New Delhi: “A woman is bleeding and nothing more, then why should she stay away from everything? How can we be ashamed of our reproductive system, our body’s functioning, and for how long will we be bound to age-old systems and ignore our health?” asks 38-year-old Ridwana Akhtar, a resident of Narupura village in Kokernag in the Anantnag district.
An owner of a boutique, Ms. Akhtar, a mother of two boys and a daughter, lives with her husband and in-law at Narupura. An MPhil graduate in Urdu, Ms. Akhtar was aware of menstrual health and had seen the similar environment at her home. But she noticed she was one of the few women to have been fortunate enough to have knowledge about menstruation. This struck her more after she got married.
She witnessed that there were a host of moral, religious, and cultural beliefs in her village, marred in myths and misinformation around menstruation. Most of the women in the area just accepted the reality, while others were unaware of their menstrual health or their health in general.
Ms. Akhtar, could have chosen to ignore the misinformation and let it prevail, while going about running her business. But she had an urge building up to bust the stigma around menstruation but was not sure how to do it with an impact.
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It was exactly around this time in 2021, an opportunity came her way through the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), which had launched a pan-India programme called ‘My Pad My Right’, under which a free sanitary pad-making assembly machine was being given, along with the raw materials and wages for two months, packaging material with accessories, and five-day training in three phases, to the Self Help Groups (SHGs) on a grant basis.
Ms. Akhtar came to know about the programme from her brother-in-law, Inamul Haq Rafiqi, who helped her understand the nuances of the NABARD-aided initiative. This was no less than a golden opportunity for her. She thought that involving women in manufacturing the sanitary napkins would not only help them financially, but the opportunity could also be used to sensitise women and their families about menstrual health and create awareness regarding menstrual hygiene and its significance for living a healthy life.
She went door-to-door to educate the women of her village and urged them to join her Self-Help Group (SHG) ‘Al-Qaria’ after describing the benefits of joining the SHG. Ms. Akhtar says the name ‘Al-Qaria’ resonated with her as it means success or progress.
In 2021, she submitted the document to NAB Foundation, a subsidiary of NABARD, to take up and work on the project. The foundation took it into consideration and accepted her application. The foundation laid down conditions for the implementation of the project, including the requirement of a space of 700 Sq Ft to 1000 Sq Ft, for installing the machine and stocking the material.
Ms. Akhtar was determined to avail herself of the opportunity, irrespective of any financial obstacles. With the support of her family, she constructed a shed on the land owned by the family, solely for the purpose of installing the machine. After verification of concerned documents and multiple back and forth, Ms. Akhtar finally received the approval letter in September 2022. In November, the machinery arrived at the Anantnag district and was installed at her place this year, on March 9.
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Notably, Al-Qaria SHG was formally granted the first-ever Sanitary Pad Manufacturing Unit from NAB Foundation as part of efforts to promote menstrual hygiene awareness and entrepreneurship among women in rural areas by NABARD.
She leads the group as President. The group has members from the age group of 18–50 years, who have taken a pledge to create awareness regarding menstrual hygiene.
Al-Qaria is engaged in manufacturing sanitary napkins called ‘NISSA’, and they sell a pack of eight for Rs 75. Talking about the cost, Ms. Akhtar said that there are sanitary pads available for a much cheaper price in the market, but the quality is substandard. Whereas they use the best raw materials, such as airlaid paper or wood pulp, tissues with SAP (watery fluid of plants), Polyethylene (PE) films, etc., for the production of their sanitary pads.
These spandex materials are flexible, comfortable, non-crinkle, assuring zero leakage, unaesthetic appearance, colour or odour. It retains menstrual fluid more than any other regular sanitary napkin.
These sanitary napkins can also be used as special maternity pads, as they can help absorb the heavier bleeding while still keeping the new mothers comfortable and secure after recovering from delivery, she added.
The group had been receiving orders for the same from various maternity hospitals and clinics. The semi-automatic unit with a production capacity of 600–800 pads per day ensures an adequate stock of pads available for distribution to nearby villages as well.
