In conversation with Suhani Mohan
Women are now claiming equality in every aspect which should have been there from the beginning itself. Be it in any field, initiatives for betterment of women are taking place, and we are pretty sure 100 years from now this moment in our history will be the pivotal milestone that changed the society making lives of women better everywhere in the world. Be it U.N.’s “HeForShe” initiative led By Emma Watson, or the activist for education of women Malala Yousafzai, or the initiative close to home by Suhani Mohan in the form of “Saral designs” to eradicate poor menstrual hygiene from India. This indeed will be the moment that will leave a mark for future generations as the time when all changed.
We got a chance for a tete-e-tete with the ever inspiring Suhani Mohan:
Q. As we know the work you are doing is one of a kind, so is the name of your company “Saral”. What exactly was the etymology behind it?
Suhani: ‘Saral’ means simple. Fundamentally, we believe that solutions we offer have to be simple in order for them to be widely adopted. Simple solutions often have the most sustained impact.
Q. What was the main factor for you to launch this venture?
Suhani: Back in 2012, while I was working as an investment banker, I had a chance to meet Mr. Anshu Gupta from Goonj. He described how women in rural India use newspapers, rags and other unhygienic methods during their menstruation. I felt deeply ashamed. It had never crossed my mind that when I spend Rs100/month to manage my menstruation, how would a woman, whose entire family’s earning is lesser than Rs1000/month, manage hers. This was when I decided that I must give my fullest to something I believe in and be the change I wish to see.
Q. The Saral designs have chosen a rather specifically taboo topic & especially in this patriarchal society seen throughout most of India, How do you plan to tackle these socio-cultural problems & propogate the idea of menstrual hygiene?
Suhani: The fact that we live in a patriarchal society where basic hygiene is not accessible to women is the reason why we are doing what we are doing. With health and hygiene, there is a strong need to create awareness along with access to quality products. Some taboos have been there for centuries and we are cognizant of the fact that instigating behavior change is a slow process.
We have observed that adoloscent girls are more receptive to learning new things. So, in partnerships with NGOs, we conduct awareness sessions in schools covering the science behind menstruation with emphasis on it being a natural biological process, hygiene and disposal practices. We also install sanitary napkin vending machine in schools as a follow up to these sessions.
In the villages that we operate in, we conduct group meetings with women where we gamify the process of taboo breaking. One of our favorite activities is making them play chinese whisper. At the end of it, like most times with this game, they get their phrase wrong. This was an attempt to show them how period myths propagate and inaccurate stories spread.
In all of this, respecting the the women we address is essential. These are really strong women who have faced unbelievable hardships and come out victorious. It is important that none of our communications are condescending in any way.
Q. Moving towards the vending machines that are to be installed in public restrooms all over as ingenious as these ideas may sound can they be operated easily? As vending machines are a definitely uncharted piece of technology for most of people in our country.
Suhani: We have designed and developed vending machines that are really easy to operate with instructions to use in multiple languages along with images. In the generation of mobile phones, girls and women are easily able to understand how to operate the machines. We also have sessions on how to use the machines in schools and train the staff to use the same in case someone has any troubles.
The underlying issue with widespread adoption of vending machines is not easy of usage, but is its maintenance of these machines in public places against vandalization. Hence, so far, most installations happen in schools, corporate offices only.
Q. What basic changes according to you should be seen in today’s children & tomorrows youth you wish to see? In order to ensure women’s empowerment , safety , health.
Suhani: Firstly, for most of us, urban or rural, high or low income, healthcare is only looked at re-actively not pro-actively. The spend on health & hygiene is abysmally lower than the spend on entertainment in most families. This needs to change.
The unnecessary shyness and stigma around natural biological processes like menstruation, puberty, sexuality and defecation need to end. When we will start talking about these topics openly, innovations in these sectors will happen at a much greater rate.
Q. Since we are on the topic, what do you think we should change in our current education system to build a better country for women?
Suhani: Puberty education for both girls and boys should become a part of the regular curriculum. Currently, children learn such things from various unreliable sources. When you don’t know about something, it becomes threatening and leads to propagation all sorts of myths. It is important for both boys and girls know about consent, puberty and sexuality for their own safety and to make them responsible citizens for the future.
Q. As you and you team are constantly rooting for better menstrual healthcare in our country & constantly working towards it. What are your future plans for the company? &What do you think the healthcare system in India will be 10 years down the road for females as well as males in India?
Suhani: We are working towards a future where women will have access to a variety of services and products for them to choose for their health and hygiene at a price that they can afford. For this, we are working from both sides – supply and demand. We are creating decentralized production units across the country to increase supply in different parts of the country. Decentralized production cuts distribution and transportation costs significantly. This also increases access to products in parts of the country which are left out from traditional distribution channels. On the demand side, we are working in collaboration with several NGOs and local bodies to create awareness about menstrual hygiene on the ground. The good news is, we are also seeing a lot of initiatives being taken by the government in building separate girls toilets in schools and large NGOs working on imparting menstrual education. In 10 years, we believe that menstruation will be a non-issue and girls and women all across the country will not see it as a hindrance to their education, work or dignity.