A women’s empowerment revolution is happening in rural India — through sanitary napkins.

Woman entrepreneur Swati Bedekar, working under the aegis of Vatsalya Foundation, Vadodara, has been establishing low-cost, organic, sanitary pad manufacturing units since 2014. The last two of the 108 units in all were opened in the tribal areas of Dahanu and Palghar, Maharastra, on May 28, World Menstrual Hygiene Day. The manufacturing units are run by local women’s Self-Help Groups and NGOs and provide employment while ensuring empowerment of over 1,000 unprivileged rural women working in and running these units. Each unit produces 1,000 to 1,200 napkins every day — called Sakhi napkins, they are priced at ₹2.50 a piece. Some produce even 30,000 in a day.

It’s a dramatic change. Women who wore ghunghats (veils) now wear masks to protect themselves from inhaling dust and wood shavings. The “maids of India”, as Swati describes them in a powerpoint presentation, work on modern machines and produce napkins “made in India.”

Powering the initiative is actually the husband and wife team of Swati and Shyam Bedekar who have combined their skills as teacher and manufacturer respectively.

Shyam designs and manufactures the various pad-making machines, producing the soft, frothy cotton for the pads from wood pulp and sterilising the napkins with ultra-violet treatment as well as the simple incinerator for disposing the used pads. Swati identifies the groups, explains the importance of menstrual hygiene and helps individual groups work out production models. A sizable number of the units are in rural Gujarat —Dahod, Devgadh Baria, Dhanpur, Limkheda, Vadtal, Panchmahal as well as in Vadodara city and Hansot in Surat. Sakhi napkin producing units have also come up in rural Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and some even in Bhutan, Jordan and Zimbabwe.

Where it all started

Swati’s journey from science teacher to social entrepreneur began while she was working as a science communicator in the interior villages of Dahod, Gujarat. Menstrual hygiene was a huge challenge in rural areas. Girls from sixth standard onwards would be absent several days every month. Also, unhygienic practices involving use of leaves, wet soil, etc, to stem the flow, were followed. There were also several misconceptions about menstruation. Women labourers, construction workers, housemaids, farm workers and women belonging to the lower-income strata had problems coping with menstrual hygiene. They had vaginal tract infections and some even believed that frequent pregnancies would help counter menstrual hygiene problems.

It is this sorry state of affairs that inspired Swati to set up low-cost, organic, sanitary pad-making units. They provide employment and empower women to look after their health needs and that of the family. After the machines are delivered, women are trained on their use over two days.

The production of sanitary napkins was supported by the DRDA (District Rural Development Agency), Vatsalya Foundation, corporate houses and the Ministry of Women and Child. With the Swachh Mission having backing at the highest level, loans were advanced to NGOs for the units.

If a unit makes 30,000 napkins a day, it will earn ₹75,000 at ₹2.50 a napkin. If the cost of production — raw material, rent of facility, packing and other contingencies — is ₹45,000 and cost of marketing another ₹15,000, the unit owner will still earn ₹15,000 a day. Over the last four years, the improved machines have made production drudgery-free. The winged napkins are slim and super-absorbent and production capacities are increasing. Also on the cards are disposable Sakhi panties and adult diapers. The terracotta incinerators, Ashudhinashak , for which Shyam received an award, blend into the environment and make disposal of used pads easy. Over 5 lakh people have already benefited from the Sakhi units. To attract those with a social conscience, Swati holds a Hygiene Bucket Challenge on May 28 where a bucketful or a year’s supply of sanitary napkins can be given to an underprivileged woman for just ₹300.

The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist