A period of change: Meet the Pad Woman of India


Disposable menstrual products radically changed women’s lives when they were introduced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, replacing the cloth, moss, animal fur, and other materials women had relied on for centuries and making menstrual hygiene a cleaner, simpler affair. Often, girls in small towns skip school on the days they’re bleeding or drop out entirely. Also, the cloth, leaves, or even cow dung used in place of pads or tampons breed medical issues; 28% of women in India are diagnosed with cervical cancer, which is linked to unhygienic menstruation management.

Another matter: Tampons and pads are a disaster for the planet. One person’s periods can result in up to 15,000 landfilled pads or tampons over their lifetime and hundreds of pounds of plastic wrap and applicators. The products can take 800 years to decompose and create 200,000 metric tons of waste yearly. Our planet does not have enough resources for us to take, make, use, and throw (away), and keep doing that endlessly. Disposable sanitary napkins are 90% plastic, so they will become known as the bad idea that they are.

Known as “the pad woman of India,” Anju Bist turned to an alternative source. India is the world’s largest banana producer, and, unlike an apple tree or mango tree, banana trees bear fruit once and are cut down–agricultural waste that the team realized could become a valuable product.

Now, Anju and her team are hoping to foment the next period of revolution in her native India and around the world: the first reusable, sustainable pads made from the fiber of banana trees. They also happen to be affordable and effective.

Saukhyam’s pads, which don’t have adhesive, are worn with wings. Users can clean them by soaking them in cold water for a few minutes, lightly washing them with soap, and then letting them air-dry. They’ll even stand up to a machine wash!

After developing the pads around 2015, Saukhyam, which means “happiness and well-being” in Sanskrit built production centers in rural India and hired local women to work in them. It gave away pads for free to introduce the product and now sells them at a cost around the country. International online orders, which cost roughly $5 for a pack of four, subsidize the lower-cost pads sold in India.

Ms. Anju Bist has extensive experience working in rural areas of India. When the Mata Amritanandamayi Math adopted villages in 2013, she was part of the team that traveled to the most backward village clusters in 21 states of India, helping begin initiatives for the sustainable development of these villages. A focus on providing eco-friendly and low-cost solutions for menstrual hygiene resulted in the development of Saukhyam Reusable Pads from banana fiber and cotton cloth. The pad can absorb up to six times its dry weight.

The pads have won many awards in national and international domains. Today they are sold online as well as exported to countries such as the UK, Germany, the US, Kuwait, Netherlands, Mexico, Malaysia, Nepal, and Spain. To date, they have sold and distributed over 5 lakh pads, helping prevent the emission of over 2,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually. This has also helped eliminate an estimated 43,750 tonnes of non-biodegradable menstrual waste. The team’s vision is that the same high-quality pad that is exported should be made available at very affordable prices in remote, rural communities in India.

Anju obtained her MBA and MS from the University of Maryland at College Park in the US in 1998 and worked for a management consulting firm. In 2003, she moved back to India and during the next decade was part of Amrita University where she taught Environmental Sciences. Anju is the founding member of the Women in Indian Social Entrepreneurship Network. A Kollam (Kerala) native of Amrita SeRVe (Saukhyam Reusable Pad) her exemplary work in making a reusable pad has allowed her to win many outstanding awards.

In March 2020, she was honored with the Social Entrepreneur of the Year award for the “exceptional contribution to impact, clarity, and growth of work dedicated to furthering the UN Sustainable Development Goals” from the Women for India and Social Founder Network coalition.

Counting the recent on her list, Anju Bist is one among the 75 women honored as “Women Transforming India” by the NITI Aayog. Women have consistently been playing a key role in transforming India into a ‘Sashakt Aur Samarth Bharat’. In recognition of the remarkable achievements of these women across diverse sectors, NITI Aayog has instituted the Women Transforming India Awards.

Anju spoke with She-writer Dr. Sailaja about her journey. SheSight presents some excerpts from the interview.

