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It is  वसंत (Spring) here… it is that time of the year when life reclaims herself – after the winter thaw warms up to Autumn and Autumn prepares the ground for new life by shedding the dead leaves, we celebrate the cycle of life leading to rebirth!

We are delighted to update you on a project that has taken birth at Allforasmile. It has a potential to be a game changer and we are calling upon the Gods and You to bless us for success! The topic is complex and needs understanding, so its going to be a long read (about 2000 words, 10 minutes).  We hope you will spare your valuable time for reading this. We would love to hear your reactions!

Project SUGAM

When our NGO arm approached us with a request to make reusable cloth sanitary pads, little did we know we would be doing something that would change lives and positively impact the environment in a big way!

Allforasmile Human Empowerment Foundation is implementing project SUGAM to educate women on benefits of reusable cloth pads and helping them make the shift. The project is being implemented in two vastis in Pune – Janwadi and Vaiduwadi. Foundation is making the cloth pads available to women at one third of the production cost to encourage the adoption. So far, it has been able to encourage 10% of the target population to make the shift. Allforasmile is supporting the project with production of these pads and currently they are for the exclusive use of the Foundation.

Because menstruation is such a taboo in India, ignorance rules at all levels. Be it understanding the biological process, to women knowing how to manage it, to men just being cognizant of what goes on in a woman’s life practically every month for about 40 years, we have just turned a blind eye towards the subject.

While movies like Padman created ground for an open discussion, we are still far away from the ease with which menstruation needs to be discussed and understood. With a population which is more urban than rural with every passing year and accessibility of sanitary pads (although poor quality, and inadequate at times) in urban India, we are sitting on the brink of an environmental disaster in the making.

Let Us Understand The Challenge

Let us understand this. If you are a woman, what do you do with your used sanitary pad? Do you know the lifecycle of this pad once it has served its purpose? In India, the used pads are disposed of in garbage bins. They go into “non-biodegradable” waste bins. They then travel to garbage landfills where they are set on fire. The kind of chemicals used in pads, when set on fire, release dioxins and other hazardous fumes. Now imagine 48 Crore such pads being set on fire every month! The hazardous smoke released would be enough to kill a significant number of humans and wildlife.

The situation is worse in urban slums. Slums in India have community toilets. If you talk to any municipal body in India, it will tell you the struggles of clearing a clogged drainage because of used pads thrown into the toilets. Every few days, the cleaning staff needs to de-clog, at times by breaking sewer lines. This makes the already poor sanitation situation in the slums worse!

In the ideal case, the solution is to ensure 100% of this waste is directed to environmentally safe way disposing pads. In most cases, it means using incinerators which meet WHO standards (should run at 800 Celsius or more). Now for a country like India, how many of these can we install and run successfully? Plus, what is the cost of running these devices? So whether we like it or not, the entire lifecycle of a sanitary pad is significantly net carbon negative!

Sustainable Possibilities

So what are the environmentally safe options available to women today which are also practical and affordable? When we studied the landscape, we realized, the best way for Indian conditions is to go back to conventional wisdom, added by modern science and knowledge. While you may have heard of menstrual cups made of silicon, they have a very high upfront cost and may not be comfortable for all women. Then there are 100% biodegradable disposable sanitary pads available in the market but the high recurring cost makes them unviable for most sections of the society. That brings us to the modern reusable cloth pads. Let us understand them better.

Reusable Cloth Pads

Didn’t we just tell every woman that cloth is bad and disposable pads are good? Isn’t there a nation-wide drive to distribute disposable pads among urban poor, free of cost? And here we are, advocating cloth pads? Isn’t it like going back to 20th century? What’s the deal?

What Are Reusable Cloth Pads?

So far, we have heard of rags being used for managing the menstrual flow and they being unhygienic. Yes, if not cared for properly, cloth can be unhygienic. But take a moment, and if you can, ask you grandmother how she survived menstruation with 40 years of using cloth. So fact is that before convenience and mobility became the most important factors about what means you would use to manage menstruation, the world over, cloth was serving the purpose. And it was the environmentally sustainable way of doing it.

Can we build upon that conventional wisdom and employ modern technology and knowledge to come up with a product which serves the modern woman well? The answer is a resounding YES! The Sugam pads which are made by Allforasmile uses 6 layers of flannel which is super-absorbent cotton. It also uses a specially treated layer of cotton which is leakproof. Together, they are at par with the disposable pads in absorbency test. It’s a tried and tested way of making cotton pads which is now being used by many brands all over the world. There are variants available as Night pads, as Day pads and pantyliners to meet the different needs of your cycle.

Impact on Health

As they say, you have to use it to believe it! No amount of description will help non-users in understanding how good it feels to use natural cotton pads during those painful days of your cycle. As per the data we have from our own experience, one of the prime motivators to shift to cotton pads is its positive impact on health. We have examples where even the best brands of disposable pads were causing rashes and irritation in the private parts. When they shifted to cotton pads, to their delight, the health issues were gone! This has vastly improved their quality of life. Now, its unthinkable for them to go back to plastic based pads (in case you don’t know, the non-woven material used in best of sanitary pads is a form of plastic). The feel of plastic on private parts is at best a compromise which the modern woman has learned to make in lieu of perceived convenience.

