Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The S-Pad : Designing as if women mattered.....

No, it isn't the non-egotistical version of the I-pad. Far, far from it.

But something that predates it by decades and centuries. Something every woman has to live with, in what maybe, learningwise, her most productive years.

A year ago , i participated in a local Women's Day essay competition on womens' empowerment, and in the course of researching came up with some shocking information.

A study done by Ms Fernandes of WaterAid,  in Chhattisgarh, documented the menstrualhygiene practices followed by rural women, and highlighted their impact on the availability of education for women

Schools, typically,  had inadequate toilet facilities for girls. Shame at being noticed by boys during “those days”, having to come to the one single tap to wash, and inability to change, were cited as reasons by many young girls for giving up school. In some societies in Madhya Pradesh, the girl who was menstruating was prohibited by her mother from using the one bathroom of the house, because she was “impure”.   In Sheopur district , a woman mentioned that she had been using the same cloth for 4 years, sometimes, inadequately washed and dried, and was helpless.   In some tribes, the menstruating women were confined to cowsheds and ended up using paper, straw, and cloth, including their clothes to contain the bleeding. Infections and diseases of the urinary and genital tracts were rampant, thanks to having to share premises with cows, dirt and dung, while their families, treated them exactly the same; like cows , dirt, and dung.   

While discussion on these subjects were socially taboo, greatly influenced by  ancient customs and fears, the end result, was that so many  women were unable to go to school, get educated, and look for a better life for their families.   .

Thousands of miles away in the South, Muruganantham,   son of a weaver and a farm laborer, earned a meager sum as a helper in a machine workshop.  He once observed his wife, who was a Plus 2 level educated woman, furtively pass by with something she wanted to throw, and chanced upon the dynamics of the women’s curse, as it was perceived.   Sanitary napkins were known, but for a poor family, it was either that or the daily supply of food.   To the intense displeasure and embarrassment of the women of the family (who thought he was out of his senses), Muruganatham embarked on basic  R and D about what the fancy sanitary pads contained, and started his own experiments. 

Suffice it to say, that he was able to devise a simple cotton pad with cellulose.  He decided to design a low cost machine that would make these pads.   He sought help and advice from medical colleges and some IIT’s, eventually came to the notice of MIT, who purchased his machine for use in Africa.  Typically, once the West acknowledged, our IIM’s sprung into action, and invited him to lecture them on his entrepreneurship.   Muruganatham decided, that he would sell these machines only to rural self help groups of women, train them,  he would provide the raw material, and women in that area would benefit from better hygiene and better health, some income, and,  , possibly better education.  

Read all details about this here.   The details are amazing .

Kudos are due to Muruganantham, for not selling out to one of our big industrial houses,  and increasing the number of middlemen.
From Kashmir to the South, several women’s cooperatives and self help groups, today,  locally provide these pads   to women.  Old taboos, propagated by the older women in villages are disappearing...

Today, these women’s groups are manufacturing sanitary pads, that cost as little as Rs 3; a huge difference from those, unaffordable, manufactured by MNC’s and advertised by page 3 types on television, wearing white capris and leaping over boulders and streams..

Muruganatham’s effort educated us about one aspect of empowering women in the realm of education and health.. 

Why am i recalling all this now ? Because I recently attended a womens' blogmeet where we heard how one of the biggest multinational pharma companies manufacturers of Stayfree , and Unicef,  are now working on a special project in Bihar and Jharkhand , having to do with health, sanitation, hygiene, and education for women in rural areas. 

 We also saw a wonderful  AV called "Mujhe pankh do" (Give me wings) , made as an anthem ( lyrics/music : Prasoon Joshi-Shubha Mudgal)  to celebrate and encourage folks to participate in this project.

There are excellent schemes being announced where if you pay Rs 575 as a donation, the rural woman will be provided with  sanitary pads, folic acid and calcium free, together will a medical consultation, over a period of several months. 

But I wonder.  Will this be like a handout ? And go the way of all handouts ? Will the problem again be in the implementation ?

