When Afsana got her first periods, she did not even know how to manage the bleeding since no one spoke to her about it, not even her mother.
"Through a friend, I learned that I had to use a cloth to absorb the blood. Not knowing how to get a cloth, I ended up using pillow covers and bedsheets, which angered my mother. I came to know of sanitary pads through a classmate. When I asked her for a few, she said they were expensive and could not be given away for free. I started falling sick with the fear of getting periods. With no access to sanitary products, I resorted to praying to God to stop my periods forever," the 16-year-old from Pakhiura recalled the horrors.
Menstruation and menstrual hygiene practices still face several hindrances in many parts of the country especially in rural areas where adolescent girls and women are not much aware of Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) and therefore face difficulties not only at home but also in public places. India still sees women using homestyle alternatives like hay, dried leaves, newspapers and old rugs further increasing health risks among them.
The Sreema Period Project is a unique crowdfunding initiative developed by Tanmoy Bhaduri, who is also an environmental journalist by profession. The project is in partnership with a Nadia district-based NGO called Sreema Mahila Samity, which mainly focuses on raising awareness among young girls and women on menstrual hygiene in rural Bengal.
For Afsana and her likes, the project has been a blessing during these hard times.
"Since early 2020, volunteers of Sreema Period Project started supporting us by distributing free sanitary napkins and organised regular awareness camps on menstrual hygiene. This time we are getting reusable cloth pads, it is unique, and we hope it will solve our problems for the coming months," Afsana added.
The primary focus of this project is to form training groups of women to make homemade reusable sanitary napkins along with the development of women enterprises on sanitary products. Through the project, various developmental professionals and Sreema Mahila Samiti are trying to reach out to the most underprivileged girls and women residing in seven Indo-Bangladesh border villages (Tangra Khal, Hazra Khal, Ramnagar, Kumari, Pakhiura, Chitpur and Silberia) along the trans-boundary of Ichamati River, under Hanskhali block of Nadia district in West Bengal.
Around 500 girls from these villages received donated reusable sanitary napkins by Sreema Mahila Samity who crowdfunded the initiative. The idea behind donating reusable napkins was to lower the cost incurred in maintaining hygiene and creating awareness. These women have zero access to menstrual products due to their family income and area of living, which increases their chances of contracting infections. Moreover, around 15 girls from the villages will be trained on how to prepare the sanitary napkins that can be used for at least two years.
Jyotirmoy Saraswati, the Director of Sreema Mahila Samity, said, "This time we are experiencing an unprecedented situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the two months lockdown had left a massive negative impact on the economy. Due to no cash flows or enough savings, it is difficult for marginal families to pay for menstrual products.
Adolescent girls living along remote Indo-Bangladesh border villages in Hanskhali block have zero access to menstrual hygiene that led them to urinary tract infections even during the lockdown.
"We have been distributing commercial sanitary napkins among 500 adolescent girls at seven villages at free of cost since the past three months, but we feel it will serve the purpose for two to three months only. Thus, we planned an environment-friendly sustainable menstrual hygiene management for them and started distributing reusable cloth pads that can last up to two years. A team of youth helps us to raise funds to run this project. Our volunteers are creating awareness among 500 adolescent girls, and we aim to reach 1500 more girls by the end of the year. Next month, we are planning to train 12-15 girls on cloth pad making," he added.
Ashish Mondal, one of the fundraisers of Sreema Period Project, highlighted the plights faced by these women, which has only compounded by the pandemic.
"During the lockdown, it has become difficult for people to procure food; sanitary napkins are a luxury for them. Sreema Period Project is a unique crowdfunding project that we are implementing at seven remote villages (Chutipur, Pakhiura, Ramnagar, Kumari, Tangra Khal, Hazra Khal and Silberia) under Hanskhali block along Indo-Bangladesh border.
"Initially, we started supporting 500 adolescent girls with free access to commercial sanitary napkins, but it wasn't easy to reach them during the lockdown. Many areas were identified as containment zones in Nadia. Then we came up with an eco-friendly sustainable solution for girls. We started distributing reusable cloth pads which will last for at least two years. These pads are made by girls from Anahat, a self-help group," said Ashish before going on to reveal some alarming numbers.
A single woman can generate up to 150 kg of non-biodegradable waste through her menstruating years alone. Studies have shown that one sanitary pad could take up to 500 years to decompose, which can lead to health and environmental hazards.
"So, our reusable solution will be an affordable and environment-friendly alternative for girls. As of now, we raised Rs 1.56 lakhs through online and offline contributions. Our goal is to reach 3.5 lakh that will help us to serve 1,500 girls in the region," he further added.
Tanmoy Bhaduri, the campaign manager of Sreema Period Project, says, "We're trying to ensure regular, adequate and affordable menstrual supplies and awareness on safe menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls and underprivileged women living along the remote border villages in Nadia district and by strengthening developmental schemes and guidelines like Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karya kram (RKSK), SABLA programme and Menstrual Hygiene Management Guideline across border villages in Nadia district of West Bengal by the end of this year."
There are 14,189 adolescent girls in Hanskhali block. Bhaduri has spoken to the project officer of ICDS and BDO of Hanskhali block and has got an assurance of support.
Photos: Tanmoy Bhaduri