One of the things that fascinated us the most during our trip to the Visavadi Center was their sanitary napkin production. There, several women manage a process that sources the raw materials, operate a machine to cut, arrange, stuff and sew sanitary napkins that are then sold, at a loss, to women in the community.
As women from the US, community acceptance and feminine products are two things that we take for granted. We have easy access to a wide variety of feminine products, which have been continually innovated and improved to fit our active lifestyles. But in many other cultures, a woman’s time of the month is one full of shame, where women are literally ostracized from their families and communities. The same is true in rural India. As summarized by a blog written by Elizabeth Scharpf and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff(http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-scharpf-and-rachel-kauder-nalebuff/when-a-period-ends-more-t_b_172862.html):
“Despite the fact that half the world menstruates, most people overlook the serious repercussions of a lack of affordable sanitary supplies in developing countries. The reason? Most people don’t know that it is a problem. Others find the subject embarrassing. Even those who do understand think there are more pressing problems at hand. Why spend money on pads when AIDS remains to be solved, when countries desperately need infrastructure, when the economy is collapsing? Because it turns out that providing pads does much more than prevent embarrassing stains. It is a simple solution that can change the standing of a gender, and thus an economy, across a continent.”
In Gujarat – and throughout rural India – the way women were taking care of their periods is often very unsanitary – using old and dirty cotton pieces that would not get cleaned or dried properly. This can lead to many health issues, including infection, infertility and even deaths; the danger is extreme. Beyond the direct health issues that it can cause to the woman, the impact it can have on a woman’s livelihood and her family’s livelihood is compounded – if she can’t work and provide for her family, the repercussions can be serious.
We couldn’t help be fascinated by this – perhaps because it is so different from the world in which we were brought up. But was also found ourselves completely inspired by this activity – women helping women in possibly one of the best ways that one woman can improve and support the lives of other woman. We wanted to learn more.
Before SEWA embarked on this project, they had over 2 years of research into the type of product they could make. There were other pads that had wings or were thicker and longer, but they were more expensive. So they settled on a machine that cost them 400,000 rupees. Raw materials would have to purchased every six months and because these materials are bulky, they need a place to store both the raw materials and the finished products. They sell the pads for 25 rupees, a price they determined would be attainable appropriate as a token amount. As mentioned before, they lose money on this project.
Our SEWA leaders made it clear to us: “This will not be a profitable business; this is being done for the social good.” But they did want us to look into how to reduce the costs and how to upgrade the machine. In the end, we determined that this is the sort of opportunity that foundations and corporations look for to fund. The capital costs should be supported by those efforts. But where SEWA can have the most impact is on the education and distribution systems. The education part is important as it not only would include the safety benefits of using the napkins and how one should dispose of it, but also help rural women more understand their bodies, a sort of taboo topic. We also think there is an opportunity to partner with the RUDI women, making sure the distribution network can reach far and wide. SEWA’s research found that door-to-door selling of these products are preferred. Finally, with perhaps the greatest ROI for SEWA, we think this is an opportunity to recruit the next generation of leaders for SEWA. The Manager-Ni School can recruit younger individuals and train them to be facilitators in the sanitary napkin project. These young women will not only get an early taste of the SEWA benefits, but can also convince their friends to join SEWA. This recruitment will help the generation gap we noticed during our time with the SEWA women.