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19-year-old Tahira Jaan, a graduate student in history at a nearby college, has been working with Al-Qaria for the last two years. She has been involved in various works done by the group, from sewing, stitching to art work. Ms. Akhtar insisted that she join the group and become financially independent. She now helps Ms. Akhtar manufacture the sanitary pads. After attending college, she goes to the manufacturing unit and helps with the wrapping of the fabric and sealing by the sensitive impulse sealing method.
I came to know about Al-Qaria’s initiative from Ridwana baaji. After completing my 12th, I joined the group. Everyday I look forward to getting over with my studies in college and joining the women at the manufacturing unit.
Although she works for 3–4 hours at the unit due to college hours, her contribution has been huge, Ms. Akhtar said.
Ms. Akhtar’s neighbour, Faruka Banoo, also works in the manufacturing of sanitary napkins. The 35-year-old came to know about Ms. Akhtar’s work through her door-to-door awareness campaigns.
Although Ms. Banoo was aware that sanitary pads were available, she had been using a cloth ever since her menarche, as she was apprehensive to purchase it from a drugstore because of the stigma associated with menstruation in the village.
After joining the manufacturing unit, Ms. Banoo has stopped using old clothes during periods, completely and provides the same for her daughter. She is involved with the packaging of the sanitary napkins at the manufacturing unit.
I never used a sanitary napkin in my life, as I was hesitant to buy it from a chemist. But now I proudly use a pad that I manufacture along with other women in the village. I still am not confident of purchasing the pads from a drugstore, but manufacturing units have come as a boon.
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Besides manufacturing pads, these women have also taken it upon themselves to educate the women of the Narupura village and nearby schools about menstrual health and hygiene. Ms. Akhtar has conducted multiple awareness sessions in her village to discuss the facets of menstrual health, the precautions one must take during periods (keeping the genital area clean, wearing breathable clothes, etc.), the kind of care needed during the menstrual cycle (drinking enough liquids, exercising at home) and myths surrounding the topic (considering period blood as unhygienic, impure to conduct a prayer, among others).
I also urge the women to educate their young daughters on menstruation before menarche, maintaining personal hygiene, and using sanitary pads in place of traditional methods, she added.
Ms. Akhtar also distributes sanitary napkins produced by the group free of cost to young girls in schools and women belonging to economically weaker sections of the society.
22-year-old Sabia Jaan couldn’t stop praising Ms. Akhtar’s initiative and called her a blessing in disguise. Ms. Jaan is one of the several women of Narupura village, who have started using the sanitary pads after attending Ms. Akhtar’s awareness initiatives.
I have always used clothes for all the six days of my periods. When Ms. Akhtar visited door-to-door, she made my family understand the significance of sanitary pads, the difference between a cloth and a pad. These are extremely comfortable and the number of times I have to change is less, so that is a relief.
Al-Qaria is the only SHG in the Anantnag district to be working on the ‘My Pad, My Right’ project. Ms. Akhtar expressed her gratitude to NABARD for giving the group the opportunity to take up such a novel project. She has been accorded the title of ‘Padwoman’ of Kashmir by people of her district and the people of media.
There was very little discussion surrounding menstrual hygiene, women’s health and the problems young girls face when they do not have access to period products in my village. I am proud to say that we have been able to overcome this problem to some extent by involving women in the discussion about their menstrual health, conducting awareness sessions among young girls and educating them about it.
Proud of what she has managed to do so far, Ms. Akhtar said she will continue the mission of raising awareness about menstrual health and hygiene by involving more women from adjacent villages in her venture.
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NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – theLGBTQ population,indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the currentCOVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water,SanitationandHygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fightmalnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health,adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues likeair pollution,waste management,plastic ban,manual scavengingand sanitation workers andmenstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India wheretoiletsare used andopen defecation free (ODF)status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched byPrime Minister Narendra Modiin 2014, can eradicate diseases like diarrhoea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.