While the growing concern for health and hygiene has taken centerstage these days, women’s menstrual health and sanitary hygiene remains to be cornered by the stigma and taboo surrounding it till date. Mangesh Jha, popularly known as the ‘Padman of Jharkhand’ for his efforts to drive awareness about menstrual health and hygiene in the rural areas of the State has now collaborated with ‘Niine’, a sanitary pad company to set up pad vending machines in Kolkata.
“Women empowerment, for me is not about praising and idolising that one woman who made it to success but thinking of ways to empower all the others who didn’t. And, empowerment must begin at the grass root level, empowering our women with proper menstrual healthcare and hygiene,” said Mangesh, determined to provide women with the basic facility of hygienic menses. Setting up pad vending machines in police stations and traffic posts with the mission to empower all the women of Kolkata Police, he plans to extend this drive to all the government and public spaces of Jharkhand and Bihar like bus stands, railway stations and police stations.
The company ‘Niine’ shares the same vision as of Jha and is giving 100 pads free and thereafter charging a nominal cost of Rs. 5 per pad with each vending machine. “Sanitary pad vending machines are as basic and necessary as the first aid boxes and should come along with it,” added Mangesh.
Sanitary waste management is another pressing issue in the urban patches that requires immediate attention. Sanitary pads available in the market have a significant amount of plastic content and are non-biodegradable. Every woman in her menstrual lifecycle uses about 3500–4000 sanitary pads, which cumulates to produce a concerning figure. India is reportedly producing approximately 9 million tonnes of sanitary waste every year and most of this waste is prime sources of water body contamination.
“In times where the leading metros of the country are running out of ground water, major parts are drought stricken and climate change is the debate of the hour, we have to look into sustainable ways to provide our women with sanitation solutions,” said Jha. But the main problem lies with the high cost of producing bio-degradable pads with minimum plastic content. Government has an important role to play in subsiding and promoting the production and use of bio-degradable pads and issuing regulations on corporates to do the same, he said.
Mangesh has been a pioneer in the field, working from 2014 after leaving a well paid job. He saw the critical situation of women in rural areas of Jharkhand, especially the daily wage workers who were barred from doing their jobs during their menses that directly affected their two square meals of the day. “The plight of the women in rural areas shook me to do something about it. They were found using coal ashes, grass and anything that was easily available and soaked blood,” told Mangesh.
Pads available in the market are too costly and inaccessible for them. Women suffering from reproductive and urinary tract infections are common in such areas.
Adolescent girls hitting puberty and dropping school suffer the most both physically and mentally. Approximately 8 out of every 10 women practice unhygienic means during their menstruation in the State claimed a report from National Family Health Survey.
Initially, he came up with homemade pads made out of sterilized muslin and cotton stitched by his mother, Mangesh faced a lot of challenges and backlash as the issue of menstruation was strongly related to the dignity of women for people and they were not comfortable to talk about it. It took a lot of market research, healthcare data and engaging with the rural population to find an effective solution. Mangesh proposes to design and implement a ‘Sanitation Pathway’ - a channel through which rural women with their villages’ SHG group and local help produce, distribute and market sanitary pads as a means to attain self reliance.
Government can organise such groups and provide financial aid. Another important aspect of such a pathway emphasized by Jha included nutrition.
Proper mapping of one’s menstrual cycle and taking care of nutritional requirements is crucial for the health of women, especially girls who have just hit puberty.