Is Muruganatham's project still on ?   Are the multinational folks and the Unicef people planning to collaborate with him ?  In his scheme of things, the women are a part of the movement that works for their own betterment. By being part of a sanitary pads producing small scale set up, they learn so much more, earn an honorable  livelihood, and contribute to increasing opportunities for their children in the future. This is so much more sensible than just being the recipient of a fancy package every month. 

Is some agency planning to improve sanitation facilities for children and specifically girls in rural schools ?  

These are times, unfortunately, when we seem to be obsessed with entrance exam pyrotechnics for admission to engineering and medical colleges, and we agonize over whether 3 is better than 2 and 2 is worse than 1 exam.  Nothing is being said about primary education , facilities for teachers who are posted there, and special facilities for the girl child.  Right to Education is not about acronyms,  words in the Constitution; it is about creating an environment where girls will rush in because they want to study and learn, and be a useful part of society. 
Empowering does not happen by decree. It does not happen by issuing edicts from a distance

The empowerer, must have a vested interest in the “empoweree”, must share the joys , troubles and sorrows, and be directly involved in the empowering process.

Empowering also never happens automatically.   Many have hampered their health, been deprived of education, and continue to lead substandard lives, because they didn’t meet someone like Muruganantham., when they needed to.

Today's Times of India (30th May 2012, page 16) has a feature on   how the women in the a Dakshin Kannada district of Karnataka, have set up a small scale Muruganantham style sanitary pad unit and  and with orders pouring in from school districts, and hospitals, banks have also shown great interest in helping them with their capital, so that more and more of these set ups can be created and maintained. empowering the women of the region. 

The brand name is "Safety-Feel Free" .  (It will then later be possible for the woman to StayFree..... ?  )

 But we have a long way to go. 

Ajibai, the mother of my household help "S.", recently stayed over at "S"'s house for a fortnight . 1.5 rooms, choc-a-bloc with 3 sons, 1 daughter, 3 daughters-in-law, 4 grandkids, and S herself, because everyone wanted her to and she had not come to stay in a long time.  Every morning, before day break,  one of the ladies, (S , daughter, daughters-in-law) , would slowly walk the  old lady of 80, down the road , some distance away, to the public toilet facility, to avoid the daytime rush of males.

This in Mumbai,  hankering to become Shanghai, and having sister relations with all kinds of European towns, and now boasting the highest real estate prices , many more 5 star places, infinity swimming pools on the 15th floors, and  folks buying fancy accessories stuff at prices, that would be enough to build three bathrooms for a rural school, , say 60 miles from Mumbai.. 

It isn't about investments per head, how many crores in the donation, who made the donation, inaugurating schemes, and doing publicity. 

It is really about designing something , as if women mattered.......   



  1. Some of these issues are close to my heart as I have seen and also suffered these practices in the name of customs. Coming from a middle class family, I had to take a stand and faced quite a few insults (even my mother had to face insults from family). I can understand how people in the "uneducated" strata can behave as education does not seem to make us look for logic and reason behind age-old practices and revise them. Wish there was a corruption-free organisation which can take up the matter and ensure good "reproductive" health. After all, saving a girl child also means ensuring that women are healthy in more ways than one.

  2. hats off to Muruganantham , at least after discovering his wife's helplessness, he took an initiative towards women hygiene.This stands as an example to the society which considers girls going through this phase s impure as if she is sinned. I have come across many such people who ignore and treat the ladies in the family during these days..I wonder how this boon that gives meaning to a woman's life can make her impure.
    thought provoking and very informative post mam
    It makes me very sad that I couldn't attend the meet:(

  3. Thank you for sharing this. Mr. Muruganantham's action will help resolving some hygiene problem but how to solve the problem of people treating women as if she is the 'impure' one is the biggest question of all!

  4. I had seen a lady sitting out for bleeding days with what ever cloths she wore & was given to bath after 3 days & allowed inside house where Three male adults were living with her.Her sufferings I still recollect after 48 years.I was inspired to be earning only that I should be able to buy sanitory pads witch was supposed to be luxury those days!!

  5. Thank you for sharing this. Mr. Muruganantham's. Yes the part of implementation of such charity programmes is always worrying and annoys me the most.

    1. I believe everyone of us should contribute to the society.... We should respect her... Women - Mother,Sister,Wife... She is with us in all the phases without a woman a man is incomplete...