Battling social mores, an all-woman unit produces sanitary napkins
Rakhee Roytalukdar, Jhunjhunu District, Rajasthan
October 25, 2017

Akshay Kumar’s new film Padman is about to be released in April 2018. Based on the real life of a small-time entrepreneur, Arunachalam Muruganantham, from Tamil Nadu who invented a machine to produce low-cost sanitary napkins, the film aims to make menstrual hygiene a talking point in rural areas. However, much before the film releases next year and creates a buzz about cleanliness, hygiene and toilets, a group of women in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu District is already promoting the need for managing personal hygiene during the menstrual period

Jhunjhunu District falls in the Shekhawati Region and is located in the northeast part of Rajasthan. It is the only district in India which has contributed the maximum number of soldiers to the Indian Army. Apart from its colourful havelis (traditional mansions) and rich history, Jhunjhunu can also boast of entrepreneurs who made it big in the world of business, like the Birlas.

The entrepreneurial streak runs strong amongst its people. Not to be left behind are its women folk. Producing sanitary napkins with the brand name Anandi, a group of women has been able to create awareness and understanding about a taboo subject in the still traditionalist society.  So much so that the small all-women unit, which produces about 1000 sanitary pads a day, is not able to meet the increasing demands from all over the district.

Anandi, the brand invented by Aakar Innovations of Mumbai, is an affordable, 100 per cent compostable, high-quality napkin that increases the menstrual management options available to women and girls, and reduces the risk of infections, diseases and death.  

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Wood pulp is fed into the grinding machine, which then produces a cotton-like substance.

According to the 2011 Census, Jhunjhunun’s female population stood at 1041149 out of the total population of 2137045. Considering the female literacy rate of Jhunjhunu is merely 59.77 per cent, much less than India’s female literacy rate of 65.46 per cent, the rising demand for hygienic sanitary napkins after Anandi was introduced is no mean feat. It adds credibility to the entrepreneurial zeal of the women as their unit started functioning only from January this year.  Now with only eight women employees, they are able to churn out 1000 sanitary pads a day.

Costing much less – around Rs 6 less – than some of the well-known brands of sanitary pads available in the market, the Anandi sanitary pad has been able to carve a niche for itself amongst the rural women populace. What is most interesting about the pad is its innovative marketing strategy and awareness drive, which helped overcome the initial hiccups before starting the unit.

Umed Bhalothia, supervisor of the unit, told Grassroots: “Around 1593 aanganwadi (daycare centre) workers, 301 gram saathins, 1569 sahayikayas (women helpers) are the unit’s foot soldiers – its marketing executives. Apart from being firsthand users, they fan out to various villages, explaining the need to use them instead of cloth that is not sanitised.”

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An employee working on one of the sanitary napkin machines, bought from Mumbai.  

Says Dr Namita Kotia, a gynaecologist in Jaipur: “Talking about menstrual health is still a social taboo, especially in rural areas. The mindset in Rajasthan is still very conservative. Women are not allowed to enter temples and kitchens during their periods. Some don’t even take a bath. Such practices need to change. Women during their periods should take bath more than twice a day and change sanitary towels thrice a day. Unhygienic practices could lead to infections — bacteria entering the urinary tract or uterus.”

The aaganwadi workers in Jhunjhunu, who are in direct contact with the women at the grassroots, explain the benefits of using a sanitary pad. This way, they have been able to convert many non-users of sanitary napkins into users, informs Bhalothia. This is commendable when you consider that only 12 per cent of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins.

More than 88 per cent of women resort to alternatives such as non-sanitised cloth, ashes, dried leaves, newspapers and husk sand.  About 312 million women in India do not use sanitary napkins, leading to adolescent girls dropping out of school, social isolation and disease. Adolescent girls miss up to 50 school-days a year. An estimated 23 per cent drop out of school. The reasons for the low usage are lack of awareness, affordability, availability and disposal. 

Indeed, the lack of awareness about sanitary napkins is responsible for the incidence of reproductive tract infection (RTI), 70 per cent more common among such women. These were the findings of a survey titled, Sanitary Protection: Every Woman’s Health Right, conducted by AC Nielsen in 2011. The situation is unlikely to have changed much over the past few years.

Coming back to the main story, starting the unit was not easy. The women first formed a self-help group. Initially, they wanted to start a small-scale unit producing papad, aachar (pickle) and such, but were mostly discouraged by the bank. It was then that the government’s Women Empowerment Department (WED) suggested the setting up of a federation, named the Amrita Multipurpose Cooperative Society with 11 members on May 20, 2014. As the number of members grew, so did the savings in the federation’s account. Now the federation has around 15000 members.
Beginning with a modest saving of Rs 1100, the savings slowly grew to Rs 4.56 crore in 2016.

Of this, the federation has loaned Rs 3.8 crore to women for various purposes at an interest of 8.25 per cent. But just saving and providing loans wasn’t enough to satisfy the business ambitions of the women.  They wanted to venture out on their own and start something, which in the long run, would benefit them and others as well, along with a neat profit. 

After much deliberation, WED officials and the women members of the federation hit upon the idea of manufacturing low-cost, biodegradable sanitary napkins. They then took the help of Aakar Innovations, which mainly uses agri-wastes such as wood pulp, banana fibre, bagasse (fibrous matter that remains after sugarcane or sorghum stalks are crushed to extract their juice; used as a biofuel and in the manufacture of pulp and building material), bamboo and water hyacinth to manufacture their product. These napkins cost at least 40 per cent less than the cheapest products available in the market.

Two machines brought from Aakar, costing around Rs 11 lakh each, are now churning out 1000 pads a day. The women received training at Aakar in December 2016 to operate the machines.

The operating process is simple. The women first feed wood pulp into the grinding machine, which churns out a cotton-like substance. Then 44 gm of the material, used for making the pad, is inserted into the machine which produces the pad. The upper layer is bio non-woven and the lower part is bio-plastic. After gumming, the pad is ready for use and is sterilised. When buried in mud, the pads completely degrade in three to six months.

The machines bought from Mumbai are compact, easy to operate and can be set up in a room measuring 100 square feet. The unit is housed in one of the rooms of the Mahila Samridhi Kendra. The District Industrial Centre provided a subsidy of Rs 6 lakh. 

The manufacturing process uses minimal electricity and raw materials that are easy to source. The machine can produce about 2000 to 2500 napkins a day, depending on individual efficiency, and can provide employment to 11 women directly and to about five to seven women indirectly for marketing the product and earning commission.
The unit presently has only eight women workers, who work from 9.30 am till 4 pm.  The women earn around Rs 150 a day. The number of women in Jhunjhunu benefiting indirectly is much more – about 15000 women, all members of the federation, are trying to market the napkins in their own way. One packet contains eight pieces. The pack costs Rs 25 while the women sell it for Rs 28, making a profit of Rs 3 on each packet.

The Jhunjhunu unit makes a profit of about 50 paise per pad after deducting costs for raw material and operations. The daily profit comes to about Rs 500. The unit is not able to cope with the demand of around 5000 pads a day. But the workers are trying hard. The significant point here is, even in a conservative society where socio-religious restrictions still hold sway, especially during the menstruation period, the urge to move away from unnecessary taboos is giving way to awareness and safe management of the menstrual cycle.

September 2017