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Monday June 27, 2011

Goonj offers dignified solution for women

The charitable organisation Goonj manufactures cheap sanitary napkins for underprivileged women in India.

IN a country where millions of people subsist on barely US$2 (RM6) a day, menstruation is a harbinger of shame for the marginalised. Most poor Indian women cannot afford commercially sold sanitary napkins and have to instead rely on sub-optimal measures – like dirty cloth, ash and even coconut husk – during menses.

This neglect, say gynaecologists, not only makes these women susceptible to infectious diseases, but also impacts their education, earning capacity and general well-being.

Donated cloth is soaked overnight and washed with antiseptic detergent.

In such a bleak scenario – whereby government spending on health is barely 2% of its GDP while defence expenditure is 17% – non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Goonj are a godsend. The New Delhi-based outfit, launched by founder Anshu Gupta in 1998, collects unused clothes from rich, urban households to manufacture, among other things, cheap sanitary napkins for the poor. Priced at Rs5 (approx 30 sen) for a pack of five, these innovative aids provide a dignified solution to a traumatic personal problem for underprivileged women.

“Menstrual hygiene is one of the most neglected and least discussed topics in rural India,” says Dr Himanshi Behl, a Delhi-based obstetrician. “Millions of women use sand, wood ash, old rags, newspapers and even plastic bags due to their inability to afford commercially available sanitary pads.”

The cloth is then cut into uniform pieces and ironed to remove the remaining moisture.

In 2005, Gupta started an initiative, “Not Just a Piece of Cloth”, to provide sanitary napkins for women. His organisation has successfully transformed cloth-giving from a charitable act into a development activity through its village-level partners.

These partners identify activities like road building and cleanliness drives in which the beneficiaries work towards the betterment of their own area and get clothes as remuneration for their work.

“Our aim is to ultimately make large-scale resource mobilisation a reality,” says Gupta, a former journalist. “We are trying to spread awareness at such a wide level that anytime an urban household thinks of disposing of reusable materials, it’s aware of a channel which utilises them optimally.”

Stacks of napkins are bundled before they are packed into paper bags for distribution. — Photos by Neeta Lal

“We figured we could use the clothes we collect to make sanitary pads after a due process,” elaborates Gupta. “Women get these in return for work and we also sell them. We also educate women about how to use it.” Impressed by Gupta’s work, the central government has also introduced policy changes in its health outreach initiatives towards women.

Overall, the mass participation of housewives, professionals, schools, collages, corporates, exporters, hotels and hospitals behind Goonj’s recycling and distribution centres helps to send out over 50,000kg of recycled waste materials every single month! A vast network of more than 250 grassroots agencies are also helping Goonj – which means “echo” in Hindi – reach parts of 21 states of India.

The NGO also has a repertoire of products made from waste materials. For instance, it makes backpacks from torn jeans, mobile pouches from ties, skipping ropes from saris and balls from sofa cushions.

Empowerment: Women from nearby slums are employed to turn donated cloth into sanitary napkins. Over the past two years, one million napkins have been prepared for the hardcore poor.

“Our production model is such that it is easily replicable in any part of India or the world,” adds a Goonj volunteer. “We conduct village-level meetings to bring the taboo subject of periods out in the open. In India, women are averse to discussing the subject of menstruation. But they open up after a few sessions. The napkins are handmade, without any technological input. We employ women from nearby slums for the purpose.”

Napkin preparation is a systematic though laborious process. Cloth received from donors is first soaked in water for one night and then washed with antiseptic detergent. It is then dried, and the buttons and chains removed. The cloth is then cut into pieces of uniform size and thickness. The cut pieces are ironed to remove the remaining moisture. A magnet is run over the pieces to ensure no sharp objects are left behind. These are then packed in newspaper bags, which are also made by Goonj. The napkins are now ready to be distributed.

Each set of napkins has three parts: a waist-string, a small absorbent pad and a palm-wide strip to hold the padding in place while its ends are tucked under the waist-string. Ten sets are packed with care into a drawstring pouch for a women to receive without embarrassment.

The NGO’s volunteers hold meetings in villages across India and sensitise them about health and hygiene issues. Over one million napkins have been prepared by the organisation in the past two years alone. More than 200 collection camps are held in various metros. Over 13 grassroots organisations (personnel) and village women are trained in replicating napkin production as an employment generation activity. Goonj employs a total workforce of over 100 women to churn out the napkins. “We’re not looking at becoming a manufacturer of sanitary pads,” explains Gupta. “We want to start a movement to empower women to make the pads and educate them about such deeply personal but vital issues.”

Recycled cloth is washed and dried before being given a new lease of life.

The organisation is tapping different health camps, vans and the women’s health worker networks to access remote villages. In some cases, women’s undergarments are also being distributed as an integral part of the napkinprogramme.

Collecting clothes from all over the country and making them available to those in need can be a major infrastructural challenge. By forging partnerships with local organisations, the NGO is able to achieve greater penetration and impact because the partner organisations cover the costs of transferring the clothes to the sorting centre, and overall costs to run the operations are lowered significantly. In order to ensure that the collected clothes reach the distant locations, Goonj partners with government bodies, such as the Indian Army, to transfer the clothes.

In 2008, Goonj was awarded the Indian NGO of the year award for its governance and practices. It has also bagged the Changemakers Innovation award and its Vastra Samman programme was recognised as a Good Practice in the Dubai International Awards in July 2007.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.

Related story:
Lack of sanitary hygiene

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