"Change is happening": Saukhyam's initiative to provide reusable, eco-friendly sanitary napkins

Saukhyam Pads is an initiative within the larger Amrita SeRVe program of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math. Here are the Excerpts of an interview of Anju Bist, Co-Director, Amrita SeRVe with Mumbai Live.

"Change is happening": Saukhyam's initiative to provide reusable, eco-friendly sanitary napkins

Launched in October 2017, Saukhyam is known to be one of India’s leading reusable sanitary pad brands dedicated to the menstrual well-being of women and girls. These pads provide a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to traditional sanitary napkins that contribute to problems of waste and climate change.

Saukhyam is a project of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, an NGO with consultative status to the UN's ECOSOC. The Math is led by Amma, Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, revered globally as a spiritual and humanitarian leader. The team is at the forefront of change and has been working hard to prevent an environmental catastrophe. Aligned with the Government of India's ‘Swaach Bharat’ campaign, over 50,000 of these pads sold till date have helped eliminate ~875 tons of non-biodegradable menstrual waste.

Saukhyam Pads is an initiative within the larger Amrita SeRVe program of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math.

Here are the Excerpts of an interview of Anju Bist, Co-Director, Amrita SeRVe with Mumbai Live:

How did you come up with the idea of Saukhyam? What was the motive behind this idea?  

I will not like to say that I came up with the idea of Saukhyam. It was Amma's idea and I worked with a large team to make it happen. Amma, or Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, is revered all over the world as a humanitarian and spiritual leader. The Mata Amritanandamayi Math in Mumbai in Nerul has carried out many service activities over the years. The main headquarters of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math is in Kerala.

In 2013, the Math adopted backward villages in 20 states of India and began work towards their sustainable development. I was also part of the team that travelled to these villages and helped start free tuition classes for children. We recruited teachers from the same communities, provided them with training and a small stipend to teach the children. We trained health workers who supported the Asha workers and linked the communities to nearby PHCs. In some villages, organic agriculture training was also provided.

We understood one thing. At the intersection of a lot of health and education-related problems for women and girls was the issue of menstrual hygiene. It was not discussed openly (this was before the days of the Padman movie which helped make discussions more mainstream) but it had a big impact. We understood the need to provide a low-cost means for ensuring menstrual hygiene. We knew it had to be eco-friendly as well.

Even small children know that paper comes from trees. But no one seems to know that the absorbent material (cellulose fiber) in 99% of disposable sanitary napkins made and sold worldwide is also made in much the same way as the paper is made and from cutting trees. So in our quest to make something affordable and eco-friendly for potentially lakhs of women to use, we didn't want more and more trees to be cut.

That is when we stumbled upon banana fiber. It is also a type of cellulose fiber and is a very absorbent substance. The banana tree only fruits once and is cut after that. The fiber is extracted from cut trees and no living trees are harmed. There are a few groups in the world making disposable pads from banana fiber. But Amma guided us to make reusable pads. She said that even though banana fiber comes from agro-waste, it is still far too precious to be used once and thrown away.

In the long run, nothing that is use-once-and-throw can be sustainable. 

I myself have been a user of reusable pads for nearly 20 years now. So for us to make reusable pads with banana fiber was the logical solution to the problem. We are the world's first team to have done so. Now we have heard of some more teams in India also making reusable pads with banana fiber.  

While we are all set to step into 2021, in villages, it is observed that women still often use cloth. Hence, what initiatives are being taken to spread awareness among people regarding the use and benefits of sanitary napkins or something like Saukhyam?

Unfortunately, today disposable sanitary napkins are becoming available in many rural areas and girls and women are being encouraged to use those instead of cloth.

While on the one hand, the modern, informed woman is making a shift to reusable pads because of the benefits to the environment and to her own health, such products are not even known about in many parts of the country. Today in India, there are 30+ manufacturers of reusable pads but mostly these are only available online. We may be one of the only ones trying to build a distribution network and focusing on the last mile delivery so that women in rural areas may also know of and be able to access such products.

Using reusable pads made from a cloth is very different from using a cloth to manage periods. All reusable pads are designed so that they are very easy to wash and dry. They do not stain. Because they do not stain, there is no need to hide them while drying them. Just like women find a way to dry their undergarments - bras, and panties, the same way these pads can be dried. Just an extra piece of underwear during those five days of the month.

The pads also last for many years so one is saved from the repeated expense of having to purchase every month.   

Even though we have made, sold, and distributed over 50,000 pads to-date, we feel that we are in the very early stages of our initiative. In states like Jammu and Bihar, we are partnering with the respective State Rural Livelihood Missions, viz. Umeed and Jeevika to eventually have reusable pads reach lakhs of poor women. In Mumbai / Thane we are exploring 2 partnerships - one with UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and another with Rotary Club of Bombay to build our last-mile delivery network. 

Who is your main target audience -- millennial or poor sections from urban and metro cities? And how do you plan to connect with them?

Our target audience is really women and girls everywhere. Only if urban girls use pads, rural girls are also motivated to use them - this is what we have found. We target school and college students for our awareness workshops because they have many years of their menstruating lifetimes ahead. Good habits formed early will serve them well for the rest of their lives.

There is another type of customer that eagerly makes the shift. The price-sensitive customer who understands that overall reusable pads are not even one-tenth of the cost of disposable pads. So yes, we are targeting millennials and the poor also. We connect with them mainly through awareness workshops we conduct - nowadays at the rate of 3-4 workshops per week - and through building our last-mile distribution network.

Even in metro cities like Mumbai, we come across literates treating women like untouchables during their menstruation, what is your thought on it? How do you think it's possible to change that kind of mentality?

Change is definitely happening. When men and women both understand that menstruation is at the very basis of life, that we were all born because our mothers menstruated and that if women did not menstruate then the cycle of humanity would stop, then we would understand the true place of periods in all of our lives.

When women make the shift to reusable pads, at first, they are very surprised because reusable pads have no nasty smell that they are used to from disposable pads. That is when they understand that menstrual blood is like normal blood, it does not smell, and just because the body is letting it go because it did not conceive during that particular month does not make a woman impure in any way. 

Mindsets take time to shift. The onus is on men and women both to see things in the right way. Amma likes to remind us that it is women who have given birth to every single man in this world. Take pride in this unique blessing and move ahead with confidence, Amma says.   

What would you like to say about the menstruation leave policy emerging in the corporate firms? 

In the olden days too, a woman was given time off from domestic chores during the time of the month she was menstruating. Unfortunately over time, this came to be seen as a way to isolate women who were deemed impure during periods. 

The body undergoes physiological changes during menstruation and can definitely use some rest. Instead, ads for many disposable pads have perpetrated the idea that rest is regressive and instead of running around or jumping or playing is more progressive. When we go with what Mother Nature has designed for us, the results are far more harmonious. In that sense, the menstruation leave policy can be welcomed as a good sign of change.  

Of course, people have different views and one can never please everyone or expect everyone to agree. So if some corporates are taking this bold step, they definitely need to be applauded.

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