, go for any auspicious festival or function or go near fields with crops) since he had worked in Uttarakhand on a Students in Free Enterprise (now called Enactus) project with students from the University of Sheffield, UK, while completing his MBA in 2010. “The project in Khatima block was to set up a unit that could made low-cost sanitary napkins and give women a chance to earn their livelihood through it. The machine was the one designed by Arunachalam Muruganantham, India’s ‘menstruation’ man. But it was so tough to talk to these women about periods, hygiene, let alone ask them to run a business where the final product was a sanitary napkin to be used during menstruation. We worked with Sonia Suryavanshi (a social activist) on this project and even Sonia di was ill-equipped to handle questions about the technicalities of menstrual hygiene during these conversations with rural women. It was really when we roped in a local doctor that the project saw some traction," explains Mandal, who holds an engineering degree in information technology sitting in Aakar Innovations cramped demo unit set up in the back room of a house on Palam-Dabri road, Delhi.

Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

These last few weeks have been hectic for Ghosh, Mandal and Aakar Social Ventures (a sister concern of Aakar Innovations) executive director Meera Singh, formerly with the Indian Council for Medical Research. Small changes have been made to the design of the napkin, branding and logo have to be finalized, the patent has been filed and the strategy and business model is being firmed up. “We do not intend for this machine to just create low-cost sanitary napkins that will give rural women a chance at affordable hygiene. We want them to have a chance to earn also. Many years ago we had heard a talk by the then President of India, (A.P.J. Abdul) Kalam who had said that grass-roots innovations can make an impact only if they have a chance to be commercially viable. We want that for our project," says Ghosh.

A few things that the duo are clear as far as this project is concerned: Women must participate in buying these machines which will cost about 2.5lakh. “We don’t want these machines to be gifted or given to the women for free. If people have no stake in a business, they do not work hard to make it succeed. If our machines do not work, women will not get low-cost sanitary napkins which will lead to no improvement in their health and hygiene and there will be no doing away with the taboos. If we have to educate rural women about periods, hygiene and sanitary napkins, we believe they should first be involved in making them," says Ghosh.

A 2011 ACNielsen and Plan India survey Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right shows that only 12% of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins. Though in 2010, the Union health ministry had announced a 150-crore scheme to increase access to the use of sanitary napkins to adolescent girls in rural areas, it is yet to take off fully. “Our idea is not new. But we have done a lot of research and tried to understand from the mistakes of other people," says Mandal. Among the key problems in low-cost sanitary napkins and reason for resistance among rural women to use them is that most are rectangular in shape. Most use a sealing methodology where the seal line comes on the top making the pad uncomfortable. Also, the filling in the pad in most cases is grounded, making absorption quality low. “Besides, the machines that manufacture these napkins need electricity to run which is scarce in most villages," explains Mandal.

Keeping these inputs in mind, the duo worked on a machine that needed minimal electricity and could work on inverters, was easy to operate for women and would make sanitary napkins which are comfortable. “We have an option where we can use biodegradable filling—it will take 90-180 days to decompose in a composite site—but that increases the cost per pad by about 40-50 paise. Frankly, rural women do not care about the biodegradability of a product, but our partners and even we wanted that we should create a product that can protect the environment in the long run," says Ghosh adding that they have spent close to 20 lakh of their own resources to develop this machine.

But some challenges remain.

Singh agrees that even if women in rural India were convinced to start using these pads, the fact that most of them do not use undergarments could pose a problem since the pads are of the stick-on variety. “We should look at a way of distributing or providing underwear too." Not many kirana stores in villages are willing to stock sanitary napkins because there is little demand for them as women are reluctant to be seen purchasing them. The ministry’s scheme to distribute such napkins through accredited social health activists (ASHA) is still in its infancy. Also, in field tests, Ghosh and Mandal found that users wanted the shape (the inverted two-S shape and the wings) to resemble those of pads that the multinational companies manufacture. Anandi pads have incorporated the S-shape.

Ghosh and Mandal hope that once their project gets off the ground, it will help adolescents girls not skip school or be forced to drop out (around 23% of adolescent girls in rural India drop out of school after they start menstruating, according to the ACNielsen and Plan India survey). Also, they hope that it will lower the occurrence of ailments like urinary tract infections and prevent reproductive tract infections which are a result of using soiled rags, ash, mud and tree barks to avoid soiling during menstruation. And most importantly, they want this innovation to give women a chance to earn their own money.

“We named our sanitary napkins Anandi because our field dipstick study indicated that rural women associate this name with change, a spirit to fight and leave behind taboos, perhaps an influence of a popular TV character. We want our innovation to stand for all this and more," says Ghosh.

“The name is also our way of honouring Anandi Gopal Joshi, the first Indian woman to obtain a medical degree," adds Mandal.

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