When women in rural areas are asked to spend Rs.15 on a packet of nine sanitary napkins, they respond by saying they would rather continue to use rags and spend the money on their husbands or children.

But the Gender Hygiene Programme (GHP) launched here three years ago is attempting to change this attitude towards menstrual hygiene. The programme, under way in five districts in West Bengal, involves self-help groups (SHG) manufacturing inexpensive sanitary towels from cotton and tissue paper. The napkins are then sold by the same women to others in the village.

The set-up requires a capital of Rs.1,600 and assures the women involved, an average income of Rs.900 a month. It may not be the most attractive economic option available to an SHG, but it is self-sustaining with a steady source of income. At the same time, it promotes hygiene, said Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, GHP project director and an environmental sanitation engineer.

The programme suffered hiccups with some partner non-governmental organisations backing out or some SHGs closing shop and even had issues with quality control, but after three years, the GHP has been able to come up with a standardised product.

“The pads made by us are the cheapest option available and, at the same time, are marketed without providing any subsidy,” Dr. Ghosh said.

Even though the Indian Council of Social Science Research is responsible for research and the implementation of the GHP, and the programme is backed by the State government. There is no subsidy involved.

However, the government set-up is essential in promoting the programme as ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers and women involved with the Integrated Child Development Services are being roped in to spread the message. The district administration in Bankura is now trying to induct all 32,000 women from various SHGs as users.

“Implementing such a scheme requires both administrative backing and political will,” said Ashish Sinha, a Bankura district administration official.

However, Dr. Ghosh felt the issue of menstrual health must have a wider approach. “The total sanitation programme has been going on for about 30 years, but there is a need to redefine sanitation.”

No one has ever considered the safe disposal of menstrual fluids, Dr. Ghosh said.

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