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From field hand to menstrual health champion

Chandigarh, October 14, 2021: It’s 8 am. The sun is already beaming its warm rays on the open fields of Punjab. A whole day’s worth of back-breaking tasks sits in front of millions of workers in the state, both men and women. Sowing, harvesting — eight hours of brutal labour.

But for Manjeet Kaur (42), being a labourer in the open fields is no longer her reality. It’s a life she understands all too well but one she left behind in October 2019. From an agricultural labourer, Manjeet has gone on to become a member of a women’s self-help group (SHG) that runs a pad-manufacturing facility under the aegis of the RoundGlass Foundation in Aloona Tola village in Ludhiana district of Punjab.

The SHG produces reasonably priced sanitary napkins that are sold in Aloona Tola and nearby villages, and the women who work at the SHG, including Manjeet, are the harbingers of a much-needed menstrual hygiene revolution in the state. According to a report, nearly 23 million girls in India drop out of school every year due to lack of menstrual hygiene awareness and access to sanitary napkins. Other surveys have found that nearly 60,000 cases of cervical cancer deaths are reported every year, two-third of which are due to poor menstrual hygiene.

When opportunity knocked, and Manjeet answered

Had Manjeet not taken up the opportunity to work with the RoundGlass Foundation, the trajectory of her life would have taken her in a different, much more difficult, direction. But with the grit she harvested from the arduous field work, Manjeet changed her and her family’s life forever.

“I realize the value of the opportunity I have been given by the RoundGlass Foundation to work alongside other women of the SHG. It has empowered me financially and mentally,” says Manjeet. The long days and little payout in the fields prepared Manjeet to take full advantage of her new position and enjoy the role and her colleagues are playing in bringing about change in the village.

When Manjeet started working in the SHG in 2019, she started contributing to her family’s income and save money at the same time. Her husband is a vegetable vendor and a poet and the couple have three children. She knew that investing in a local saving program with her husband would prove beneficial in a year’s time — and she was right.

After a year of investing in the scheme, Manjeet had saved around INR 10,000 ($145), which she used to buy a buffalo for her own dairy venture. She now tends to the buffalo from 5 am to 8 am every morning before going to work at the pad-manufacturing facility, and with this supplemental work, she brings in around INR 6,000 ($85) a month — a significant addition to her family income.

Sparking the menstrual health conversation

Menstrual health and hygiene is a topic that’s rather taboo in Punjab. Women have learned to hide their feminine needs and keep their “time of the month” a secret. There’s a social shame and stigma attached to menstruation and women are not comfortable talking openly about it.

But taboo or not, women still need feminine hygiene products. Initially, the SHG women were apprehensive about telling people they were producing sanitary pads and would say they were making diapers. But as they grew more comfortable, they began to see what they were doing as a meaningful, small enterprise. That’s when the conversation switched from taboo to entrepreneurship, “We have a product that we need to produce in order to meet the demand for customers and also helps meet a basic need for women,” says Manjeet. The SHG in Aloona Tola has three members, including Manjeet.

The RoundGlass Foundation’s Self-Help Group initiative is focused not only on providing affordable sanitary pads and improving menstrual hygiene awareness but also financially empowering rural women through entrepreneurship. SHGs are congregations of 10-20 women who are aligned to a livelihood and given a loan by the government to produce these pads at a facility set up by the RoundGlass Foundation. The Foundation runs five SHGs in Punjab and has helped 18 women improve their household income. It has three pad-making facilities — one each in Ludhiana, Rupnagar, and Mohali. The RoundGlass Foundation also conducts health and hygiene workshops and has spread menstrual hygiene awareness among more than 7,500 girls in over 100 villages so far.

The SHG has not only empowered Manjeet and other women financially, it has also helped start a much-needed conversation and awareness movement around menstruation in Aloona Tola and surrounding villages.

A fairer, more equal life

The SHG initiative offers support, education, and financial assistance to women to help them achieve their personal and professional goals, improving their social status and self-confidence in the process. Manjeet has strengthened her communication and teamwork skills since joining the SHG — both vital skills in life. She has also helped improve her family’s quality of life by contributing to day-to-day expenses as well as big ones such as house renovations. 

Manjeet feels her job has brought her respect from her family and other villagers, including from her husband. “My husband is very supportive and grateful that I can help him financially. He even travels with us when we go to some other villages to sell pads,” says Manjeet.

Men assisting in the work of their wives don’t go unnoticed or under-validated here. Women in rural villages in Punjab rarely work outside their homes and almost never do formal work. Most of them don’t get a proper education or a fair chance at life. They are not often seen as bread-earners for the family. In short, women’s social status is still unequal to that of men. So, when their husbands lend a helping hand in their work, especially when it’s related to a women’s issue like menstrual hygiene, it’s not only a matter of personal pride for these women but also a step forward towards a more equal future.

There is much more work to be done to shatter every ceiling, stereotype, and stigma that women face every day, but Manjeet continues to do her part to chip away at the inequality. She has learned what it means to be independent, confident, and a woman who can stand on her own feet. She is not only a role model for her children and in her community but also to every little girl in Punjab who can see how perseverance, the ability to recognize and take up an opportunity, and a group of inspiring women can change their lives.

Video Case Study: Rajpal Kaur, Aloona Tola, Ludhiana

Also watch this video on Rajpal Kaur, the leader of the SHG in Aloona Tola, who spearheaded the pad-making revolution in Aloona Tola village, encouraging women to not only use sanitary pads but also to break menstrual taboos and work at the pad-making unit to earn a living for themselves. Rajpal got her first opportunity to work when she landed a job as a cook at one of the Foundation’s facilities.

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