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A Paralympian's Effort towards "Those Clean Days-Thooya Naal"

Kanishka Garments – a small tailoring unit in Aravampatti near Nilakottai in the district of Dindigul, a nondescript place in Tamilnadu, is where I found a bunch of dedicated, committed individuals, getting on with what they are best at – Stitching. Heading this initiative, is a down to earth Paralympian, Neelavathi and her husband Shakthi. I paid a visit to this place, thanks to Ms. Sindhu Naik, who has been instrumental in initiating Kanishka Garments into stitching reusable menstrual cloth pads. Menstruation still being a taboo subject, discussions about menstrual hygiene in India are almost non-existent. It is a heartening fact that over the last few years, menstruation is being talked about much more.

There is a widespread concern that many menstruators do not have access to safe menstrual hygiene products in India. But the reality is far from the truth. Thanks to aggressive marketing of manufacturers of Disposable Sanitary Pads (DSNs) and free distribution of these to adolescent girls in schools, under government schemes, NGO and CSR programs, many girls in villages and small towns have easy access to DSNs. These places are now plagued with problems associated with disposal of sanitary waste.

Campaigns around sustainable menstruation are spreading awareness on environmental hazards of DSNs. The number of women being aware, and making conscious, sustainable choices maybe be a handful at present, but the trend is picking up in metros, cities and large towns.

“Our campaign has gained sufficient momentum in urban metros. But there is a need to take it to the villages and small towns, that are ill-equipped to handle such waste. Women in rural areas need to be made aware of sustainable alternatives and these alternatives should be accessible to those who wish to make a switch. Expecting them to make online purchases is not an option. ”, says Sindhu Naik, co-founder of Green the Red, a pan-India movement focusing on sustainable menstruation.

Neelavathi, a paralympian ,a champion in shot put, discus and javelin throw has not let her disability (affected by polio, she walks with crutches) stop her from taking on life with gusto and trying out new things. She humbly smiles and says that when Mr. Ravi from Rejuvenate India Movement (RIM, an NGO that she has been associated with), spoke to her first, about the hazards of sanitary pads, it was an eye-opener for her. When Ravi mentioned to her that RIM is looking for a rural enterprise to stitch reusable cloth pads for rural areas, she was excited at the opportunity. The realization that she was in a position to make a difference to women and contribute towards safeguarding mother earth in an impactful way, was what motivated her. And thus, Neelavathi, ventured into the space of sustainable menstruation through her small rural enterprise, Kanishka garments, that until then stitched T-shirts and kiddie pants. It was decided that Kanishka would provide the infrastructure and RIM would facilitate the training and raw material for one year to build the working capital. Real Relief India Pvt Ltd (Real Relief), that manufactures Safe Pad, was to be the knowledge partner and the source for raw material. Thooya Naal (a Tamil phrase which means “Pure Days”), the program to promote Sustainable Choices to handle menstruation was inaugurated on June 19th 2018. Members of RIM and volunteers of Green the Red campaign held a day long awareness session on Menstrual Hygiene at Kanishka Garments, attended by Real Relief founder, Mr. Karthik Thang, the tailors of Kanishka Garments, and various other members.

Neelavathi with her family ( above)

Mrs. Sindhu Naik with Neelavathi at the inauguration

Mrs. Sindhu Naik with Neelavathi at the inauguration (above and below)

In Neelavathi’s own words, “ Business can be done in various ways and with various products, but to have an opportunity to undertake a venture that directly impacts health of women in a positive way, not only making their lives more comfortable & affordable , but is also something that doesn’t pollute Mother Earth, is indeed a privilege and I feel thankful for being chosen to do it. It is my vision to make sustainable options to handle menstruation, available to many rural women and make a difference in a positive way”. Taking pride in her work, the earnestness with which Neelavathi spoke (in Tamil), was indeed heartening.

Sold under the brand of “Safe Pad”( same as Real Relief India Pvt Ltd does), these pads are made from microfiber cloth , that comes pre-treated with Anti Microbial technique. These pads are re-usable and last upto 1.5 - 2 years, if maintained properly. They are easy to wash, need very little water and dry very quickly, which is a plus point in rural Dindigul which faces water scarcity. Although the material is microfiber, which isn’t completely eco-friendly, the fact that it is reusable, has saved thousands of disposable pads making it to the landfill, which definitely is a positive over the current option of disposables.

Pictures of the team training to stitch Safe Pads under supervision by KarthikThang

Neelavathi at the helm above

Mr. Krishnasamy, RIM co-ordinator at Dindigul has been guiding Neelavathi. He has been like a mentor to the team. Neelavathi has her husband, Shakthi—a quiet, resourceful and enterprising person supporting her in many ways, and her co-worker, the ever smiling, lively, Pappalakshmi, and her team of tailors. Much to the team’s credit, they have, on their own, sought out opportunities to create awareness, and in turn, have found takers for reusable cloth pads. They approach villagers, schools, colleges in their district, to spread awareness on the hazards of DSNs and then sell cloth pads to the rural women while simultaneously educating them and inspiring them to spread awareness.

Mr.Krishnaswamy (Centre-Sitting) with team.

Neelavathi has arranged sessions and spoken, at a Medical College in Madurai, during a meet of People with Disabilities. She also has contacts in Chennai to whom she has been able to sell Safe Pads to.

Neelavathi (Seated-Centre-with the pink Safe Pad) holding a session

Pappalakshmi too, has convinced women in her own circle, including her daughter to use cloth pads. Though Pappalakshmi doesn’t have the need to use menstrual products herself, and though her daughter has had a rough and not-so-good experience with the cloth pads initially, Pappalakshmi has taken the concept to heart, and has become a passionate expounder of using sustainable methods to handle menstruation. She has been conducting sessions in women Self-Help Groups, MGNREGA workplaces.

Below, is Pappalakshmi (plain blue saree) at Karuthandipatti village, Dindigul, educating the localites about Safe Pads.

Together they have reached out to 1200+ women though their awareness sessions , of which 350+ have switched to cloth pads, preventing approximately 50,000 disposables from hitting the landfills.

Dr. Anitha, at Madurai, is endorsing this enterprise, by stocking up the pads at her clinic, so patients can have easy access to buy them. As a testimonial, Dr. Anitha says that this is indeed a good, safe product and is very happy to be promoting cloth pads for young girls.

While not all efforts have yielded positive results, and there have been few folks for whom the pads didn’t work out, the team at Dindigul is hopeful of getting feedback, improving the design and going forward. They have been able to sell at least 350+ SafePad packs (each pack has 3 day pads and one night pad) in a span of three months. At a cost of Rs. 330 per pack. In rural, remote areas, where a payment of Rs. 330 upfront, may not be a feasible option, a SHG payment model is also acceptable and women pay on a monthly installment basis.

It has been a very memorable and cherished trip for me. I, being an urban, city bred, middle class girl, my encounter with these simple folks, who not only strive to make a living, with basic amenities such as running water being considered a luxury, but still have the drive and the will to make a difference, to serve others, has left me feeling humbled.

I wish success to Neelavathi and her team and to Mr. Krishnasamy, in all their endeavours.

Last I spoke to Neelavathi, she had started using the menstrual cup, gifted by the volunteers of Green the Red campaign, and has been extremely happy that she made the efforts to try it. There is now no looking back for her!

Here is her testimony about the cup

I feel very thankful for having crossed paths with Mrs. Sindhu Naik, who is an inspiration to many folks like me and grateful to her for her support in all possible ways.

With warmest regards and wishes to the Kanishka Garments Team!

- Chetana.

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