Meet 3 extraordinary women leading the menstrual health and hygiene movement in the South

On Menstural Hygiene Day, South First speaks to three women from South India breaking taboos, empowering communities, and inspiring change.

ByChetana Belagere

Published May 28, 2023 | 10:00 AM Updated May 28, 2023 | 1:25 PM

Menstural hygiene day

Across the diverse landscapes of South India, several women have been quietly leading a movement to promote menstrual health and hygiene, and break the silence surrounding menstruation.

South First features three such ordinary women who have been making extraordinary efforts in creating awareness on the issue.

From different states and backgrounds, these women have dedicated their lives to advocating for menstrual health education, challenging age-old taboos, and empowering women and girls in their communities.

Their relentless efforts and unwavering commitment have been instrumental in sparking conversations, driving change, and fostering a generation that embraces menstrual health with dignity and pride.

What makes their journey even more inspiring is the fact that they have not only worked towards spreading awareness but have also beaten the odds within their own households, overcoming resistance and traditional beliefs.

Let’s meet these exceptional women, who have defied societal norms and emerged as beacons of change in the realm of menstrual health hygiene.

Also read: Kerala varsity grants menstruation benefits to female students

Manjula Siddappa Hadapada (Karnataka)

Meet Manjula Siddappa Hadapada, the 19-year-old daughter of a barber. For the past three years, she has dedicated herself to spreading menstrual health awareness.

Manjula was impressed after a session in her school by volunteers of Karnataka Health Promotion Trust (KHPT), a not-for-profit charitable entity that spearheads focused initiatives to improve the health and well-being of communities across India.

Manjula Hadapad who's spreading the awareness on menstrual hygiene. (Supplied)

Manjula Hadapad who’s spreading the awareness on menstrual hygiene. (Supplied)

“Though menstrual taboos are not very prevalent in my village Kamanoor, there were several myths around it and hygiene was something that was little known to women of our village. I decided to work as a volunteer with KHPT. I joined as a Barefoot Counsellor,” Manjula explained to South First.

The challenge was not just outside the house but even inside. She had to convince her parents to allow her to visit villages and speak to women, girls, and men after school hours — late in the evenings, when the villagers returned home after work, school, or other engagements.

“My brother would be allowed to come home late, but I wasn’t. I created a huge ruckus until they agreed to let me do what I wanted to do,” she recalled.

“After all this, my father finally relented and I began work as a volunteer. Now, when I am praised in the village for my work, they feel very proud,” she said.

Manjula’s efforts have reached the villages of Kamanoor, Lebageri, Sangapura, Bhimnoor, and Hanumanahalli. She engages with approximately 80 women in each village.

Her primary focus is on counselling girls aged 12 to 18 and spreading awareness about the use of sanitary napkins, shifting from using cloth during periods for those aged above 18 years.

Manjula speaking to women about menstural hygiene

Manjula speaking to women about menstrual hygiene (Supplied)

“I have been educating young girls of Class 6 and above on menstrual health, why we get periods, how we should not be scared of this process but instead see it as a celebration of womanhood and we have to embrace it,” explained Manjula.

“Girls really are all ears for my talks. Even older women in these five villages that I have been entrusted with are very welcoming about our messages. Counsellors do come along at times, but I do it on my own more often,” she added.

Manjula not only creates awareness about the menstrual cycle process but also addresses common issues faced by girls who have started menstruating, such as stomach pain and back pain.

To alleviate discomfort, she advises them to use a hot water bag. During the programme at the KHPT office, Manjula and others were educated about white discharge. She recalls that many women were initially scared and misunderstood it to be something harmful. However, they were informed that white discharge was a normal symptom of menstruation.

“If the discharge becomes excessive, I advise them to seek medical attention,” she said.

She also speaks to women about the importance of changing sanitary pads regularly. Manjula and her fellow volunteers were provided with sanitary napkins at the office of KHPT.

Manjula speaking to women about menstural hygiene

Manjula speaking to women about menstrual hygiene (Supplied)

“There are four pads inside one packet. It costs them ₹12 for each packet. I store them at my house and women come here and buy them from me. Also, it is distributed when I go to villages for door-to-door campaigns,” she said.

Meanwhile, Manjula has also taught the women about the proper disposal of used pads. They have been instructed to collect these pads in a black cover, which on the fifth day of their periods is brought to the designated place and burnt in an incinerator.

Manjula and her team have also successfully convinced leaders of the Hanumanahalli village to ensure the school gets a toilet facility.

The school which didn’t even have a toilet structure till even six months ago, saw the highest absenteeism among girls who would refuse to go to school during their menstrual cycles.

Manjula explained, “When I would go to the village for counselling, I saw that these girls were missing school. When I asked them the reason, they talked about the school not having a toilet for them. I assured them and, along with my team, spoke to the schoolteachers, principal, and gram panchayat officials. We gave them a toilet and also convinced girls to break the taboo and start going to school even during periods.”

Manjula’s work has been inspiring to many others. She said several of them have volunteered to work with KHPT after seeing her, and being inspired by the work she was doing.

From older men to young girls, everyone appreciates Manjula’s work. Her dedication and involvement in these initiatives have helped in breaking taboos, raising awareness, and promoting menstrual health and hygiene among women in her villages.

However, Manjula said women, including her, are yet to come forward and use menstrual cups.

