GOONJ: Not Just A Piece of Cloth
India is a land of extreme contrasts. While there are pockets of unimaginable wealth and prosperity due to the rapid economic growth of recent decades, these co-exist with a vast population of poor who can barely feed or clothe themselves, whether in urban slums or in villages. Women are the worst affected by lack of access to water, sanitation, and crucially to a piece of clean cloth which they desperately need every month during their menstrual cycles.
In a culture where broaching the subject of menstruation is taboo even amongst women, it is indeed unusual to find a man championing the issue. Anshu Gupta discovered the gravity of the problem over his two decades travels throughout India. He is the founder of GOONJ, one of India’s leading social enterprises channelising underutilised materials from urban homes like clothes, stationery, utensils etc., and turning them into valuable resources for the rural poor. Today GOONJ sends out more than 70 tonnes of material every month to parts of 21 states of India. GOONJ is a recipient of multiple national and international awards and our previous talk with Anshu Gupta last year, brings out the innovative efforts made by the organisation in solving important but often overlooked problems of the poor in India.
In this very forthright, poignant and shocking interview, he delves into the nuances of the sanitary napkin problem, an issue which warrants serious and urgent attention, after decades of neglect by the government, the health sector, NGOs and development agencies, both nationally and globally. He is best placed to speak on the subject because GOONJ was one of the very first organisations to open up this much hidden issue and bring the same to public attention.
He is also concerned about the Indian government’s proposal to implement a huge annual subsidised scheme of distributing non-biodegradable, disposable sanitary napkins which has the potential of becoming another fiscal and environmental disaster. Find out more here.
EWTT: How did you start the programme for recycling cloth into sanitary napkins?
AG: GOONJ works on the basic issue of clothing. Usually one talks of ‘roti, kapda aur makaan’ meaning food, clothing and shelter, but most agencies forget about the need for clothing. As a poor person, if you don’t have even have enough to wear, where and how are you going to bring that particular piece of cloth that is needed for your periods every month?
In the absence of a clean piece of cloth it’s an ongoing disaster for a woman, which goes on for 30 to 35 years in the life of a woman. Despite that, the subject is taboo. In 2004, when we started talking about the issue, we discovered how even urban women feel uncomfortable talking about it, so you can imagine the situation amongst rural women.
EWTT: What did you find when you started the program on providing sanitary napkins from recycled cloth?
AG: When we first started, we wanted to find what was happening across the globe on this issue, especially in India. In 2004, when we googled ‘sanitary pad’ or ‘sanitary napkin,’ there was hardly any research or discussion or work happening on this. We could only find information about fancy disposable products from different countries. We also realised that though nearly half the world is women, and that even though the target market is women, for self- help groups, the microfinance sector, the health sector and even corporate CSR – the subject of sanitary napkins was not talked about at all.
It was all very new to us. The only asset we had was a thought, a solution, something like an old piece of cloth in our head. We started travelling around the country just to find out what was happening. What we found was absolutely scary. It was absolutely unimaginable for us especially as we didn’t belong to the hardcore health or development sector.
We found that poor women actually use the dirtiest piece of cloth, if at all it is available to them, because for them, menses is a synonym for dirt. For a large number of women, it is a one way process; when they see blood, they think something bad is coming out, almost equating it to ‘paap’ or sin. They don’t understand it’s a two way process, and a lot of infection and disease can actually go in. Using the dirtiest piece of cloth, they wash it but cannot even dry it under sunlight for reasons of privacy. Also we found that washing itself is a very big problem, because most places in India are dependent on hand-pumps. Hand pumps are always put up at an open, public place and there is no privacy. If you do not have a place to bathe in, how can you wash the piece of cloth in public?
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EWTT: What were the other things women were actually using?
AG: The women basically use a piece of cloth, with a lot of moisture as they are not dried properly. In the slums, they actually dry the cloth behind the door. In the evening, before the men come, they pick it and dump it in the corner of the house, and then with moisture and dust they wear it again. Sometimes we find that there are two to three women in the family with different cycles, and they actually share the same piece of cloth. We also found cases where this is shared even amongst neighbours.
If you go to Sunderban Delta of West Bengal today, you will even find women using the same piece of cloth for over a year. Even if it is almost like stone, they still use it, because there is no access to a piece of cloth. That is the level of poverty, the level of non-accessibility to basic necessities – a result of not addressing these fundamental issues for decades.
