Meet the Padwoman of rural Madhya Pradesh, who's championing menstrual hygiene
Maya Vishwakarma from Madhya Pradesh's Narsinghpur district is working towards making affordable pads, teaching women to use them, and creating employment opportunities in the process | #FirstCulture
It’s 6.30 pm on a weekday. For 35-year-old Maya Vishwakarma, the day isn’t over yet. She is on her way, back from a village nestled in the interiors of the Narsinghpur district in Madhya Pradesh. She is driving her car, packed with a projector, films, calendars and leaflets on menstrual hygiene, when she stops for a chat with Firstpost over the phone. It is a part of the village-to-village awareness campaign she is spearheading in the state’s tribal belt to create awareness and encourage women and young girls to use sanitary pads during their periods. To this end, she has also embarked on an entrepreneurship project under Sukarma Foundation's banner, where a group of around 20 women from the Didwara village in Narsinghpur district have come forward to manufacture pads on their own.
“These are extremely backward regions in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh. Women here are so shy that they are unwilling to talk about menstruation openly. In many cases, they don’t know what a pad is, what it looks like or how it is used. We have to teach them from scratch,” says Vishwakarma.
Vishwakarma hails from the Mehragaon village located in Narsinghpur district. She studied in a government school till Class 12, and then moved to Jabalpur to study further. Since then, it was only an upward spiral. She chose biology as her major as an undergraduate, and completed her post graduation in biochemistry. She was a junior research fellow in AIIMS, New Delhi in the nuclear medicine department, and went on to do her PhD in the United States, at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
One of the reasons Vishwakarma is indefatigable in her work to manufacture pads and create awareness about menstrual hygiene is that as a child she was never told any of this.
“My mother never told me about periods. It was my aunt who talked to me about them and what I was supposed to use – cloth pads. I followed their advice, but was never told that they had to be washed and dried properly,” she shares. As a result, she developed a vaginal infection later. “I went to see a doctor when I was at AIIMS and they couldn’t recognise my infection. I had a hard time. I began taking antibiotics, but it was a temporary solution. I believe it happened because of using unsanitary toiletries, but there may have been other causes too. I don’t know the reason but it continues even now,” she says.
This compelled Vishwakarma to think about how other women from her hometown may be facing similar problems. “Until I was 26-years-old, I used cloth pads,” she says. “I wondered what the meaning of all this was if someone like me, who is educated and went all the way to US, can’t fix the problem back home for my own girls. I was very determined to do something about it,” says Maya.
In 2016, she met Arunachalam Muruganantham in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. “I first came to know about him through his now famous TED talk. I met him through a common friend, and visited his factory where he makes the machines that manufacture pads,” says Maya. It was Muruganantham who pushed her to begin her work in Madhya Pradesh, as there was a need for it there. “I had already wanted to start, but he motivated me to take it forward,” she adds.
She explains that there is a common misconception about Muruganantham that he manufactures pads. “He made a pad earlier, but later developed a machine to manufacture them. Once he did this, he stopped making pads. He began producing the machines instead, and gave it away to NGOs or whoever wanted to venture into the business,” she explains. Anybody can take Muruganantham’s machine, modify and use it. “That’s why he is known as the ‘padman’,” adds Vishwakarma.
However, Vishwakarma did not get her machine from Muruganantham. “I wanted to manufacture a pad of better quality which is closer to branded napkins in the market but available at cheaper costs. His machine is completely manual and does not produce a large number of pads per day. Instead, I procured a similar machine in Madhya Pradesh, modified it and began using it for manufacturing. Our women work continuously in different shifts through the day,” she explains. They can produce up to 2,000 pads a day, she adds.
How is Vishwakarma’s pad different from others? She says they use an SAP polymer sheet. “In this, if you pour any liquid, it converts it into gel. So one won’t feel any wetness or moisture, even if one has heavy flow,” she says. They contemplated making cotton pads too, but dropped it as it takes a long time to process cotton.
Vishwakarma says that 99 percent of the women she came across still use cloth pads. “Pads are neither available, nor do they know about them. It is when they see one for the first time that they get to know what a pad looks like and how it should be used,” she says.
One of the reasons they don’t use pads is because of their high price; the branded ones cost Rs 40-80 per pack. “Every house has more than one woman. There are three to four women living in the same house. So it becomes very expensive for them,” Vishwakarma explains. In contrast, the pads she manufactures cost Rs 20-25 per pack. The product is yet to be released into the market, and she says they are devising their own brand.
The group of women from the rural areas involved in this entrepreneurship project are ecstatic about it, more so as it acts as a source of income for them. “The women working with us are very happy. There are so many joining that it is hard to maintain control. As much as pads are needed here, so is employment. I wish we had more machines to provide more employment opportunities,” says Vishwakarma. At the moment, there are around 20 women working in batches of six across three shifts a day.
In the future, Vishwakarma plans to make more value additions to the product, such as fragrances. “Or a medically suitable pad where we could add an antibiotic strip to help lessen the risk of infection during periods,” she says. She explains that working at the grassroots level is tough, as she has to work out every single thing on her own.
Vishwakarma believes movies like Padman will bring about no change in the rural areas. “Movies like Padman are restricted only to cities where there are theatres and people want to watch a certain movie. Unless you go and work at the grassroots level to create awareness, people won’t get to know anything,” she opines.
The areas where Vishwakarma works are backward regions which lack electricity, water, Internet connections and phones. “We want to reach them [people] in places where no one does; where even water or an electricity cable doesn't reach the people. Even an Akshay Kumar can’t reach them here. Only dedicated and passionate people working at the grassroots level can make them aware and solve this problem,” she feels.
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