From Taboos to Triumph! Sustainable Journey for Menstrual Hygiene


In the remote villages of Theni, the persistent stigma surrounding menstruation continues to prevail, forcing many to uphold age-old customs. However, amidst these challenges, R Surya, a resilient single parent from Koduvilarpatti village, has defied norms by establishing a unique enterprise dedicated to producing eco-friendly and sustainable female hygiene products, including sanitary napkins, diapers for kids and adults, wet wipes, tissues, and more. When it comes to menstruation hygiene, several ‘big’ brands often featuring celebrities promise the utmost comfort and protection, while the actual experiences of numerous women diverge significantly. Unpleasant occurrences span from itchiness and allergic reactions to substantial health issues such as endometriosis, complications related to pregnancy, and even cervical cancer.

However, Surya’s journey into this field wasn’t primarily driven by these issues. Despite her facing similar problems, she, like other women in her surroundings never raised their voices as menstruation was still a taboo. Her path took an unexpected turn at 25 when her husband’s tragic accident left her as the sole provider for her two children, aged six and two. Overcoming adversity, she launched a boutique, though tailoring was not her passion, leading her to explore other avenues.

Surya, who was not interested in tailoring, felt the need to depend on the tailor to deliver a finished product, and that irked her. A couple of years later, she happened to attend a small skill workshop, where she learned how to make sanitary napkins. With undeterred zeal to achieve something in life, Surya established an all-women napkin manufacturing unit with the support of 10 individuals, each investing Rs 10,000. However, the new business faced several initial setbacks and biases as people made fun of her for choosing ‘such’ a product.

Despite proficient manufacturing, their lack of marketing knowledge hindered progress. Although their attempts to sell products locally met with limited success, Surya’s determination remained unwavering. “I used to carry pads from door to door and ask people to try them. In my village people were skeptical to use pads as most of the women used cloths. I was determined that I would bring the much-needed awareness. It became more than just sales for me,” said Surya. Undaunted by skepticism, Surya returned her partners’ investments, grappling with a debt of Rs 3 lakh. However, her perseverance and dedication prevailed.

Sustainable Menstrual Products
Image Courtesy: Surya

She delved into extensive research on hygienic napkin manufacturing, ultimately founding Asian Agencies with the backing of the District Industries Centre (DIC) in 2008. She learned how sanitary napkins were made from scratch using wood pulp, plantain fiber, and other sustainable and biodegradable items. She established a company called ‘Bestie’ and completed the registration process. Surya’s enterprise has flourished, producing environmentally friendly napkins and earning a turnover of Rs 4.6 crore. Her products reach diverse destinations from Kashmir to Kerala and since March 2021, her offerings have extended internationally to Tanzania.

Her commitment and achievements haven’t gone unnoticed. Recognizing her efforts, the micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) department honored her with the district-level Award for Best Entrepreneur in 2020-21. In addition to her business success, Surya leads the Bharathi Magalir Suya Udhavi Kulu, a self-help group. The group’s collaboration with Magalir Thittam (Tamil Nadu State Rural Livelihood Mission) resulted in the manufacturing of ‘Mathi’ napkins in December 2022. Operated from the Lakshmipuram unit, these pads are distributed to rural women, serving as an alternative income source. This initiative enables each employee to earn a supplementary minimum of Rs 5,000. The group aims to expand its reach across the state while educating 27,500 women in the district about healthy and hygienic menstruation practices. Surya underscores the significance of these pads, and says, that unlike conventional pads with plastic covers, they feature a top sheet made of cotton. Inside, biodegradable banana fiber powder replaces gel, offering an eco-friendly solution. The group also crafts a three-layer cotton pad utilizing corn stem, suitable for 8 to 14 hours of use. Using sanitary napkins that are eco-friendly, biodegradable, and sustainable is important for several reasons, encompassing environmental, health, and societal factors.

Surya says that now is the time to switch to sustainable ways as it could reduce the environmental impact and lessen plastic pollution. She explains that traditional sanitary napkins are often made from non-biodegradable materials like plastic and synthetic fibers, contributing significantly to landfill waste. Meanwhile, these Pads are made from natural, organic, and sustainable materials that break down over time, reducing the burden on landfills and minimizing long-term environmental harm. Many conventional sanitary napkins contain synthetic fragrances, dyes, and other chemicals that can potentially cause skin irritations, allergies, or even disrupt hormonal balance. “We make sure that these harmful additives are not mixed in our products, promoting better intimate health,” highlights Surya. The use of natural, organic materials in their eco-friendly sanitary napkins reduces the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals, which can be particularly important for individuals with sensitive skin or those prone to allergies or infections.

Image Courtesy: Surya

Preferring eco-friendly products encourages manufacturers to adopt sustainable practices, which in turn spurs market demand for environmentally responsible alternatives. This broader industry shift towards more sustainable production methods is underpinned by these choices. Furthermore, opting for eco-friendly sanitary napkins can spark discussions on menstrual health, environmental consequences, and sustainable options, thus promoting greater awareness, challenging taboos, and facilitating open discussions. At their organization, the priority is to provide employment opportunities for local communities, support women’s empowerment, and promote education about menstrual hygiene in underserved areas, she claimed. Because their products are more absorbent and of higher quality, it leads to fewer changes throughout the day, which, in turn, results in long-term cost savings for users. Using their product aligns with the global push towards more responsible consumption and environmental preservation.

Image Courtesy: Surya

It’s a small but impactful step that individuals can take to contribute to a greener, healthier planet, she added. It’s a conscious choice that reflects a commitment to both personal well-being and the well-being of the planet. Endorsed by The South India Textile Research Association (SITRA), these pads come in various options to cater to different needs and preferences. Users, like M Latha, have attested to the transformative impact of these sanitary pads, citing improved comfort and air circulation. When asked what could be the one piece of advice she would like to give a budding woman entrepreneur, she said, “Never listen to what others have to say, instead do what you feel would be correct for your business. Treat it like your own baby, and see yourself flourish.”

Surya’s journey exemplifies the power of resilience, innovation, and social responsibility. Through her determined efforts, she not only transformed her life but also positively impacted the lives of countless women while championing sustainable practices.

– Dr. Sailaja is a seasoned HR leader, guest speaker, and enthusiast of sustainable practices.

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