Also read: MP spreads menstrual awareness with period pain simulator

Neelavathi Shakti (Tamil Nadu)

In the unassuming village of Aravampatti near Nilakottai in the Dindigul district of Tamil Nadu, a small tailoring unit named Kanishka Garments is making a significant impact.

At the helm of this enterprise are Neelavathi, a Paralympian, and her husband Shakthi.

“And it is all thanks to the efforts of Sindhu Naik, who initiated the stitching of reusable menstrual cloth pads,” Shakti told South First, thanking the co-founder of Green the Red, a pan-India movement focusing on sustainable menstruation.

“She is the one who inspired my wife to take up the cause of menstrual hygiene and convert the entire village and several villages in Tamil Nadu to shift to reusable menstrual pads. I am proud of my wife,” he said.

Neelavathi

Neelavathi’s factory (Supplied)

Shakti, who used to be an auto-driver, now markets and distributes reusable menstrual cloth pads made at their factory.

Narrating her journey into the world of menstrual hygiene, Neelavathi told South First that it was officials from the Rejuvenate India Movement who approached her about the hazards of disposable pads.

“This opened my eyes to the dangers of using disposable sanitary napkins. I was asked if I would want to volunteer to make a difference in women’s lives and contribute to environmental preservation. I immediately agreed and, with the support from the NGO Rejuvenate India Movement and Relief India Pvt Ltd, Kanishka Garments began stitching reusable cloth pads under the brand ‘Safe Pad’,” she said.

She explained that the cloth is made from microfibre fabric treated with an antimicrobial technique. The pads can be washed and reused for up to 1.5-2 years.

While disposable sanitary pads are widely accessible in Tamil Nadu due to aggressive marketing and distribution programmes, they have created new challenges related to sanitary waste disposal.

Neelavathi with women in a village in tamilnadu

Neelavathi with women in a village in Tamil Nadu (Supplied)

So, it becomes absolutely important to make sustainable options accessible to rural women and positively impact their lives while reducing landfill waste, said Neelavathi.

She visits schools, colleges, offices and villages with cloth pads. She educates women about the hazards of disposable pads and inspires them to embrace reusable alternatives.

She doesn’t force them to buy her product, but says women are automatically convinced to buy as it also helps reduce cost.

“Reusable pads have changed many lives. I first convinced my own relatives and friends to start using them. Now most of the women in and around my village use my product. I am proud that my husband is helping me in this movement,” she said.

“Also, I don’t feel like I am only doing business here. Through my awareness sessions, I am simultaneously educating them and inspiring other women to spread awareness on menstrual hygiene,” she added.

Her product has been appreciated by many. Taking to Facebook, Malini Parmar of Stonesoup.in, who has been actively working to increase the acceptance and use of reusable pads and menstrual cups in several states, promoting zero waste lifestyles, took to Facebook in 2021 and said, “We decided to give the unit our new baby ‘Ladli reusable cloth pads’ to stitch. The consistent high quality blew us away…. Her unit employs nearly 40 physically challenged. She is one of the most inspirational persons I have ever met.”

Also read: Telangana launches scheme to improve women’s health

Shivajyothi Chidura (Telangana)

Shivajyothi, a software engineer at Deloitte, had an eye-opening experience a few years ago when she attended an awareness workshop on sanitary waste management organised by “Saukyam Reusable Pads”, an initiative by Amritanandamayi.

Shivajyothi creating awareness on menstural hygiene (supplied)

Shivajyothi creating awareness on menstrual hygiene (supplied)

During the workshop, she learned about the harmful impact of disposable sanitary pads on both personal health and the environment.

Inspired by the cause, Shivajyothi decided to join Amma’s project and actively contribute to promoting reusable pads.

During her visits to various villages, schools, colleges, and offices in Telangana, Shivajyothi realised that many women were unaware of the problems associated with traditional sanitary napkins.

She also discovered numerous taboos surrounding menstrual health and a lack of awareness about hygiene practices.

Motivated to educate young girls and dispel myths, she started conducting awareness sessions in schools and colleges, both in rural and urban areas.

Shivajyoti faced challenges while addressing menstruation-related topics in classrooms. In many instances, she was asked to request male students to leave as discussing periods and pads made some women feel uncomfortable.

Undeterred, Shivajyoti persevered, aiming to break the silence and provide valuable knowledge to all. She understood that menstruation was still considered a taboo subject, and part of her mission was to change this perception.

Shivajyothi creating awareness on menstural hygiene (supplied)

Shivajyothi creating awareness on menstrual hygiene (supplied)

Additionally, Shivajyothi emphasised the significance of using reusable sanitary napkins as a sustainable solution. She became aware that claims about biodegradable pads often remained only on paper.

Instead of pressuring individuals to purchase reusable pads, Shivajyothi and her team focused on clearing doubts, raising awareness, and providing information about the benefits of the product.

Despite her busy schedule as a software engineer, Shivajyothi dedicates her holidays and weekends to visiting schools, colleges, and rural areas to conduct workshops.

She embraces various platforms, including virtual programmes and social media campaigns such as those on Instagram Reels, to reach a wider audience and spread awareness about menstrual health and the benefits of reusable pads.

Through her efforts, she strives to create a society where menstruation is openly discussed, and sustainable menstrual hygiene practices are embraced by all.

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