By Alka Pande, Womens Feature Service
July 15, 2009
Girls in their teens in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, brought up to consider menstruation as something that is “unclean”, are now educating their mothers about how it is a normal part of growing up. This remarkable change has been brought about by a small sanitary napkin vending machine that has been installed in government schools here.
First of its kind, this machine has given many adolescents the confidence to talk openly about menstruation and menstrual hygiene – subjects that are still kept under wraps in most Indian homes. Even today many Indian mothers are too embarrassed to talk to their daughters about menstruation and many still continue to use pieces of cloth that are washed and re-used. It is a well-established fact that the dropout rate of girls in schools, particularly in villages and small towns, increases after they reach puberty, and the difficulties of managing menstruation is seen as an important contributory factor.
Over the years, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in India has been trying to address these issues by introducing various initiatives targeted at adolescent girls. By facilitating the creation of the sanitary napkin vending machine, it has made an important breakthrough.
Interestingly, the idea of the vending machine came, not from some development officer, hotshot engineer or marketing whiz kid, but a young girl from Krishnagiri. In 2007, during a workshop on hygiene organised by UNICEF Tamil Nadu in Kuppichiparai village in Krishnagiri, Sukanya (name changed) innocently asked the authorities, “Sir, I saw this machine at the railway station in which I put in a two rupee coin and it showed me my weight. Is it possible to have similar machine that can give us sanitary napkins?”
That got the experts thinking. After extensive research, UNICEF Tamil Nadu contacted several companies that manufactured vending machines and put the idea of making a customised sanitary napkin vending machine to them. The first prototype was manufactured by a Chennai-based company and installed at a government school in Kanchipuram. “But this machine had many drawbacks. It did not have enough storage capacity. It was also impossible to find out just how many napkins were left or if there were any at all and sometimes the girls ended up losing their money. Also, the machine was powered by electricity so whenever there was a power cut it stopped functioning,” recalls Arputhasamy Devraj, Water and Sanitation Officer, UNICEF Tamil Nadu.