By Manvi Pant
Lockdown 2020 has dealt a blow to almost all industries, more so arts and entertainment. Amidst all this, two women from the Indian film industry – actor and poet Taranjit Kaur and producer Chhitra Subramaniam – joined hands and took upon themselves the social responsibility to source and distribute sanitary pads to economically disadvantaged women.
They called themselves Pad Squad.
Ever since their campaign was launched in June this year, Pad Squad has distributed close to 5 lakh pads. The movement is supported by 59 Pad Squadders all over India operating in 25 cities, including Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata, Kalimpong and more.
With the support of grassroot NGOs, it has reached diverse communities – from slums in Mumbai, sex workers and orphanages in Kolkata, specially abled girls in Bengaluru, to affected indigenous artists in Rajasthan, and tribals in Palghar.
In the wake of the pandemic, when the government imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 25, it did not initially include sanitary napkins in the list of essential items exempted from production and distribution restrictions.
Though menstrual products were later added to the essential-items list, the production of sanitary napkins had gone into a significant halt by then, with partially operational factories and high absenteeism. In a situation where even higher income households struggled to find a way to meet the shortage, the severity felt in semi-urban and rural areas was appalling.
“Women and their menstrual hygiene needs were totally ignored with rations taking priority for economically marginalised homes,” says Taranjit, who has worked in Oscar-winning film Raju, Rajat Kapoor’s critically acclaimed Ankhon Dekhi, and BAFTA-nominated Mouth of Hell. She is also a spoken-word poet who writes on women’s issues; her poem I’m Not a Virgin garnered millions of views on social media.
“Since most of us are involved in relief work, we sensed the gravity of this situation and started Pad Squad, a pan-India movement committed to preserving the dignity and health of menstruating women and girls,” shares Taranjit.
“It was a need of the hour. Unfortunately, we live in a country where a headache gets far more attention than menstrual hygiene and health,” adds Chhitra, who has produced films such as Madhur Bhandarkar’s Corporate and Anurag Kashyap’s Return of Hanuman.
The duo’s brainchild turned into a revolution with other founding members Mayuri Joshi Dhavale, Gillian Pinto, Niiya, Monica Raheja, Surya Balakrishnan, Devashish Makhija and Shillpi A Singh joining in.
“Pad Squad started to fulfill the immediate needs of women who had lost their livelihood and had no means of buying sanitary pads during the lockdown. We sensed the requirement and put up a social-media post requesting people to send us sanitary pads and within three days our house was full of them! We made a visit to nearby bastis (slum clusters) and distributed pads there. The aim was clear – women bleed every month so their menstrual needs must be fulfilled,” they affirm.
However, given the real threat of coronavirus, the Pad Squadders had to ensure their own personal safety too. “The challenges were more internal than external for me, personally,” avers Chhitra.
“But then the calling was so strong that I let go off the fear, and once that happened it became normal and easy. However, the Pad Squadders’ safety has been paramount for us since the inception. It’s incredible to see their passion to ensure that women get their pads on time. But we never force them to go into the communities and crowded places. They can also deliver pads to ground volunteers,” she says.
Pad Squad has collaborated with NGOs like Sukhibhava, which offer free menstrual health consultations to women. “We have been sharing NGO helpline numbers where women and young girls can call for any kind of consultation on gynaecological problems,” she says.
The voluntary initiative comes in the wake of growing awareness about the environmental fallout of regular commercial pads, which create mountains of plastic waste not to mention endangering waste collectors who handle them. They are also too expensive for most Indian women.
We asked team Pad Squad if they have considered any sustainable options to donate. “It’s true that the environment is being polluted by millions of tons of menstrual waste,” nods Taranjit.
“To ensure we don’t add to it, we used biodegradable pads initially, and now we have collaborated with NGOs like Stone Soup to give reusable pads. They have already been distributed to major cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru, and we intend to cover other cities as well. A cloth pad can not only last for up to five years, but also saves a woman from the health hazards of disposable pads,” says Taranjit.
Chhitra adds, “We also distributed menstrual cups but there are many cultural contexts and sensitivities regarding the use of menstrual cups in India. Some education in this matter is still required.”
Pad Squad hopes to reach more cities and towns, spread awareness around menstrual health, and to remove the taboos associated with periods now that the Pad Squadders have created an unwavering trust within communities.
First published in eShe’s November 2020 issue
Syndicated to Money Control