People usually start thinking of retirement when they’re about to touch 60 but not this woman. Sixty year- old Bodhi Devi has been working with Barefoot College in Tilonia for the last three years, ever since her husband died of a heart attack. She lives on campus with her two sons, two daughter-in-laws and four grandchildren; both her daughters are married and settled with their respective husbands in nearby villages. Like most women in Tilonia, courtesy the impactful work that Bunker Roy and his team have been doing, Bodhi Devi is much more aware of health and sanitation issues than women in nearby villages and other parts of the country. And she doesn’t considering talking about menstruation a taboo.
In fact, she manufactures low-cost sanitary napkins in a small production unit on the Barefoot College campus along with three other women — Lada Devi, Netal Devi and Shanti Devi. From procurement to production to even distribution, these four women handle all of it. These women need no man to help them.
“Though we sometimes need a man to drive us to nearby villages but I think one of the girls here will soon learn to drive,” she quips. Special cotton for production comes from Pune; thisv cotton is rolled into small cotton balls. Once that’s done, it is put into a cotton batting machine to get flattened even strips of cotton. Gum and a reliable super bond is mixed with water and made into an adhesive solution, which is applied on either sides of the cotton strips and pasted on narrow plastic sheets. The napkins are then pressed using a machine. This process only gives rectangular sanitary napkins. So they use advanced cutting machines that use heat and pressure to give shape to the sanitary napkins and emboss a pattern on the centre of the pads. At the end, the sanitary napkins are sanitized and packed into boxes of eight or 12 pads which are then sold for Rs. 15 and Rs. 20, respectively. Once the boxes are marked and sealed, they are put in large carton boxes and placed in a jeep. At least one woman travels in this jeep to villages in Jaipur, Ajmer and Kishangarh districts, besides 30 balwadis, to encourage women to buy low-cost sanitary napkins and to advocate about the importance of hygiene. Each sale is tracked and recorded in the bill book and the money from the sales is used for further production of sanitary napkins and to maintain the sustainability of the production unit. “Today, nobody in Tilonia wears a cloth napkin or piece of sack bag,” she says proudly. Until a few years ago, people hear tore pieces of sack bags and lined their underwear with it. “It wasn’t only unhealthy but also extremely painful,” she says. However, if it wasn’t the sack bags, it would be the cloth napkins, which would still often lead to diseases and infections because they would never sanitise after use. There was just no cheap alternative to sanitary napkins available in Tilonia — buying branded products like Whisper or Stayfree was not in their budget. There was also nobody to make them aware about the importance of using sanitary napkins.
“So we started producing our own brand of sanitary napkins. Not only that, we started door to- door campaign where we would meet the women of the houses and talk to them. If there were any misconceptions about using sanitary napkins, we would try to remove those. We still hold public meetings frequently in nearby villages of Rajasthan. And we are always trying to visit new villages,” she says, adding that talking about menstruation and sanitary napkins in an open environment is not very easy in rural India. Shy people, especially, have to be dealt with a lot of care. Thankfully, in Tilonia particularly, there have not been any superstitions attached to menstruating women. In a lot of rural and remote areas, menstruating women have to live in the outhouse or sleep on the floor or are not allowed in the kitchen and temples. But not in Tilonia. Producing low-cost sanitary napkins and advocating about it is, of course, an initiative that must be applauded but, in a remote village like Tilonia, it is also an achievement that women here are not treated differently if they are on their periods. It’s a sign of how evolved the community is and how they well treat their women. It is something that must be celebrated. The reason behind this approach is education and awareness, the principle with which DEF also runs. And that is probably why we’ve been committed towards ensuring that every child in Tilonia is digitally literate and every adult is aware of his or her rights and entitlements. Today, these four women are travelling from one village to another to sell the sanitary napkins. In the future, we hope, they will be able to sell their low-cost sanitary napkins to women in different parts of India through the medium of e-Commerce or even social networking platforms like Facebook where they can take orders online and ensure the delivery offline.