As urban India strives to emerge as the next superpower, rural India continues to suffer in the absence of access to adequate health and hygiene facilities.
Hygiene and health go hand-in-hand. Maintaining proper hygiene is indispensible for maintaining good health and this holds true for women undergoing menstruation. Although menstruation is a natural process, there are several misconceptions and practices, which sometimes results in adverse health outcomes. In India, the problem is much more prevalent and accentuated in rural parts of the country. Lack of awareness and the stigma around menstruation causes women to refrain from seeking medical advice. Serious infections are often left untreated. Women across our country are forced into silence, and thus, into unhealthy behaviors.
In order to create the necessary behavior change needed to ensure healthy menstruation practices we strictly do not touch the myths and taboos connected with menstruation. Given that many of these taboos are connected to local cultures and religions, addressing these taboos would create a barrier to open discussion as target communities could feel under attack. Forming a positive discussion around how menstruation is normal, can be clean, and providing multiple options for sanitary pads for these women is far more impactful than shame.
I am a strong believer in the idea that the sustainable future of the country depends on, to a large extent, the uplifting of the social status of its women. When I witnessed the terrible effects the stigma of menstruation has on our women, and thus society, I founded Aakar Innovations in 2011. Aakar Innovations is a social enterprise that helps women to produce and distribute high quality, affordable, nearly 100% compostable sanitary napkins under the brand name of Anandi.
The main aim of our social enterprise is not only providing women access to affordable and eco-friendly menstrual hygiene products or create livelihood opportunities for them, but also to break this silence surrounding menstruation and to bring about changes in attitude towards menstrual hygiene management. To do this, we had to not only provide education and skills, but we had to truly understand the challenge of the stigma. From then and only then, wecan create a sustainable solution.
To address the silence associated with menstruation, we started “Freedom from Shame,” an initiative in 2014 to create a repository of information, data, research articles, curriculums, and best practices from different stakeholders in the menstrual hygiene management (MHM) sector in India. We worked to create partnerships with many organizations including UNICEF-Maharashtra, WASH United, ICMR-NIRRH so that all the information was up-to-date for the many organizations, social enterprises, governments of all levels who are working from the information.
Based on the information and best practices gathered from this repository and our partners, we worked to create four curricula – girls ages 8-11 and 12-18, women 19-35, and men and boys. To enhance this, we recognized that we must make sure the trainers of the curricula – NGO workers, teachers, ASHA, Angawati and other community health workers – were properly trained in how to inspire women and girls to come out of the silence. A key figure we have also partnered with in this is government departments in order to expand our reach.
By partnering with the government, international institutions, and other organizations and social enterprises, we can take these experiences, this knowledge, and ensure that women across the globe are being reached with positive messages surrounding menstruation. Working together, we can empower girls and women to make informed choices which will ultimately have a positive impact on their health and finally, proudly, come out of the silence.
Jaydeep Mandal is the Founder and Managing Director of Aakar Innovations. Through the hybrid social enterprise, he works with partners such as UNICEF and the World Bank to spur the behavioral change to ensure women in rural India have a healthy association with menstruation. He recently presented his business model to the World Bank Group in Washington, DC.