Narsinghpur: Once a cancer researcher in the US, this 35-year-old woman has emerged as the new real-life ‘Padwoman’ in Narsinghpur district of Madhya Pradesh with her crusade on menstrual hygiene. Maya Vishwakarma has brought the conversation on “periods” to tribal areas in MP, where one doesn’t even dare utter words such as “periods” or “sanitary pads” out in the open.
Maya, who was earlier working as a researcher on leukemia at the University of California, has come back to India and has established a sanitary pad manufacturing unit aided by all-women staff at Dedwara village in Narsinghpur, her native town. The unit was made operational in the last one month with the capacity of producing 1,000 sanitary pads in a month at the cost of Rs 20 a piece.
“We are contemplating ways to reduce the cost and double the production,” said ‘Pad iji’ (pad sister), as the women here call her, adding that she is also eyeing employment for rural women alongside creating awareness about sanitary pads.
The menstrual hygiene crusader bought a sanitary pad manufacturing machine and other equipment at a total cost of Rs five lakh, an amount that Maya accumulated using personal savings, crowd funding and contributions from the California Foundation and Sukarma Foundation.
As Tamil Nadu’s Arunachalam Muruganantham set the ball rolling with his grassroots mechanism to provide sanitary pads to rural women and Bollywood film ‘Padman’ brought his story to the mainstream, Maya, on the other hand, learnt of the dismal state of affairs from some of her own experiences during her college days in Jabalpur and as a Junior Research Fellow at AIIMS, New Delhi.
“The topics of periods and sanitary pads were branded with stigma in those days. However, after my research as a cancer biologist in the US, the crucial significance of menstrual hygiene sank in me and I decided to come back to my native town and work for safe menstrual practices.”
Maya also went to meet Arunachalam Muruganatham in Coimbatore while the latter appreciated her efforts and said that her manufacturing unit would come handy to those who come all the way from north India to meet him and see the pad-making machine designed by him.
The social crusader thinks of herself as fortunate as her efforts luckily coincided with the Akshay Kumar-starrer ‘Padman’ and claimed that several towns and cities are now opening up on the usage of sanitary pads while in villages, she still needs one-on-one interactions with women to make them understand the concept of menstrual hygiene.
Underlining the unsafe menstrual practices and related health hazards, the health activist said that there are still so many women who use rags, unsanitized clothes and even unhygienic objects like newspapers, husks and leaves in the tribal belts. This exposes them to the risk of Reproductive Tract Infections, related cancers and even death at a premature age.
Girls in these areas often miss school for five days because of their periods and a staggering 23% of these adolescent girls drop out of schools as soon as they enter the menstruation cycle.
Taking her efforts further, Maya is now planning to embark on an awareness rally through the tribal districts of Madhya Pradesh, starting with Narsinhgpur to Alirajpur, Sidhi to Singrauli and Balaghat to Khandwa.
“It’s hard to find companions for this 40-45 days journey, but locals from Narsinghpur and Hoshangabad would accompany me,” said ‘Pad Jiji’.
In 2014, Maya who wishes to reach out at least 2000 girls and women in tribal belts during her ‘yatra’, had also contested the Lok Sabha election on an Aam Aadmi Party ticket, but lost.
“The upcoming movie, Padman, has definitely created conducive atmosphere for the topics of sanitary pads that was otherwise a taboo,” she said, adding that the mindset is changing as people welcome her efforts and initiatives, wherever she goes.