We’re a country of 1.2 billion people. And presumably half that number are women – less than half, depending on which part of India, but still.
Yet, menstruation isn’t a topic many Indian women, let alone the other half of the population, discuss freely. Which is what makes Dilip Kumar Pattubala a curiously bold case.
A chance reading of a survey on how Indian urban poor women fare in menstrual hygiene set this London University-educated young man swimming against the flow of a logical career progression. One particular finding particularly troubled Dilip: a mere 12% of the women in India had access to sanitary pads at all.
In under a month of his epiphany he quit his cushy job at a big social agency and commisioned a survey (that he paid for) to find out just dire the situation was.
Involving 250 women in Bengaluru (from 3 government schools, 3 urban slums and 2 garment factories) the survey revealed more shocking findings: an overwhelming 82% women had no access to sanitary pads, 76% used old cloth in place of a pad, and 6% used materials like plastic, paper, and even sand.
As hopeless as the findings were, they gave Dilip purpose. Almost as swiftly as he had quit his job, he founded Sukhibhava, a not-for-profit dedicated to propagating menstrual hygiene and making sanitary pads affordable.
“Bad menstrual hygiene practices have two kinds of impact: the immediate, economic kind and the long-term, insidious social kind,” says Dilip. “36% of the women we spoke to said they don’t go in to work when on the period. That’s the first kind. The second kind happens when an adolescent girl is forced out of school at the onset of puberty, thanks to the lack of hygiene and the ‘shame’ attached to menstruation. Which, in turn, pushes her deeper into the vicious circle of poverty”.
Given the taboo (and ignorance) attached to menstruation, Dilip found he had to educate women first before empowering them. A simple 2-step approach devised by him did the trick. The first step was to talk to women (and adolscent girls) about menstruation and its hygiene. The second step was to make affordable sanitary pads accessible.
Dilip’s on-ground modus operandi too is simple and effective. “We choose a particular community or a neighbourhood where women can convene for a 25-minute eye-opener video about menstruation and its hygiene. We then introduce them to the concept of sanitary pads. With the help of micro-entrepreneurs, we distribute sanitary pads among them and then we follow up with the women for the next few months to document their experience, helping them stay the course with their new hygiene practices,” he offers. His rigorous after sales follow-up has helped retain a staggering 92% women in communities Sukhibhava works in. Those are the kind of retention figures big-buck brands couldn’t make up if they padded their numbers.
While it’s easy to see how indispensible it is to Bangalore’s urban poor women today, the going for Sukhibhava has been anything but. “Coming from a conservative, middle-class family, talking openly about menstruation wasn’t the easiest thing to do. For a long time my parents were ashamed to talk about just what their son did for a living” recalls Dilip.
Friends and funding for Sukhibhava were hard to come by in the early years. Investing every penny to his name, Dilip toiled the first two years without a salary. “Where was the money to pay myself?” laughs Dilip, “If I wasn’t paying my micro-entrepreneurs, I was buying sanitary pads, and if I wasn’t buying sanitary pads, I was spending it on something else that we absolutely, positively couldn’t do without”.
But resistance and rejection only made Dilip bolder. He strove to recruit women micro-entrepreneurs and to set up a micro-distribution business to sell menstrual products. And the results are beginning to show: the enterprise now has 14 micro-entrepreneurs (up from 6 when they started) reaching out to over 7,200 women every month (including 4,100 adolescent girls).
Today Sukhibhava is as much a worldwide name as it is a household one among the urban poor. With rewards and recognition pouring in (from the United Nations, the Tata Social Enterprise Challenge, the Acumen Fellowship and IIM-Bangalore, to name a few), Dilip is finding the going a tad bit easier. “I am past the hardest part – the decision to quit my job and start something fraught with uncertainty. Did I know what lay ahead when I made that bold move? Of course not. But I’m glad I found out,”signs off Dilip. And that is about the best way to go about it, period.