Then we found that millions of women are actually using gunny bags, sand, ash, jute, “dhari ka tukda” (piece of a rug), newspaper, rice husk, even plastic which is quite gruesome. A woman died of tetanus as she used a piece of a blouse with a rusted hook. In many of the villages that we reach, women tell us that they have lost their uterus, because the moment an infection happens, the local health system tells them there are chances of cervical cancer, so it is better to remove the uterus. Imagine at a child bearing age if you have to lose the uterus. This is the scale of the problem.
EWTT: You also found that most of villages had no common toilets, or infrastructure for sanitation?
AG: Toilets are a very large issue in India, Africa and the Indian subcontinent countries. If you talk about toilets, we have really crushed women on this issue. We have forced women to go against nature. Every single person gets up in the morning and goes to the toilet. But if you imagine the villages, there are millions of people across the country, where women are forced to shit in the evening, because there is no privacy in the morning. What eventually happens is that you go against nature. Women wait till the evening to ease out. But there are a lot of problems in the evening in the bushes such as insects and snakes, so they can’t go deep into the jungles and have to ease out by the roads. Once they see the headlights of a vehicle approaching, they will get up in the middle of the process, and once the vehicle passes, they sit down again. Where can we talk about the health and hygiene issues?
So both lack of access to water, and lack of access to toilets compounds the problem for women during the monthly cycles.
EWTT: Do you see the impact of the lack of sanitary napkins, or sanitation in general on education, especially for teenage girls?
AG: Many girls leave school at the age of 12 or 13. In the villages they may have reached only 2nd or 3rd standard (grade), so most of the girls don’t study beyond the primary stage. People also think the child has matured and is hence of marriageable age, especially where child marriages are prevalent.
If you solve the issue of sanitary napkins and treat it at the source, many of the women’s health and reproductive issues won’t even come up. A critical aspect is spreading awareness on the health and hygiene aspects of the issue, removing the taboo from this basic biological process, so that women, especially young girls who don’t have anyone to talk to them about this issue, open up and share their problems and difficulties.
What girls are looking for is some closed area such as a small 2ft by 2ft enclosed space, with a dustbin and access to at least an old but clean piece of cloth.
Some Hard Facts (from GOONJ’s notice board in New Delhi, India)
* One in 6 girls in India begins child bearing between the ages 13 and 16
* Maternal mortality accounts for 15% of all deaths of women of reproductive age in India
* The Nutrition Foundation estimates that the average age of menarche is 13.4 years, yet 50% of all girls both urban and rural have no understanding of this basic biological process
* As many as 40-45% of girls report menstrual problems
*Across the developing world, the lack of appropriate and adequate sanitation facilities, prevent girls from attending schools, particularly when they are menstruating. Of the 113 million children currently not attending school worldwide, 60% are girls. There is conclusive evidence that girls’ attendance at school is increased through improved sanitation.
* About 34% of Indian women use disposable napkins, the other 66% use cloth
EWTT: Tell us about GOONJ’s work on sanitary napkins. How do you actually sit and discuss this issue with the women?
AG: In 2004, we started making sanitary napkins out of old cloth. We collect clothes for our other initiatives like Cloth for Work, and Vastra Samman, and a small part of what we collect is cotton or semi-cotton cloth which can’t be used for other things. We wash and dry the cloth under sunlight, and make it into a sanitary pad. We make about 150,000 to 200,000 pads in a month.
Most of these women have little access to preventative medical care. Even where there are doctors, many don’t want to examine them because of hygiene issues,
We’ve developed an exhibition which we put up in the villages, to create awareness about the issue, as well as to listen to the people there to understand their realities. Usually when we go to the villages, we notice in our first meetings that women don’t want to talk about the subject of menstruation. In the first couple of minutes, they are quite shy and don’t want to lift up their heads when you broach the topic. We get stereotypical responses like ‘how can we talk about this?’
But then slowly they start opening up, and when they open up, they really, really open up and share their suffering. After all, for them it’s a monthly disaster, about which they haven’t been able to speak about to anyone. It’s such a taboo subject, they don’t even talk to their husbands about it. Their only outlet is their peer group which in any case is ill informed.
We have heard hundreds of stories on how women suffer due to this taboo and lack of clean cloth. I remember for example, talking to a lady who in the peak of summer, desperately used the leftover of a winter quilt. She used the torn outer cover of a quilt which was extremely warm against the body due to summer. She had an infection and ultimately had her uterus removed.
