A social enterprise from Kerala built on spiritual and humanitarian values has made a breakthrough development that will allow women to use cloth pads that are reusable, cheap and eco-friendly. As co-director of Amrita SeRVe, a project of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, Anju Bist has traveled to the most backward village clusters in 20 states of India, helping set up initiatives for sustainable development. In 2017, the Kerala-based NGO developed reusable pads from banana fibre and cotton cloth, called Saukhyam. The team along with 30 other volunteers have been involved in the production and sale of these pads, which have sold over 50,000 in number till date helping prevent the emission of carbon dioxide and reducing non-biodegradable menstrual waste.
Anju says that a well-kept industry secret that trees are cut to make the cellulose fibre, which is the absorbent material in most disposable pads available today, and the link between disposable sanitary napkins and climate change is finally being acknowledged now. If every menstruating woman and girl in India used disposable pads, then 4,87,50,00,000 soiled pads would be discarded every month which would continue to pollute the planet for a long time. Therefore her goal was to make low-cost pads available to rural women while making sure they did not harm the environment, which led to the creation of a reusable menstrual pad from banana fibre and cotton cloth.
Coming to the cost she says that reusable pads only cost one-tenth the amount disposable pads cost over the time period of a woman’s life. In many urban areas, women and girls spend Rs 100 monthly on buying disposable sanitary napkins. This is almost Rs 48,000 over the entire menstruating lifetime of 40 years. Compared to this, the Saukhyam starter pack with five-day pads costs Rs 280; the value pack with an additional night pad and pouch costs Rs 440. These pads last four to five years. If one buys them 10 times in one’s lifetime, the total expense is under Rs 5,000.
As long as one follows the washing and drying instructions properly, the pads are completely hygienic to use and reuse. After soaking the pads for a few minutes, they can be gently washed with soap. No hot water nor vigorous scrubbing with any kind of brush is required; the pads don’t generally stain. The pads need to be dried in the open, as sunlight naturally sanitizes them. Anju says that women can dry these pads with the rest of their clothes since they don’t stain. The used cloth pads also do not have the nasty smell we usually associate with disposable pads.
Anju says that they have distributed pads for free in several impoverished communities, and have partnered with other organizations for the same as well. However free distributions are not sustainable in the long run as they do not necessarily encourage behavior change. They found much more success with the adoption of good menstrual hygiene practices when the beneficiaries pay at least in part for the pads, rather than receiving them completely free.
With the price kept low, they make a profit of Rs.5 per pad that goes to the self-help group that makes the pad. Consisting of a team which looks at this work as an opportunity to serve, to contribute, they have a large number of volunteers in the team who do not take any remuneration for their work. With the team made up of women (and a few men) of different capabilities and mindsets and different walks of life the challenge is to create a space where each member of the team feels valued and appreciated. Over time they have come to see that even those starting with insignificant tasks grow to assume bigger responsibilities, deeply identify with the cause that they are serving, and contribute far more than perhaps even they thought possible. Having set their goal as providing widespread access, availability and awareness of reusable pads everywhere in India, Saukhyam is changing lives – one pad at a time.