Impact on Environment

There are a lot of statistics available in the public domain today about human habits which are grossly unsustainable and will leave our planet unsuitable for our children to live. Almost all of those habits are around our wasteful indulgence in the name of convenience. And the mantra to counter it is also pretty straight forward, something which is deep imbibed in our culture. And that mantra is living our lives by 3Rs:  Reduce-Reuse-Recycle! Reduce what you need. Reuse what you have. Recycle what has served its purpose. Indians are known, rather mocked for their habits of reuse and recycle even though we should be proud of it in most cases! But we have forgotten these principles when it comes to use of disposable sanitary pads. May be, it was because of the lack of alternatives. Now that we have products available which are inherently for reuse, one must consider them.

Instead of giving numbers for the entire country, let us consider these numbers of personal use. Assuming a span for 40 years of menstruation (13 to 53), with 12 pads used per cycle, each woman would generate 5760 pads which are non-biodegradable and bio-hazard. That’s over 1150 Kilograms of waste going to landfills, which will either get burned and generate harmful gases or remain in the landfill for another 800 years. Either way, our children will bear the cost of our habits! If these figures are a matter of concern for you, please consider making the switch.

Cost Matters

It’s a no-brainer that in terms of cost, the reusable pads win hands-down. Even if the upfront cost is slightly higher, they recover their cost in just 1 year of use. If properly cared for, each reusable pad can last 5 years or more. Do we need any more arguments here?

A Note on Convenience

Now let us talk about the biggest of the arguments against use of reusable pads as compared with disposable ones. The imagery we have seen and the words we have heard in the adverts of disposable pads tell us that the disposable pads set a woman free. It’s a mark of her independence. It allows her to break barriers. All so true! We cannot ignore the convenience that modern disposable pads have provided. But what if we tell you that the reusable cotton pads can provide same level of independence and convenience? Yes, there is a learning (or rather unlearning) curve when it comes to using reusable pads. You will need to be comfortable with your body fluids. You will need to learn how to care for used pads. You will need to learn the tips and tricks for special occasions like travel. But it can be done. Let me share a personal experience which should summarize how the comfort factor easily trumps perceived inconvenience.

A Personal Experience

The hardest sale of this product is to an urban teenage girl. While women in their 30s and 40s have seen their moms use cloth, the girls aged 15-20 have neither seen nor heard anyone using cloth. Ironically, it was the movie Padman which made most urban girls aware that some unfortunate women don’t use pads!

So, when this author introduced the product to his daughter who is 15 years of age, the first reaction was of ridicule. She thought its impossible that these cloth pads would serve the purpose. Then there was the big question of what to do with used pads. The idea of washing them seemed gross. There were other practical challenges as well as to how to store the used pads if you have to change while you are not at home. So there was no way she was going to try them out.

After about 3 months of our initial discussions, on a fateful night when we were visiting a relative, my daughter realized that she had got her periods and it was late in the night to go out and buy a pack of Whisper. Dear Dad had his product in his backpack. Necessity overcame hesitation. The next morning, a message was passed on to Dear Dad on how well the pads served the purpose and how she experienced the comfort that she had never before while using the country’s leading brand. She was so excited, she even suggested a few design improvements. Her mom then helped her wash it and after doing it once, she was immediately comfortable with it.

The bottom-line is, the perceived inconvenience about using these pads can be overcome only by using them once. We invite you to give it a try! Its worth it!!!

What’s Next?

Currently, our production of these pads is for the exclusive use of Foundation for distribution in Pune vastis. We believe these products are the need of the hour and should be made available to a wider audience. We will work out a plan to do the same in near future. In the meanwhile, if you are keen to try out a cloth pad, do reach out to us.

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Showing 14 comments
  • Manjari sapre

    Need to try this! All the projects you are doing is inspiring! But this just took it to the next level! All the best!

    • Omkar Sathe

      Thanks! We too believe there are immense possibilities!

  • DD

    That looks like a great idea. Will be helpful for 50% of the population. So don’t limit it to just a few, but see if you can get for many more! All the best!

  • Meghna Singh

    Omkar Dada,
    A very thoughtful and feeling strange to use the word ‘revolutionary’ initiative of reusable cotton sanitary pads, and I am all for it being fortunate to be part of both generations.
    I wish you and your team all the best for this venture and would happily support for any kind of promotion.

    • Omkar Sathe

      Thank you so much! The most important factor is awareness. Any amount of effort to spread the awareness is not going to be enough. So we do need support from anyone willing to talk about it, to spread awareness.

  • Harshal

    This is such an awesome initiative. Glad you are part of it Omkar.

    • Omkar Sathe

      Thanks Harshal!

  • Ratnesh

    Changing status-quo & challenging perceptions. Great job AllforaSmile team!

    • Omkar Sathe

      Agree! It is not easy to challenge the status quo, especially in this case, because of lack of awareness means we have a very high barrier to cross! But the encouraging response from the women who have adopted so far means it can be done!

  • Aditi Navgire

    Heartiest congratulations to you both, omkar & ulka. All the best wishes for your venture. I’m very much confident about the positive results. I’m always with you for any help or support needed.

    • Omkar Sathe

      Thanks Aditi! You had been such a great supporter all along!!!

  • Manisha Sinha

    Very thoughtful and great initiative..Keep it up…👍

  • Yogesh

    नमस्कार ओंकार,
    तुमच्या या उपक्रम,प्रकल्प आणि संस्थेमधील सहभागाबद्दल वाचून खूपच अप्रूप वाटलं! पर्सिस्टंटनंतर तुम्ही एकदम वेगळं पाऊल उचललंय! मन:पूर्वक शुभेच्छा! पुण्यात आल्यावर भेटेन नक्की!
    – योगेश मुळे

  • Mrunal

    It’s superb endeavour Omkar. Wish you all the best.

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