When we talk to women about the health aspect of this issue they are able to relate to what is going on in their lives, and connect the dots that it’s all because of a piece of cloth. That’s why we say, it’s not just a piece of cloth but much more . Over the years we have seen that when women are given a decent piece of cloth, they feel a difference in their menses experience; a sense of comfort and relief in itching,wounds, boils and discharge. They are able to connect the problem to what they were doing before.
Awareness and opening up the issue is critical to addressing this neglected basic need of a woman apart from accessibility and affordability of the napkins. Doing one without the other will only nullify the impact in the long run.
EWTT: Why is there still such a big neglect in this critical area of women’s health. What are your concerns about the solutions to the sanitary napkin issue?
AG: In 2007, when we won the Global Development Marketplace Award from World Bank, for our efforts on recycling cloth into sanitary napkins, we were in Washington. A lot of people came and asked us about “sustainability”, “measurability” and so on – some of today’s buzzwords. We asked a basic question to them. We said, “there are so many organisations in the health sector, but how many of them have a budget for sanitary napkins? Do you really need a qualitative or quantitative research or is it just common sense?”
In places like Arunachal Pradesh and Assam (North Eastern states of India), there are landslides, floods and natural disasters every year. Even in their basic disaster relief material, there is nothing like sanitary pads included. At least during normal times, you have a hut where you can hide yourself but after a disaster, even that hut is taken away from you. Only recently, some organisations have started doing this – giving a piece of cloth or cotton.
What’s shocking is that the government or public health sector has not focused on all the aspects of this basic issue. Obviously there’s a big gap. That is why, in my opinion it is very important to open up the subject.
The Government of India recently came up with a plan, to bring napkins at a subsidised rate to 150 districts of India. But I don’t know how they are going to implement it, because I don’t really think the grassroots people are really involved in making the napkins. They also need to understand the disposal issue, and how long can this be subsidised to this extent.
This issue has not been addressed in the last 50 years, and NGOs and other organisations need some time to build up their capacity. It should not become an excuse to give entry to the typical market based products. If the market can innovate and come up with a biodegradable napkin, it should enter. If they enter with the present product which has plastic sheet in the pad, as well as plastic in the wrapping as well, it will be a total mess.
I will tell you how, for example typically there are around 400 houses in a village with about 1000 women or so as users of sanitary pads. Every women needs about 7-8 pads, so 7000 to 8000 pads are required a month or about 70-80,000 pads per annum. Imagine if you use a non-biodegradable product in a village where there is no proper sanitation or disposal facilities. The soil is already worsened due to fertilisers and pesticides. The disposal of a sanitary pad typically happens near a water body. If the plastic goes into the soil, imagine what kind of an environmental damage this would cause. Similarly in a city slum, you’d be walking on sanitary pads as most of the toilets would be choked without a separate channel to dispose.
This should not become a marketing gimmick for the government or for corporate CSR. Even if corporates distribute napkins, it will not solve the problem. They must take the effort to educate people about the issue in a locality and then supplement with a biodegradable product. That’s the best approach. They shouldn’t just come on one day, distribute a few pads and then go away.
This is a very serious issue, and before it becomes a glamorised subject, with superficial solutions, people need to understand the gravity and depth of the issue.
Free sanitary napkins – A scam in the making?
Ever so quietly, the Indian Health ministry is making plans to help multinational sanitary napkin makers with a mega project that is expected to cost the government Rs. 2000 crores annually.
According to a report in The Hindu last Sunday, the government plans to supply about hundred free sanitary napkins to an estimated 200 million rural women annually to boost female health and hygiene in rural India. At the rate of Re one per napkin, the project cost is evaluated at Rs.2000 crores annually.
Many may not be aware that the lion’s share of the Indian sanitary napkin market is controlled by two MNCs, Procter and Gamble (makers of Whisper) and Johnson and Johnson (makers of Stayfree and Carefree). It is likely that the government may strike a deal with one of the two companies for the napkin project. A distant third player in this market is Kimberly Clark Lever, a joint venture between Kimberly Clark and Hindustan Lever Limited.Ever so quietly, the Indian Health ministry is making plans to help multinational sanitary napkin makers with a mega project that is expected to cost the government Rs. 2000 crores annually. Read more here
From former Tehelka reporter, P.C. Vinoj Kumar’s blog Breakfree on Feb 23, 2010
EWTT: What change would you like to see happen?
