India Interior

From rags to rich experiences

Swapna Majumdar | Updated on March 10, 2018 Published on March 09, 2018

Spreading the word Goonj has changed people's attitude towards menstrual hygiene Swapna Majumdar   -  Picasa

By transforming waste cloth into sanitary pads, Goonj has altered women’s lives


Twelve years ago, when Nibha Jha left her village in Darbhanga district, Bihar and came to Delhi, her search for work led her to Goonj, a voluntary organisation. One of their projects was to empower rural communities by breaking taboos on menstruation and use their traditional skills to live a life of dignity. Little did Jha know that this was going to change not just her life, but her village as well.

She first heard about menstrual hygiene when she joined the MY Pad unit, which processes waste cloth into sanitary napkins to help women manage menstruation safely. She realised that the rags she used during her periods could lead to serious infections, even death if they were dirty and unwashed. Since then, she began using the cloth sanitary napkins and has used her knowledge to bring menstrual hygiene awareness to the community.

Little or no awareness

“I never knew about menstruation and when it happened, I was very scared,” said Jha. “No one told me anything about it or how to manage it. Fortunately, my married sister told me about it and asked me to use old pieces of cloth.” She added, “I would wash and dry them in some dark corner where it could not be seen. Only after working with Goonj, I realised that was wrong. Since then, I have taught other women in the village the importance of cleanliness and menstrual hygiene.”

However, studies have shown that only 48.2 per cent of women between the age of 15 and 24 years use hygienic means during menstruation and 90 per cent girls are ignorant of the importance of washing menstrual cloth. About 11 per cent of girls share the cloth with others increasing their chances of fungal infections, reproductive tract and urinary tract infections.

This is why Goonj started the ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’ campaign in 2004 to reach out to rural women managing their periods without access to hygienic means and unaware of health consequences. It began the production of sanitary napkins under the MY Pad brand name by recycling waste cloth and collaborated with local community organisations to disseminate menstrual hygiene information. So far, over four lakh MY Pads have been produced and distributed in the 22 States where Goonj and its partners work.

“We knew the problem had three critical dimensions — access, affordability and awareness,” recounted Meenakshi Gupta, co-founder, Goonj. “So we started by addressing a woman’s need for clean cloth. Our cloth collection started when we had to deal with more than 100 trucks of clothes left over after the Tsunami disaster.”

Breaking taboos

Gupta said that initially, women from nearby slums came to work on sorting the mammoth volume of cloth. Then they started using the various sanitary napkin samples and from their experience and inputs evolved the present sanitary pad. More than two metres of shredded cloth is used to make a pack of five My Pads. “Thus, more than six lakh square metres of discarded cloth like bed sheets, salwar-kameez, cotton t-shirts etc, is put to use to help girls and women protect themselves during menstruation and break taboos,” said Gupta.

Learning about menstrual hygiene helped Sheila Devi, a resident of Pratapgarh, Uttar Pradesh, who used ash and leaves to manage her periods, get over her inhibitions. After joining the MY Pad unit at Goonj, not only did she become more informed but also packed a suitcase full of them as a wedding gift for her niece.

“I no longer feel embarrassed to talk about them either,” recalled Sheila. “I was selling packets of Goonj’s sanitary pads at an exhibition. A man who thought these were pillows expressed interest in buying. I told him to rest his head on them and then pass them on to his mother/sister/wife at home. Then I explained the real use of the cloth pads. At first he was embarrassed and then opened up and said it was the first time he talked about this ‘taboo’ topic with a lady,” she said.

Goonj has not just changed lives of rural women in its journey over the past 19 years. It has used waste cloth to revive traditional craft and boost livelihood among the marginalised as well.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

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Published on March 09, 2018

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