UT student educates rural Indian women about menstrual hygiene

Kirthi Dronamraju

On a past trip to a remote Rajasthani village, Devika Kumar, a Plan II and international relations and global studies freshman, noticed that many women were unfamiliar with proper menstrual hygiene. 

Kumar, a Girl Scout gold medalist and National Young Woman of Distinction, traveled to India in the summer of 2016 to combat this dilemma. 

“Periods are considered completely taboo,” Kumar said. “Women from ages 13 to 40 had no knowledge of their own menstrual health — many of these were women with children.” 

Indeed, a study determined that as many as 88 percent of women in rural India don’t use sanitary pads to manage their monthly periods. This practice alone accounts for 70 percent of female reproductive disease in the country and, if rectified, could decrease maternal mortality. 

The difference between feminine hygiene in the U.S. and rural India was a shock to chemical engineering freshman Eva Patel, who spent a summer in her grandparents’ village clinic in Gujarat. 

“I was stunned at how little these women knew about their own health,” Patel said. “Some were too ashamed to ask, but most hardly knew there was a problem.”

In certain parts of India, local culture considers menstruation to be impure. In some sects of the Hindu faith, for example, women are prohibited from participating in normal life while menstruating and must be “purified” before returning to their family. Especially devout communities prohibit women from partaking in ceremonial activities such as praying and touching holy books. Additionally, many rural villages forbid menstruating women to enter the kitchen out of the belief that they would defile the food. 

When visiting her father’s family in their small rural village, Kumar said she noticed a similar occurrence.  

“The women would use these rags that they would then leave out in the sun to dry,” Kumar said. “Not only would these cloths collect dust, but the women would bring them inside once the men arrived, reusing these wet and dirty rags.”

To help alleviate this silent burden, Kumar began work on the Mahi Project to bring awareness of these issues to rural Indian women. She soon came across engineer Arunachalam Muruganantham, who created a machine able to produce sanitary pads at less than a third of the cost of the market price. The machine grinds up cotton and wood fiber, presses it into a pad shape with a hydraulic press and then wraps and sterilizes it to produce a sanitary pad. 

In his TED Talk, “How I Started A Sanitary Napkin Revolution,” Muruganantham said he discovered his wife using soiled rags to manage her periods.

“She (said), ‘I also know about (sanitary pads), but myself and my sisters, if they start using that, we have to cut our family milk budget,’” Muruganantham said.

To fund the purchase of Muruganantham’s machine, Kumar took to social media, creating a GoFundMe page, and began contacting friends, family and local businesses. She eventually accumulated the necessary $4,500 and, with the help of her family in India, was able to implement the machine and accumulate educational materials. 

Upon arriving at the village, Kumar gathered a group of 25 to 50 women, asked them questions about their knowledge of menstrual well-being and showed them an informational video. 

“They were pretty receptive to (our presentation),” Kumar said. 

Kumar said the project is ongoing, and with the help of her sister, neuroscience senior Saloni Kumar, she plans to purchase additional machines and fund the education of women in other rural Indian communities. 

Muruganantham’s machine remains in the village today, gradually working to curb reproductive illness and the centuries-spanning shame associated with menstruation.