The Fight Against Menstrual Hygiene Taboos

Only 12 percent of women in India use sanitary napkins [1]. As a result, over 88 percent of women resort to shocking alternatives such as, old fabric from saris or towels, husks, dried leaves and grass, ash, sand or newspapers.

Due to lack of proper sanitary protection, an estimated 23 percent of school-aged girls drop out of school when they reach puberty.[2] In some places, 66 percent of girls skip school during their periods and one-third of them eventually drop out.[3] In India, the stigma around menstruation continues to permit the practice of unsanitary methods – the taboo acts like a poisonous seed taking root in the minds of women living on the fringes of society.

These statistics gave me chilling goose bumps. Although, more than anything, the facts gave me a gripping reason to take action. At first glance, the problem seems helpless, but change is possible. I connected with a social enterprise called Sukhibhava. Founded in 2013, Sukhibhava has reached out to approximately 2,470 poor urban women in Bangalore.

I met the founder, Mr. Dilip Kumar. He is a young man leading the movement to provide poor urban women access to affordable menstrual hygiene products. While at the same time, training women to become micro-entrepreneurs within slum communities by encouraging them sell sanitary napkins. Dilip cares deeply about poor urban women and serves as a primary example of how women’s issues are men’s issues too.

As a volunteer, I had the chance to attend a field visit in the slums of Bangalore, which allowed me to really understand the practical challenges in trying to recruit and spread awareness among women. There is a great deal of hesitation, shame, and embarrassment associated with talking about menstruation. However, since the conception of Sukhibhava, women have  steady adopted the idea and begun to understand the health benefits of using sanitary pads.

Sukhibhava has developed a unique model and approach to address the issue of menstrual health through directly targeting the women in slum communities. In other words, the approach begins at a grassroots level and assists women identified as effective advocates for the cause – known as Sukhibhava Workers – in setting up micro-enterprises.

In addition, I met with two other volunteers. Ms. Cassandra Cardiff, a graduate student at Oxford University is collecting interviews for her dissertation research. Ms. Jayashree Mathad is pursuing a M.A. in Social Entrepreneurship. They are key players in this movement and in our own small way we are contributing toward the cause, attempting to lay a foundation for social awareness that doesn’t yet exist.

During an awareness session earlier this week, we visited one of the largest slums in Koramangala. The micro-entrepreneur, a local teacher, helped gather over 20 women to attend the session. The women watched an educational animated video about menstrual health, which captured the idea in a culturally sensitive manner. Following the discussion, women were eager to purchase and use sanitary napkins. While the session was in Tamil (a language spoken in Tamil Nadu, a southeast Indian state), I observed as the women listened attentively, trusted one another, smiled, and laughed.

Taboos are difficult to break, but spending time with women living in the slums of Koramangala leads me to believe that we are getting one step closer to raising awareness and empowering women to take care of their bodies and health. For me, there is no higher honor and I am grateful to be part of Sukhibhava’s movement.

What can you do right now?

You’ve already made yourself an informed global citizen by reading this blog post! Thinking about the menstrual hygiene hardships of women in India, just for a moment, goes a long way in ensuring they are not forgotten.


[1] AC Nielsen and Plan India, 2011

[2] Celebrating Womanhood, Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council, 2013

[3] Dasra & Forbes Marshall Survey