SAN DIEGO, California — Meet a pioneer in the arena of period poverty: Aakar. The India-based social enterprise, consisting of Aakar Innovations and Aakar Social Ventures, produces the world’s first low-cost, 100% compostable menstrual pad. Called the Anandi pad, these pads are made of completely native materials to India and are produced in women-run “mini-factories.” Aakar utilizes its platform both to provide jobs to women and educate them and their communities on menstrual health, indicative of the social enterprise’s women-focused mission. Through its regionally focused production and education efforts, Aakar Innovations tackles the continuing issue of period poverty in India.
What Is Period Poverty?
Period poverty is a global issue defined as “inadequate access to menstrual hygiene tools and education,” which can include a lack of menstrual products, proper washing facilities or waste management. For example, schools in lower-income countries may have limited access to private toilets, making it difficult for their students to manage their periods. Period poverty is a public health crisis because of the risks that using unsafe alternatives presents. Using alternatives like rags, towels or reused menstrual products may result in urogenital infections. These infections, which include urinary tract issues or vaginosis, can cause adverse health impacts.
According to Days for Girls, about a quarter of the 500 million menstruating people around the globe experience period poverty. This is a significant portion of the population at risk, and therefore, sustainable access to menstrual products is crucial.
Period poverty occurs due to societal and financial factors such as menstrual stigma, lack of education around periods and poverty. To solve the issue, economic sustainability and social reform are key. If people cannot afford menstrual products, these products must be made affordable and accessible to all. If people are stigmatized for the natural biological process of menstruation, whether due to myths or cultural reasons, menstrual education is necessary to break these societal stigmas.
Period Poverty in India
Cultural stigma is at the root of period poverty in India and it perpetuates other causes. In many parts of India, menstruation is a taboo topic. There is a widespread belief that menstruating women are “impure,” and therefore, a period is shameful. In an interview with Digit, Aakar Innovation’s founder, Jaydeep Mandal, describes the struggles of period shame in India. At times, women living in small villages walk long distances to dispose of menstrual supplies so their community does not know they are menstruating. They may also be shamed if period products are found in waste nearby.
The idea of impurity also sometimes creates an obligation for women’s families to keep them away from other people when they are on their periods. They may keep girls in separate rooms with the intent to keep their homes “pure.” Keeping purity also drives absenteeism, meaning girls may not show up to school or work due to their periods. Because of this, about “23% of girls in India drop out of school” when they begin menstruating. Girls and women also avoid school and work during menstruation if they do not have access to proper products or if there are inadequate restrooms or washing facilities.
Out of about “335 million menstruating women in India,” only 36% utilize menstrual pads. Additionally, 300 million women in India rely on unsanitary alternatives to manage their periods. This includes but is not limited to “old rags, plastic, sand and ash.”
Aakar Innovation’s Solution
Aakar Innovation’s compostable pads are more than just a new invention. The pads are a solution that acknowledges the stigmas that women face when it comes to period poverty in India. Aakar Innovation’s practices encourage a departure from gender norms. The enterprise’s efforts already show a multifaceted, measurable impact. In the rural parts of India, the Anandi pad contributed to a 90% decrease in school dropout rates.
Additionally, estimates indicate that access to the Anandi pad may add at least 30 days to the typical Indian woman’s working days. This shows how Aakar Innovations addresses a larger issue, which is the overall issue of poverty. More working days means more income, thereby helping women to rise out of poverty. General poverty drives period poverty because it limits access to period products. Through the jobs Aaakar provides to women, Aakar helps break cycles of poverty and stimulates regional economies.
Where poverty is rife, usually, education rates are low, which drives misconceptions and harmful cultural beliefs surrounding menstruation. Aakar Social Ventures addresses this through its Freedom From Shame initiative. The goal of the project, which includes both males and female participants, is to tackle misconceptions and myths while increasing education on menstrual hygiene and menstruation in general. The project involves conducting educational trips to impoverished regions to provide menstrual education. Usually, this involves question sessions, “interactive activities” and group discussions about periods and both the female and male anatomy. These training sessions have now reached 400,000 women, a number that will continue to grow.
Aakar Innovations is also notable for its global reach. Its efforts have led to the realization of 30 mini-factories, employing more than 700 women worldwide. Aakar Innovations has even partnered with a popular menstrual cup company called Cora, which donates part of its profits to buy and donate Anandi pads to low-income communities in India. Cora’s efforts help extend Aakar Innovation’s reach in India.
Aakar Innovations provides both inspiration and valuable lessons. The social enterprise is successful not only because of its inventive sanitary napkins but also because of its bold undertaking of addressing period poverty. Its efforts focus on the consumer base just as much as the product. Aakar Innovations brings a revolutionary addition to the meaning of a solution-seeking company, tackling period poverty in India from its very roots.
– Hariana Sethi