Sajida was 14 years old when she got her first period. In the middle of the school day, she was sent home, amid giggles and whispers of her classmates. Back in the one-room tenement, where she lived with five members of her family, Sajida's mother equipped her eldest daughter with a soft muslin cloth.
Hidden away amid the high-rises of India's fi nancial capital is a 550-acre slum, Dharavi, which is home to seven lakh people. Their economic status and conservative mindset, along with the low toilet-to-person ratio, pose an enormous challenge to maintain its women's menstrual hygiene.
Now a mother of two little boys, she wistfully recalls: "Main bahut kuch karna chahti thi, kuch banna chahti thi par ijaazat nahin mili." (I had so many dreams but wasn't allowed to pursue them.)
PHOTO ESSAY: CHANGING LIVES
Sajida is a resident of Dharavi - a slum of hope, and of enterprise. Famous as the 'largest slum in Asia' (not true anymore), the homes are cramped and rarely get sunlight. But, there's opportunity knocking at their doors. In December 2014, a sanitary napkin manufacturing unit was set up here. Word spread in the slum - "there is a new factory looking for workers. Only ladies should apply".
When Sajida heard about the job opening, she knew she had to apply. No woman in the family had ever been allowed to work outside the home but she was adamant. "Mere dono bachchon ko English school mein bhejna chahti hoon. (I want my two children to study in an English medium school). Do paisa kamaoongi to madat ho jayegi. (The extra money I earn will be a big help)." The family relented. Along with a dozen other women, she started working.The napkin unit was set up with machinery provided by Aakar Innovations, a social enterprise led by a young maverick, Jaydeep Mandal. As a boy, Mandal enjoyed tinkering with machines. After he completed his graduation from Kalyani Engineering College in West Bengal, he wanted to do something different. While pursuing his MBA from Indus Business Academy, he started a company to commercialise grassroot-level innovations. One such innovation was the much-talked about sanitary napkin machine - using simple hand-operated cutting and sealing units - by A. Muruganantham. Each unit made sanitary napkins affordable to all.
"In the 1960s, Amul was behind the white revolution, I wanted to create the second white revolution!" says Muruganantham. He refused offers from big businesses to work only with women self help groups (SHGs) to help generate employment for women. There was just one problem - the machines frequently broke down and there was no after-sales service.
More than 100 units were sold amid fanfare, but in no time, several had shut down. It was time for Mandal to step in: "I took up the challenge of reviving two sick units." The team at Aakar Inno-vations, along with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), improved on the prototype. The end result was a more efficient piece of machinery that could be set up for Rs 6 lakh-7 lakh. And, a few found their way into Dharavi in December 2014. "Initially, we wanted to be only in rural areas but soon realised that women face similar problems in urban slums as well," says Mandal.
Every shanty in Dharavi has satellite TV antennas, but none has attached toilets. Both men and women queue up to use the handful of filthy public facilities - a nightmare on any given day, but a hundred times worse when a woman has her period. They cannot afford Whisper or Stayfree and continue to use and reuse cloth. "Kapda poori tarah sookhta nahin hai phir infection bhi ho jaata hai (The rags don't dry after washing and also become a source of infection)," says Sajida.
The women were, in fact, quite excited by the prospect of working in a napkin unit. "Hamein hi use karne ko milega," was the initial thought that excited them. The initial cost of capital, training, raw material and three months' salary were funded by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in India, while the premises were provided by SHED, a local NGO working with women and youth for over two decades.
In theory, the napkin-making machine was an ideal solution - the Anandi napkin was a product for the women of Dharavi, by the women of Dharavi. However, implementation of any idea is not easy. In the first six months of operations, the factory did not make any profit. Due to quality issues, not a single napkin could be sold. "We had teething troubles, especially with the workers," admits Mandal.
Women were not used to 'being on time'. They would arrive late, or take frequent holidays. Then, the supervisor trained to oversee the unit quit without giving notice. Luckily, the new supervisor Sandhya proved to be more efficient. "Humne phir un ladies ko hi liya jinko sachmuch job ki zaroorat hai. (We decided to take only those women who really needed the job)." To be commercially viable, each unit had to produce at least 1,200 pieces a day. After nine months of trial, error, training and supervision, the Anandi unit in Dharavi is breaking even. "Nearly 40 per cent of our units, including the one at Dharavi, are producing 1,200-1,500 napkins a day," says Mandal. "Abhi hamara quality bhi pehle se bahut achchha hai. (The quality of napkins has greatly improved)," says Sandhya.
