By Devanik Saha
A women’s health is the most important for any family to survive. Because it is the women, who have to cook food, manage children and daily household chores. In rural areas it’s even worse where many women have to go to long distances in the morning to fetch water. In spite of being burdened with so many responsibilities, she still manages to run the family but she also has the responsibility of caring for her own health which in majority of the cases is neglected.
Menstrual hygiene management is an issue that is inadequately recognized and is unable to receive adequate attention especially in rural areas. Hygiene related practices of women during menstruation are of considerable importance as it has a hazardous health impact in terms of increased vulnerability to infection. This is an important sanitation issue which needs to be openly discussed. There have been many pilots done to empower women entrepreneurs to promote low-cost sanitary pads in villages but the worst part is that women are not willing to spend even Rs 1.4/ pad. Even few state governments have offered subsidy schemes for sanitary pads but to make a significant change it has to be something sustainable for long.
The sanitary napkins market is estimated to be worth 12 billion USD/year. Total women in the age group of 15 - 54 years in India are about 300 million. The consumption would be 58,500 million pieces per year. Present consumption is 2,659 million pieces, Market penetration among Indian female population is very low at 10 to 11% of the total market, while in Europe and USA it is well above 73 to 92%. While awareness on menstrual hygiene in the urban areas would be reasonable at 21-25% given the substantial advertising, the penetration rate in the rural areas is abysmally low at 10%. The awareness on menstrual hygiene and usage of sanitary napkins is virtually non-existent in villages.
Now the question arises, can a powerful tool such as microfinance which has alleviated poverty for millions help women to get access to low-cost sanitary pads?
There hasn’t seen much activity by MFIs to promote low cost pads or train women in rural areas regarding the importance of proper usage of pads. Because it’s not just financial constraints that deter women, it’s also lack of awareness or understanding the importance of such issues. A very innovative start-up Sustainable Health Enterprises (www.sheinnovates.com) based in Africa intends to fulfill girls’ and women’s unmet need by helping local women in developing countries jump-start their own businesses to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality, and eco-friendly sanitary pads. This will not only help them earn a livelihood but also stress on the importance of usage of safe sanitary pads among women.
Another really good model is that of the Living Goods (www.livinggoods.org), a San-Francisco based start-up which distributes healthcare products by selecting some villagers who go and sell the product in their communities. This not only saves them the supply chain costs but also win the trust of the people since the task is being done by a villager only. Winning the trust of the people is important if you are out to change their lifestyles. Local MFIs have a big role to play in solving this issue because since MFIs know the local context and behavior of the customers, they can help to reach out to people.
And the good sign is that the Planning Commission wants to propose a policy for ensuring low cost sanitary pads during the 12th Five Year Plan But the question arises, will more MFIs start working to create more awareness and capacity building programs for rural women?
Devanik Saha is a final year student from Vellore Institute of Technology. He works as a community manager for Milaap and has an interest in analyzing the various BoP market solutions.