Let’s hear it from the horse’s mouth:

What drives you? Why do you do what you do?
The desire to contribute. To build something that outlives us and continues to serve many generations of women and girls.

What are the biggest challenges that you face in your work?
It is said that going from 0 to 1 is the most difficult, going from 1 to 10 is less difficult, and going from 10 to 100 is relatively easier. For us, the hardest part is over, I would like to think. Hence the challenges we face now are far fewer. We have a bigger team, of committed women, all united for a common cause. We are scaling, and well on our way to going from 1 to 10.

What are the biggest opportunities you see as a woman?
A lot of the health and education-related problems of women and girls in rural areas especially can be traced to one factor alone – lack of access to suitable materials for menstrual hygiene. Solve this one problem and watch many other issues get automatically resolved. There is a dire need for a mass shift to sustainable and affordable options for menstrual hygiene.

What leadership traits and characteristics or indeed strengths and weaknesses do you feel are
required or hinder you in your pursuit of excellence in your field of expertise?

A leader can inspire all team members to give their best. We are very fortunate to have Amma- Sri Mata Amritanandamayi Devi is revered worldwide as a spiritual and humanitarian leader as our leader too. In addition, we have several rural women who have grown tremendously in the roles that were assigned to them and have now assumed leadership positions within our team. These are the reasons that enable us to forge ahead in our scaling journey.

When did you step into this role?
We launched Saukhyam Reusable Pads in Oct 2017. The launch was preceded by a couple of years of research.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I try to pay attention to detail as it is these details that enable us to build a strong foundation. Fortunately, the team is excellent, and that enables me to delegate responsibility. I can be strict when needed. I recognize that many of my team members are far more skilled at several tasks, and I try to remember to appreciate them for tasks well done.

How do you motivate yourself every day?
It’s easy when there is a higher purpose one is working towards. And also, when one is surrounded by committed, dedicated team members.

How do you manage the multiple roles that you do in your daily life?
By trying to be in the moment. By giving full attention to the task at hand. Moving to the next task after completing the previous one.

What’s your philosophy in life?
Give, give some more, and give even more. We are blessed with so much, we are healthy, we can work hard, and we have good opportunities. We are certainly in a position where we can give to others, be it smiles, a helping hand when needed, and even material help if required. Amma once said to me that life would be far more fulfilling if instead of take, take, and take, our mantra becomes give, give, and give. I am fortunate indeed to be experiencing some fulfillment with this philosophy of life.

Your message to other women
You are strong, you are beautiful, and you can positively impact the lives of many. Always believe in yourself. Poor menstrual hygiene is associated with developing several infections like reproductive and urinary tract infections, fungal infections, aerobic and anaerobic infections, and even Hepatitis B. Reusable pads can go a long way in enabling women from poor backgrounds and rural areas to maintain menstrual hygiene. These are lightweight, easy to wear, rash-free, non-allergic, and free of harmful chemicals.

Can you tell us about the awards and recognition that you received?

I was blessed to receive NITI Aayog’s “Women Transforming India” Award in 2022. In 2020, I received the “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” Award from the Social Founder Network and Women for India coalition.

What else do you want to do to help society?
Reusable menstrual pads should be mainstream, and every woman and girl should have easy access to them – our team is working hard towards this goal. This is what I see myself working for, for the next decade at least.
To popularise reusable pads, these should be included in the ongoing schemes by the various state governments for free distribution in schools. This would reduce the financial burden on the governments, too, as reusable pads cost only about one-tenth the amount of the recurring cost of disposables is considered.
Reusable pads need to be made available in rural areas on priority due to the existing prevalence of poor menstrual hygiene.

What care should be taken while using these pads?
We need to dispel the misconceptions regarding the hygiene of reusable pads. So long as one cares for them correctly, such as washing them after every use and drying them completely before storing them for the next use, reusable pads are hygienic to use. These are not very different from the undergarments we use. We tested the microbial load on a brand-new and a reused pad and found no significant difference between them.

Dr. Sailaja is an enabling HR leader and sustainable practices enthusiast

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