AG: The government needs to be worried about this. When there is crocin (paracetemol) and condoms in public health sector, you should also have sanitary pads. But the right kind of sanitary pads.
We need to find a local solution. If there is a village which has been using wood pulp or wood ash or sand, there may be problems with that but the women are still surviving. Can we work on improving the existing products and processes, instead of saying outright that these are very bad? Ash for example is used for healing wounds, it could even be a good thing, but the quality of the ash may be an issue as is the quality of a piece of cloth. We need to understand the issues, improve upon what is already available, and come up with a localised solution.
Most of us interact with at least 4 to 5 women including the helper maid , presswalli (lady who does the ironing), subzi walli (vegetable vendor); everywhere you see women. If we just start talking to these women about the issue and help them, you’ve actually taken care of 5 families. We need awareness, and action on a huge scale; at the micro and macro levels.
Help GOONJ in various ways:
* Join GOONJ on Facebook. Visit GOONJ’s website, and find out more about their initiatives and how you can help .
* If you wish to visit GOONJ’s offices, volunteer, arrange for collection centres for old clothes, stationery, toys, books or other materials in your town or city in India, contribute to GOONJ’s efforts or seek any information, kindly write to firstname.lastname@example.org
* GOONJ requires resources to process and reach the collected material to the remote villages across India. Every penny matters for a tightly run operation like GOONJ. If you have any financial contributions to make, please see details below.
For contributions made from OUTSIDE India (Foreign transfers only)
Make a direct transfer, rotate it- through Wacovia Bank, New York , Swift code- 2000193008933, GOONJ, A/C No- 2591101004644, Bank- Canara Bank, H block, Market Sarita Vihar, New Delhi- 110076, Swift Code-CNRBINBBDFS
* Please mail your full name, address and cheque/draft or wire transfer details to email@example.com for receipt purpose.
For contributions made from India You can directly deposit the cheque in GOONJ’s account or transfer as per details given below-
In favor of- GOONJ ; Bank Name – HDFC BANK ; Account No – 04801450000130 , Bank Address – Plot No-9,H & J Block,Local Shopping Complex, Sarita Vihar, New Delhi-110076
Bank Branch Code – 0480 ; IFSC Code – HDFC0000480 ; Bank Swift Code – HDFCINBB ( *Please note– That this account will accept the contribution with in India only and no foreign transaction is allowed as per guidelines of Ministry of Home & Finance.)
You can also drop the cheque /draft in the name of GOONJ in any of HDFC branch. For any queries, please call GOONJ on 011- 41401216, 26972351 or write to firstname.lastname@example.org for receipt purpose.
You can also help in these 6 critical ways:
1. TEAM 2000 is GOONJ’s fund raising initiative to bring together a strong team of 2000 people who can contribute a sum of Rs. 10,000/- or more in a year (About $ 250 a year or just about Rs. 800/- a month) for as long as they feel comfortable. Apart from taking care of major regular expenses, the money will be used for growth, expansion and wider replication. A simple form is enclosed giving the money transfer options. Contributions in India are tax exempted u/s 80G of IT act.
2. Vehicles: With the spread, transport cost has gone up and material inflow at GOONJ is increasing. Pick up vans are an immediate need in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kolkata & Jalandhar (@ approximately Rs 4.5 lakh or US $ 10,000)
3. Computers/laptops: GOONJ is trying to use technology to make its operations more efficient, and scalable. They need good, high end systems. Laptops are preferred as most team members spend a lot of time in the field. Their requirement is of 25 Computers/laptops and 7 printers/photocopy machines .
4. Transport support or linkages with transport companies to reach out material to hundreds of towns/villages across the country.
5. Space: GOONJ is looking for about 2000 sq. ft. space for a processing centers/storage in Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Jalandhar, Chennai and Hyderabad either pro-bono or on minimum possible rent. Chennai and Hyderabad are most urgent.
6. Linkages with garment industry people, primarily dealing with cotton and hosiery surplus, under/non utilized material. GOONJ produces about 2,00,000 (2 lakh) sanitary pads and undergarments for women right now and the demand is much more.
YouTube: Global Oneness Project – Not Just A Piece of Cloth
Video link here
YouTube: Watch Anshu Gupta at TEDxMICA here
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