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Putting menstrual hygiene first in India

Like the rest of India, Bada Malhera in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district has been unusually quiet since the country went under lockdown on March 24. But listen carefully, and you can probably hear the quiet hum of machines inside a one-storey building which houses a sanitary napkin manufacturing unit.

 

Set up as part of the UNFPA-supported Samriddhi Project in Madhya Pradesh state in 2018, this little factory produces 700 packets of sanitary napkins in one eight-hour shift or over 18,000 packets monthly – output that’s become even more relevant in this time of COVID-19.

 

Since the time it was set up, this manufacturing unit has been run by women and adolescent girls above the age of 18 from the local community who make ultra-thin, non-plastic biodegradable sanitary napkins that are then sold using a social marketing mechanism keeping a low-profit margin, to women and girls in 335 villages in Chhatarpur through peer educators and adolescent girls.

 

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit India and the country went into lockdown, like most factories this unit too had to be shut down. But the project staff were quick to realize the negative impact this could have on the menstrual hygiene of women and girls in the villages.

 

“When the factory shut down, we knew it meant women and girls wouldn’t be able to receive the pads as they were earlier. We had stocks at the unit but not in the field,” says Jagannath Dubey, Project Coordinator, Samriddhi Project, “We immediately approached the District Magistrate to allow travel of project staff to provide supplies of sanitary pads in the villages. Menstrual hygiene management had to be prioritized even during these difficult times.”

 

The district authorities agreed and the Samriddhi staff were quick to respond.

 

“We collected sanitary pad packets from the Project Coordinator who visited our cluster for supplying the stock to us. First, we made sure we were properly protected and then every day we went house to house distributing the napkins,” recounts Chandani Bano, Cluster Coordinator from the Naugaon Block in Chhatarpur.

                              

“We made sure we maintained physical distancing and followed other guidelines as well. The women and girls used to be so happy when we would hand the napkins over to them. A lot of them were worried that they wouldn’t have supplies since shops are also shut due to the lockdown,” says Shilpi Rajak, a peer educator from Bikora, Naugaon.

 

Since the start of the project, the sanitary napkin manufacturing unit in Bada Malhera has been providing employment to five adolescent girls and two local women who work in the factory as well as to the 10,000 adolescent girls and peer educators who help sell these pads, retaining a small profit for themselves on every packet sold.

 

When the countrywide lockdown was initially implemented for two weeks, the manufacturing unit couldn’t function. In the following weeks, as COVID numbers started decreasing, the doors of the manufacturing unit re-opened. With public transport still restricted, most of the staff were unable to make it to the factory, but the project team stepped in so supply was not disrupted. 

 

“I had never worked but I got the opportunity to work at the sanitary pad manufacturing unit. During the lockdown I felt that this is a time when we need to open the unit and start producing sanitary pads as supplies were not reaching villages during lockdown and girls needed sanitary pads,” says Rubina Bano, Manufacturing Unit In-Charge, “As the regular trained staff were not available, I had to train our project staff who stayed near the factory so that we could start production immediately.” The women and the girls who were able to receive the sanitary napkins were grateful.

 

“It’s difficult to talk about menstruation and sanitary napkins openly because it’s not something we do. But we are so happy that some people understand the necessity of these things, and that they are ensuring supply even now during the pandemic,” says Chanchal Namdev from Tatam village.

 

Even as this manufacturing unit waits to welcome back its original workforce of young women, menstrual hygiene management cannot and should never be compromised – whether in a crisis like the ongoing pandemic or at any time.

 

May 28 is World Menstrual Hygiene Day. UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, joins partner agencies and organisations in advocating for crucial information and supplies related to menstrual hygiene for girls and women in India and globally.

 

UNFPA, the UN's sexual and reproductive health agency, works in more than 150 countries around the world, including India, to achieve zero maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls. We seek to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person's potential is fulfilled.

To learn more about our response to COVID-19, visit www.unfpa.org/covid19

To support our lifesaving work amid the pandemic, visit https://donate.unfpa.org/th-en/covid-19