Eco-Entrepreneurs Promise Women A Safe Period: Suchismita Pai
Monday, January 26, 2015
Period. While the English dictionary gives several meanings for this rather ordinary word, millions of women around the world associate it with discomfort, pain and embarrassing memories. For hundreds of thousands of girls across India, menstruation means five days of solitary confinement; it’s the one reason behind many being forced to drop out of school and also being subjected to discriminatory social practices. Caught between superstition, ignorance and poverty they end up using anything from straw, ash and tree bark to even cow dung and dirty rags to absorb the flow. Consequently, stories about disease and death are legion.
Free from taboos
But this is not a story that enumerates the trials that women face during “those difficult days of the month”; it’s about a bunch of people who are using innovation and entrepreneurial skills to make their lives easier and free from the crippling burden of taboos. Kathy Walkling is the brains behind Eco Femme, an Auroville, Puducherry-based all-woman group that produces and exports cloth sanitary napkins by the same name to 14 countries in the world. An entrepreneur by accident, she has been working for more than a decade now towards promoting “menstrual practices that are healthy, dignified, affordable and eco-positive”.
“In a conservative social milieu, a single use sanitary pad does signify freedom – from being isolated, from losing days of work and wages,” remarks Walking. But whereas it is a boon for many, it also results in escalating the vulnerability and drudgery of another set of people – the waste pickers, who are most often women.
According to Pratibha Sharma of SWaCH, a waste-pickers’ co-operative in Pune, Maharashtra, “In a country like India, garbage is handled by waste pickers and conservancy workers and they use bare, ungloved hands.” Imagine, then, their plight because the modern-day, mass manufactured sanitary napkins are completely non-biodegradable. Sharma says, “We are risking the health of waste pickers, often women themselves. Would anybody be willing to handle their own soiled pad once it has been thrown in the garbage?”
“It was hygienic disposal of pads that got me into the business of making cloth pads in the first place,” shares Walkling, adding, “if each one of the over 300 million menstruating women in India used disposable sanitary pads, it would result in over 58,500 million pads ending up in landfills every year.”
When she first came to Auroville in 1997, she was taken aback by the lack of knowledge about menstrual hygiene among women as well as the improper disposal of pads. Loath to transfer the problem of collecting unsanitary garbage to someone else, she experimented with making reusable cloth pads and sewed a few for her personal use. Although, initially Walkling did feel “squeamish” using the handmade pads, very soon things changed.