54-year-old Shyam Sunder Bedekar lives in Vadodara, Gujarat. Although he is a textile dye and chemical trader, he is more popularly known as the innovator who has been revolutionising women's hygiene in rural India. From sanitary napkins that cost Rs 2.50 per piece and the machines that manufacture them to terracotta incinerators that help rural women dispose of their napkins, his innovations are ingenious and simple.
In 2010, Shyam Sunder and his wife Swati Bedekar had started Vatsalaya Foundation, an NGO dedicated towards creating health and hygiene awareness among rural women and encouraging greater usage of sanitary napkins. Swati, a rural educator herself, had witnessed how girls in rural Gujarat dropped out of school after attaining the age of puberty.
To help increase education among girls in rural areas, Shyam Sunder came up with 'Sakhi', a brand of low-cost sanitary napkins priced at Rs 2.50 per piece. In order to reach out to a larger number of women, he also designed the machines that made these sanitary napkins. Today, 20 such sanitary manufacturing units are operational across Vadodara district. Each of these units employ 8-10 women, turning them into self-reliant entrepreneurs at the grassroots level.
The challenges, however, remained. "With these units, more women in the region started using sanitary napkins, but they struggled to dispose of the used napkins given the lack of a garbage collection and management system in the rural areas," Shyam Sunder told Down To Earth. Priced between Rs 18,000 and Rs 20,000, the electric incinerators that could help dispose of the used sanitary napkins were simply not affordable.
This was when Shyam Sunder came up with another ingenious solution - a terracotta incinerator, priced at one-tenth the cost. The incinerator, called Ashuddhinashak (Destroyer of Impurities), has sold 1,800 units in four years, reports The Weekend Leader. Over 500 of these incinerators have been installed in government schools under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.
Sanitation and hygiene remain a serious issue in rural India. Compared to 96 percent of women in Europe, only six percent of women in India use sanitary napkins, according to a UN report. Lack of access to affordable sanitary protection leads to loss of education among rural women and makes them vulnerable to several health issues, sometimes leading to infections, infertility, and even death.