The Padman Of West Bengal
Story by Sobhan Mukerjee
Once, we were having an important discussion session for the magazine I run, when I noticed a female colleague missing. I asked her about her absence, she was reluctant to answer and then later brushed it off saying ‘Women problem'. I found that strangely peculiar, my interest had piqued up in this matter for the first time. In a place where there is still some hesitation to even label it as ‘Periods’, access to menstrual hygiene takes a back seat.
The availability of sanitary napkins in public toilets would make their lives easier, my NGO and I worked towards that goal, and such a thing was unheard of in West Bengal during those days
I purchased sanitary pads worth a thousand rupees out of my pocket money, put it in an Ice-cream box, and placed it in one of the nearby public toilets near my home. Within 3 days, the sanitary pad box was empty. Initially, I was met with criticism for doing such an outrageous thing but eventually, the criticisms were outweighed by the support from the people around me, and most importantly my family was the biggest source of encouragement for me.
Sanitary products are essential and expensive, I needed much more support if I had to continue helping these women. That when I put this story on social media, surprisingly, a lot of people reached out to me and numerous hands came to my support.
Since then with the efforts of my team, we have managed to set up numerous public sanitary pad dispensers across the whole of West Bengal and we make sure that these remain chargeable at low prices. I believe that free availability would not promote the idea of equality and would lead to less distribution, however in special cases, we should not refrain from doing a free public distribution, like me and my team did during the recent Amphan Cyclone in a West Bengal.
I also started conducting campaigns across urban as well as rural areas on issues such as Menstrual hygiene and Vaginal infection. I get calls from women in rural areas, asking me whether, for a particular menstrual issue, they should consult a doctor or not and I feel this is an achievement which brought conservative women to the stage, where they feel comfortable in discussing their menstrual hygiene, and it has only happened through constant efforts and mutual trust.
I admit that these days the discussion on menstruation has become common, which is very welcoming but it actually doesn’t make any changes on the ground level. Like Donating free pads, talking about it amongst the already aware class would really not make the word spread about it in those rural areas which lacks facilities but actually we need to get on the ground from the social media and TV newsrooms to make a positive impact on the lives of the deprived women.
I really wasn’t sure, if I would ever be able to make any impact when I began this work, since it was an ideological battle, with widespread taboos and myths associated with it. But whenever I felt down, my family and the NGO team always cheered each other up and that’s how we were able to reach up to this point. It's been three years and if I look back, then it really makes me wonder how far we have come since the beginning, but I believe there is still a long way to go.