Pad Banks: How Girls Are Becoming Entrepreneurs While Fulfilling A Need

Dec 3, 2021, 17:19 IST

Girls

Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only


“We have been using cotton cloth as sanitary napkins since pads are difficult to come by,” recalls 16-year-old Sakshi Kumari*, from Muzaffarpur district, Bihar. “There aren’t any shops close by, and I couldn’t really ask my father or brothers to buy pads for me.”

What Sakshi says resonates with many young girls and women who grapple with the daily realities of managing their period. Dr Aparajita Gogoi, WRAI – National Coordinator & Executive Director, Centre for Catalyzing Change elaborates on the issue and a solution that was found in the state. Estimates show that only about 121 million (roughly 36 per cent) of menstruating women in India use sanitary napkins during their periods. A lack of safe menstrual management products can, of course, lead to reproductive tract infections and other long-term health complications for women. But that’s not the worst of it. Many girls do not have any awareness on menstruation nor are provided information about it.

A 2016 study called ‘Menstrual hygiene management among adolescent girls in India’ says that nearly half of the adolescent girls surveyed did not know about menstruation until the first time they got their period, pointing at a significant taboo that keeps countless girls in the dark about their own needs. Another equally incisive report found that almost 23 million girls in India drop out of school annually because of the lack of menstrual hygiene management facilities, including availability of sanitary napkins, in schools. The pandemic, the closure of schools, and lockdowns exacerbated these gaps – with lockdowns disrupting supply chains, more and more young girls from rural communities have been cut off from the regular availability of sanitary pads.

Sakshi, however, wanted change – with easier access to menstrual products as well as to information around menstrual hygiene. And she wanted this for every other woman and girl in her community as well.

Girls

Image: India Medical, for representational purpose only

The opportunity to act on her idea came in the form of the Sanitary Pad Bank. With initial seed funding from the Centre for Catalyzing Change and technical support from the local Panchayat, Sakshi and her peers started their very own Pad Bank. The bank not only sells pads at subsidised rates within communities, but also raises awareness, going door-to-door. “Now girls can buy as many pads as they need, without any shame, hesitation or hassle,” says Sakshi.

Initiatives like this are living proof that sustainable models of grassroots entrepreneurship can be built from the ground up, and can become vehicles of economic empowerment and fill a critical need of the community.

India Medical

Image: India Medical, for representational purpose only

The idea was first conceived during the very first COVID-19 lockdown, when not only was it difficult for young girls in rural Bihar to buy pads, but the stigma around menstruation in their communities made it difficult for them to even have conversations around it. However, the notion of pad banks in communities was enthusiastically supported by women panchayat leaders, who provided the leadership to give the idea traction. “This initiative will truly help girls and women in our community. It will be easier for them to buy pads within the village itself and from other young women like them,” said Geeta Devi*, a woman Panchayat leader from East Champaran. “It will reduce the stigma around menstruation too.”

India Medical

Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only

Today, Pad Banks run in 40 Panchayats from eight districts of Bihar. After a six-month period of handholding from field coordinators, it is ultimately the girls – most of them aged between 11 and 19 years of age – who are taking charge, from going to wholesale markets and sourcing stock, in-community promotions, raising awareness around not just menstrual hygiene but also essential topics like proper sanitary pad disposal, effective usage of pads, and so on. Ultimately, selling pads also earns them a small profit.

“Our Pad Bank sells us packets at affordable rates,” says 15-year old Vaishali* from East Champaran, a diehard patron, “Commercial shop keepers are mainly men, and I often felt uncomfortable buying pads from them. Buying pads from girls like me feels a lot more comfortable and less loaded with stigma.”

In a country where female labour participation remains disturbingly low, and where women run less than 13 per cent of the country’s small businesses, social entrepreneurship ventures such as these desperately require larger conversations and engagement. These pad banks are scalable, self-sustainable and replicable. Since the seed funding required for the initial setting up of these banks is relatively reasonable and the business model simple, this is an idea that has good potential. Additionally, the formation of such groups provides a safe space and a platform to find solidarity for young girls during COVID-19, when they have become increasingly isolated. These spaces gave the girls not only the opportunity to come together and build something from the ground up, but also fostered aspirations for them to continue to pursue entrepreneurship opportunities in the future.

India Medical

Image: Shutterstock, for representational purpose only

“After joining the Pad Bank, I understood why it is important to use hygienic methods of menstruation,” says 16-year-old Jyotsna*, who is from the Rohtas district of Bihar and is the treasurer of her local Pad Bank, “But not just that, working here helped me understand how a small business runs, and helped me build my own understanding of finances.”

However, while economic and capacity-building support is necessary for girls to run their own Pad Banks, what is also needed are the institutional and larger community-wide supports to ensure sustainability. Without a conducive environment that encourages young girls to participate in grassroots entrepreneurship and challenge social taboos (like the taboos around menstruation), and without institutions like panchayats and Women’s Self Help Groups providing guidance, the sustainability of such initiatives would be difficult. Hence, there is a critical need to build awareness, challenge gender stereotypes, and involve important community stakeholders to garner support and pave the way for smoother functioning and scalability. With the presence of a larger supportive environment, more and more Pad Banks can spring up across communities, regions, and states, making sanitary products and information around menstruation easily available to more and more girls and women.

*Names changed

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