Today, if you visit the Anandi napkin unit in Dharavi, you will come across a buzzing workplace. The workers are all clad in 'uniform' and fully absorbed in their tasks. The first shift starts at 10 am and ends at 2 pm. There is no tea break because most women have young kids at home. And, they must be as productive as possible during working hours - in order to fulfil the targets.
The napkin unit consists of a set of machines, each designed for a particular purpose. As soon as you enter, you will see a pulverisor. This is where the basic raw material of the napkin is processed.
A plump and jovial Alpita works in this unit. She cleans the pinewood fibre by hand. Then it is torn to shreds by the pulverisor machine. "Acchhi tarah gaanth maaro (make a tight knot)!" instructs Sandhya, the unit supervisor.
Alpita's neighbour, Shameem wears a burkha at work. At the factory, she dons a medical-green apron and mans the pressing unit. She weighs 65 gm of pulp and applies the dye. The pulp has now acquired the distinctive shape of a napkin. "Acchha lagta hai idhar kaam karna (I like to work here),"she smiles. Fatema, Ujwala, Preeti, Deepa and Sajida work at the sealing unit. Their eyes are focused on the task at hand.
The sealed napkins are checked by the supervisor before they go through the final phase - gumming, UV sterilisation and packaging (in lots of eight). Ganga and Anjali handle these operations in the morning shift. "Abhi inka speed bahut badh gaya hai (Their speed has improved)," says Sandhya.The ladies beam with pride. All of them now use sanitary napkins and encourage their friends, relatives and neighbours to do so. Says Fatema, who had never used a sanitary napkin before joining the factory, and had problems using cloth during her periods: "Our napkins do not have chemicals. They are very safe and affordable. "Pehele sab kuch chhup chhup kar karna padta tha (earlier, I was afraid someone will find out)." Moreover, the job has raised her status in the eyes of her husband and in-laws.
Says Preeti, a mother of two young children under the age of five years: "Mere saas sasur bacchhe dekhte hain, is liye mujhe koi tension nahin hai." (My in-laws look after my children so I have no tension at work). The Rs 3,000 Preeti takes home earn her this privilege. She is now a kaam karnewali bahu (working daughter-in-law).
The changing norms of society are reflected in the life stories of these workers. Alpita worked in a beauty parlour in Kolkata for 14 years before shifting to Mumbai. "Mera love marriage tha (I had a love marriage)," she whispers shyly. The love blossomed on mobile phone, thanks to a 'missed call'. After chatting with each other for hours for more than two years, the two decided to get married. Alpita was a fish-eating Bengali, while Manish a vegetarian Jain. Surprisingly, the parents on both sides had no objections. Alpita's husband is in the zari business, the family is 'well-off' by Dharavi standards. Yet Alpita leaves her young daughter and goes out to work to support her family in Kolkata. "My parents are old and not keeping well," she says. "I send Rs 2,500 to them from my salary every month." The four-hour-a-day job suits her needs as a young mother.
Sajida's eyes sparkle when she relates how her husband goes to the bank to deposit her salary cheque. Unlike other workshops in Dharavi, the Anandi workers do not get paid in cash. "Mera khud ka bank account khula to itni khushi huyi, kya bataaoon!" (I cannot express how happy I felt when I opened my own bank account). Her 17-year-old sister Nazia wants to follow in her footsteps.
The positive social impact of the napkin factory is clearly visible in this Mumbai slum. "Low-cost sanitary napkins are drivers for change and development," says Alka Narang, Head of the Poverty Unit, UNDP. "This particular initiative provides dignity of livelihood and empowers women to talk freely about a taboo subject."
The concept of menstrual hygiene and health is spreading in the slum. But beyond the feel-good factor, is the sanitary napkin making business sustainable? The most successful napkin unit till date was set up in Tuljapur in rural Maharashtra. It was ably managed by Shanta Gawli, a local woman entrepreneur. But most Anandi units are run by NGOs, which are not naturally inclined towards running a business - that explains the struggle to break even. So far, Aakar has set up 21 units - from Janakpuri in New Delhi to Uyumpok village in Manipur. The other challenge is marketing. Currently, Aakar buys back the napkins and sells them in bulk as part of its corporate social responsibility. Only a small percentage is sold locally. The original plan was to create a direct sales force through mahila mandals and SHGs. But this will take time and effort.
Can Anandi napkins repeat the success, say, of what Lijjat Papad had achieved in the past? The Dharavi factory may be small, but the ladies are dreaming big - "Hum chahte hain ki hamara product sab door jaaye, uska TV par ad aaye!" (Our product should be sold everywhere and we should have our advertisements on TV.)" Some day, their dreams may well be within their reach!
(Rashmi Bansal is a best-selling author in pursuit of interesting entrepreneurs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)