I spy a taboo

Prachi Raturi Misra | Updated on February 07, 2020 Published on February 06, 2020

Baala on board: The team has reached out to 1.25 lakh girls, through workshops in schools in remote parts of India   -  Project Baala

Team Baala has been spreading awareness on menstrual health in Indian villages

The two young women could have been sitting in plush corporate offices. Instead, Soumya Dabriwal, a graduate from Warwick University, and Aradhana Rai Gupta, a Cornell alumna, are frequently travelling from one remote village to another. And when they are not travelling, they are busy brainstorming with their team of 45 workers, all under 25, on ways to reach out to schoolgirls on menstrual health.

Dabriwal and Gupta, both 24, head Project Baala, which seeks to demystify menstruation. So far, the team has reached out to 1.25 lakh girls, answering their questions about menstruation and health at workshops in schools in remote parts of India.

Duo at work: Aradhana Rai Gupta (left) and Soumya Dabriwal, both 24, head Project Baala   -  BHAVESH


In the two-hour sessions, so far held mostly in North India, trained ‘Baala bosses’ — as the project’s team members are called — discuss issues such as hygiene, diet and when and why they need to consult a doctor. Project Baala also produces reusable cloth pads, which are given out to the girls.

The feedback keeps them going. A group of schoolgirls in Jattari village, near Faridabad, once told them that the discussions had eased their discomfort about menstruation. Another time, a girl in Alwar said, “Ab school aane mein ajeeb nahin lagta (I don’t feel awkward coming to school anymore).” Then there was a Telangana student who said she was relieved to learn that periods were not a disease that women had to deal with.

The myths surrounding periods are baffling and rather similar across developing countries — a fact that struck Dabriwal in 2015 when she volunteered to work at a girls’ school in Accra, Ghana, during her graduation days at Warwick. She learned that many students missed school during their periods. “Most had no access to pads; some didn’t know about periods and several others considered them a taboo. It was extremely disturbing, to say the least,” Dabriwal recalls.

The experience prompted her to conduct a small survey with the help of her friends and others in Delhi when she was home during a break. She learnt that the subject was a taboo in Delhi, too. Many women were grossly misinformed about menstruation, and some didn’t have access to sanitary pads.

“I knew I had to do something about it,” she tells BLink.

When Dabriwal went back to Warwick in the UK, she applied for a grant to fund a project for educating young girls in rural India on menstrual health and also make eco-friendly pads available to them. The grant was ready when she was about to graduate in 2016. She returned to India and started Project Baala in Delhi.

In 2018, she teamed up with Gupta, who was a family friend. Gupta looks after financial and business strategy, and handles marketing, outreach activities and brand building.

They get in touch with schools in various parts of India, mostly through local NGOs. Some corporate houses sponsor their workshops, and they also receive some international funding, the team leaders say.

The pads are produced at a small unit in Noida or outsourced from a supplier in Delhi. A set of three pads, which can be washed and reused, costs ₹190. The seven-layered pad does not leak and has a super-absorbent core that can be reused for two years.

The two stress that with reusable pads, they are also making a difference to the environment, given that a single woman generates an estimated 125 kg of sanitary waste during her menstruating years (Ecofeme2016). With 12 per cent of women in a population of 1.2 billon using sanitary pads, India faces a major issue of non-biodegradable waste.

Gupta says that extensive research has gone into the making of their eco-friendly pads. “We’ve had shopkeepers stare at us when we told them why we were getting the cloth, we’ve had pads scattered across all possible rooms in our homes... failed experiments... we’ve done it all,” Dabriwal adds.

The two co-founders believe they are slowly bringing about change in rural India — and in urban lives around them, too. “Why, even our families are changing. My father and brother help me pack pads, pitch in with their ideas when we are doing some trials, and proudly talk about my work. This was a topic that wasn’t really out in the open for discussion in the family,” Gupta says.

The change, they add, is a matter of pride for not just team Baala, but also the many young girls they interact with. Take Soni, who studies in a government school in Akbarpur, a remote area of Alwar, Rajasthan. “We discuss this subject, which was once a taboo, with so much of ease and openness now. I tell my mother and relatives about whatever I have learnt. And now my mother doesn’t insist that I miss school during my periods,” she says with a broad smile.

Prachi Raturi Misra is a Delhi-based journalist and author

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Published on February 06, 2020
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