When it first hits an adolescent girl, she goes through a number of psychological adjustments. Menstruation is a word that is still insidiously clasped in the claws of stigmas and taboos. In a time like this, when there should be proper guidance and education about the same, the girls are instead subjected to a number of social prejudices, hurled with misinformation and many severely lack the means of proper sanitation to manage their periods.
The “Taboo” chronically bruise the self-esteem of women from an early age. In rural India, young girls miss school and continue to drop out of school as they hit puberty for a number of reasons. From the lack of hygienic methods of period management, poor sanitary infrastructure to shame and myth, girls education in rural India continues to face several grim challenges.
Project Baala, an initiative crusaded by Soumya Dabiwal comes in the picture to tackle the multifaceted problems of menstrual hygiene such as unavailability of the right menstrual product to misinformation crippling the minds of young girls. In an interview with the ‘The Logical Indian’, Dabiwal gives insightful details about her initiative.
Project Baala: What and how?
Project Baala started in the year 2016 when Soumya Dabriwal was still a student at Warwick University. As a university student, she volunteered in different parts of the world. Soumya says, “I was volunteering in Ghana, Africa and Haryana, India as a teacher of Mathematics and English for young students in the rural areas.” During her volunteering, she observed that adolescent girls were missing school at an alarming rate due to their periods.
What disturbed her the most was the fact that young girls had to miss school and sometimes even drop-out due to the shame and stigma attached to menstruation along with unawareness and unavailability of proper menstrual protection. She continued, “I was deeply perturbed by the fact that something as basic as sanitation was impacting something as important as education. Women resort to household techniques of managing periods ranging from using old rags to even employing the use of coconut fibre, locally available leaves and ash packets. This method of poor management clubbed with misinformation does not only affect girls’ school attendance but women also lose days of work, productivity and wages. With time and research, I realized that the correct product was not available and accessible in rural areas. The existing products were either unaffordable or extremely difficult to access. Another major unaddressed issue was the disposal of menstrual waste since most commercial menstrual products are non-biodegradable and rural women have to often burn and bury their menstrual absorbents. This causes a lot of humiliation and frequent harassment.”
To help them with the correct product, Soumya along with another curator Nitisha Sethia did a research gig on methods to make sanitary napkins affordable and manageable. Nitisha is an IIM-A graduate and brought worthwhile menstrual experience from Gujarat. Soumya adds, “We wanted to create the right product which is safe, affordable and environment-friendly and that is how Baala came into being. We researched, experimented with a lot of different products and hand-stitched designs ranging from leaf shaped pads to butterfly shapes and colours. We finally settled on a specially designed cloth pad that is not just affordable and biodegradable but can be used for up to 2 years, which is currently being manufactured in Delhi with the support of a manufacturer.”
Project Baala is a growing team with a huge network of volunteers and organisation collaborations across India and Nepal. Currently, it is being led by Soumya herself along with Aradhana Gupta, who joined the organisation half a year ago, bringing her valuable Cornell MBA insights. Together Soumya and Aradhana believe in the importance of menstrual awareness and education to counter stigma around menstruation and uproot the issue completely. They mutually emphasise “We firmly believe that the solution is not just the reusable pad. Our answer is the education module along with the reusable pad. Just giving the product is solving the problem for just one day but educating them is demystifying generations of misinformation.”
Baala For Environment
Studies show that a girl can generate up to 125 kgs of waste by using pads that are non-biodegradable. It is about two trucks of non-biodegradable waste per girl. Such waste can take 500-800 years to decompose. Come to imagine the amount of hazard that it can cause to our environment! On the other hand, Sanitary Pads manufactured by Baala tackle pollution as it is reusable upto 2 years.
On Challenges and Breaking Barriers
Every new idea comes with a set of its own challenges and hurdles. When Baala began their journey, they had to tackle a unique set of challenges. Soumya says, “We were in a village in Haryana. All the men in the village came to us and said that we are brainwashing the women and trying to imbibe western and ‘city’ values among them.” She continued, “That’s when we realized the extent to which the taboos are ingrained around menstrual hygiene in rural areas.”
To convince people to open up required a lot of hard work and thinking. The girls went on to find out ways to be able to educate them. That’s when they made an effective education module. Soumya says, “We made an education module that is completely relatable to them. We have found a way to make the dreaded topic into a very fun conversation”
Telling us more about overcoming challenges, she said, “We talk to the communities members exactly like they would talk to each other. We spent a lot of time to learn the right way to talk to women in a way that they understand. It’s a slow process to learn to talk about a ‘taboo’ topic in a way that doesn’t scare them off immediately or make them feel more ashamed. It was a slow but incredible learning process in the beginning but now we have created a beautiful way of interacting with the women. It’s beautiful the way we break barriers for menstrual hygiene and actually manage to have fun whilst doing it.”
Project Baala on Mount Everest
Passion they say knows no bounds. When one is set out to do something, there is no such thing as limits. To make the whole world see the power of one idea, one may need a high podium, as high as Mount Everest summit. One of Project Baala’s team members, ‘Kanchi Maya Tamang’ from Bhotang Village, Nepal trekked all the way to Everest 8000 m from the sea level to increase visibility to the cause and to raise funds. Talking about this extraordinary feat, Saumya who is now gleaming with pride said, “After she submitted Everest, we trekked to her village and conducted workshops for 3000 women in her entire village.”
The main focus of Project Baala always is rural areas and slums. The simple idea to solve menstruation crisis of India has impacted seventy thousand lives already. In this regard, Soumya and Aradhana proudly claim, “We have a target of reaching 200,000 women in 2019.”
On a lighter note
Team Baala tells us that when they were at the stage of designing the napkins, they would experiment with a lot of different materials, techniques and designs. Saumya says, “I remember those initial days in the cloth markets, the suppliers would ask us about the purpose of our purchasing cloth, we would mention ‘to make sanitary napkins’ and their faces would turn completely red. Therefore, to allow them to focus on their work more in the meanwhile we decided to say cloth diapers instead of sanitary napkins. Thankfully, a lot of this stigma has changed since 2018 in urban areas especially due to Pad Man.”
The Logical Indian Take
The Logical Indian appreciates and applauds the exemplary initiative taken by ‘Project Baala’. It is an answer to not just the unavailability of affordable and eco-friendly menstrual products but breaking the limitations through education is a pathbreaking role played to shape the lives of so many women. As Soumya says, “I feel that there are so many ideas that young people have today. The key is to actually go down and do something about it. Slowly the right people start to connect with you. Eventually, you create something much bigger than yourself.”
A nation with over 47% of women population can bulwark itself to development when girls do not have to give up on education for reasons as basic as menstruation.
What does menstruation mean to you? Do you twitch a bit or sit uncomfortably at the mere mention? Want to share your experience? write to us at [email protected], remember to hashtag #MenstrualHygieneWeek