When I asked my friends what they remembered about the early years after they first got their periods, I heard about shyly hiding pads and tampons in a secret compartment in their purses. Some dragged their moms through stores and exclusively to female cashiers when they bought their monthly supplies. At school, they worried that somehow someone would just know when they were on their periods—a creepy sort of invasion with the very typical adolescent threat of being made fun of.
It might be a natural and cross-cultural reality that a little embarrassment is part and parcel of puberty, for any gender. But for girls in rural India, those sometimes embarrassing adjustments to a new bodily function have long-term consequences. While my friends and I were told “You can still go swimming—even horseback riding!—on your period,” due to shame and a lack of simple sanitary pads, girls in rural India stay home, and often drop out of school.
Ameet Mehta and Dhirendra Singh were in India in 2011 to distribute need- and performance-based scholarships through the VIDYA Foundation when they noticed girls’ high drop-out rates. By way of explanation, they were told that the girls had “become women.” Mehta remembers that statement initially confused him, but he soon learned that this was code for the start of menstruation and that the girls were too embarrassed to go to school, for fear that the rags they used would leak. As Maria Fernandez Ruiz de Larrinaga, communications specialist at UNICEF India explains, “A fear of staining their clothes and being teased or humiliated about it by their male classmates seems to be a major reason of girls themselves choosing to miss their classes.”
From the beginning and without adequate preparation, menstruation can be a vaguely mysterious and scary event. In rural India, “many girls are caught unawares the first time they get their period,” Lakshmi Murthy, country director for the International Rural Network, told me via email. “Naturally they are frightened into thinking that they have hurt themselves, or that they have a disease.”
Murthy, who is a reproductive health expert focusing on adolescents in rural India, notes that often in government schools there are no bathrooms. Even once menstruation becomes routine, there can simply be no place for girls to change at school. Or if bathrooms do exist, Fernandez Ruiz de Larrinaga from UNICEF notes, they are wildly unsanitary. It’s a reality complicated by the fact that many girls travel long distances from home to study, so popping home to change is often not an option.
Matters are made worse by lack of access to feminine hygiene products. According to a Euromonitor International 2011 report on sanitary protection in India, since cloth was customarily used for menstruation, no domestic brands emerged to cover the feminine hygiene market until the entry of international manufacturers like Procter & Gamble. Even with the advent of these labels, according to one study of menstruating girls in northern India, in rural communities, only 5 percent of girls ages 13-15 used sanitary pads. As Mehta learned, rural women typically use rags. In regions where cotton is expensive, those rags might be washed, reused and even shared. Among the minority of rural girls who can afford sanitary pads, lack of a sanitation infrastructure raises other concerns about privacy. Murthy told me, “Let’s assume you have money [to buy pads]—where will you throw your pad? There is no ‘spot’ or disposal system.”
Facing the embarrassment of staining their clothes, nowhere to change their makeshift sanitary cloths, and no means to dispose of them if they could, young girls who are now seen by their families as eligible for marriage soon find themselves with plenty of reasons to stay home.
Mehta learned all this and had a fitting response, “It was shocking.” That shock spurred the two men, Mehta and Singh, to pursue a venture to bring affordable, entirely biodegradable sanitary pads to the girls and women of rural India.
Their start-up, Azadi, which means freedom and independence in Hindi, is an effort to not only bring pads to rural Indian women, but also a distribution system through partnerships with community based organizations, which will hire local women as entrepreneurs to sell the Azadi pads at prices affordable to rural women. Building upon $50,000 backing from the business incubator The Impact Engine and an angel investor, Azadi is currently in its final days on Indiegogo, crowdfunding the infrastructure to produce and distribute the pads.
Customer research has already taught the Azadi team that most women have heard of sanitary pads, but they don’t fully understand the function, or how to use them. Hiring that sales force of local, trusted women entrepreneurs will allow Azadi to get pads and basic instructional and hygiene booklets to their customers. Recognizing that many girls won’t have bathrooms at school to change their pads, Azadi has designed its product to last through the school day.
It’s about helping girls stake a claim in their futures and gain some control over their bodies. As Azadi’s Interim Manager, Nisha Sutaria explained to me, “Just given the cultural sensitivity and how menstruation is perceived, it’s a self-esteem thing.” Mehta adds to her point, “Along with a pad solving a very functional issue, it solves a very deep aspirational issue…it solves a much deeper emotional need for them,” says Mehta. In short, Azadi hopes to offer “freedom” from embarrassment, for sure, but also the larger form of freedom that comes from education, and its natural complement, opportunity.
Image via Azadi