“If I have to give back, I have to give it back here in the soil that I grew up in,” says 25-year-old Lakshmy Das, who is making her own little efforts to help the community she belongs to.
A resident of Kumily in Idukki district, Kerala, Lakshmy runs a collective – Maanushi – to promote sustainable practices in and around Kumily.
Lakshmy says working among and for the people of her community is like playing in a home ground where you know how things are. She has been around the people in Kumily as she grew up in an environment where her mother was working with the forest department as a social worker engaging in conservation activities.
Maanushi as a collective came into being when Lakshmy noticed that there was a waste segregation problem in her gram panchayat. Although the panchayat has a waste collecting operation, wherein they collect biowastes and plastic wastes, they do not collect sanitary waste such as the sanitary napkins, because the wastes are manually segregated.
This resulted in people resorting to burning their sanitary wastes in their kitchens or the backyard.
This also reminded Lakshmy of her volunteering days in Auroville, an experimental township located in Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. At Auroville, Lakshmy had come across a project called Eco Femme that works toward creating environmental and social change through revitalizing menstrual practices.
“I was aware of Eco Femme, which was doing reusable sanitary pads, but I never had the intention to switch to them, because it was a lot of effort, we had to wash it…it never felt good to me in the first place, but now that there is a crisis… I called up Eco Femme and I ordered cloth pads for myself and I started using it,” Lakshmy said.
“That’s when I understood that this is something people do not know, something people are not aware of, although sustainable menstruation and menstrual cups are all being discussed, this is not something people talk about, they did not know there was an alternative.”
Along with her cousin sister Pooja Gangadharan, Lakshmy reached out to Eco Femme and as the first line of activity, they started conducting Menstrual Health Management (MHM) sessions in Kumily.
The MHM sessions are conducted for a small group of around 20-30 people highlighting the cultural taboos associated with menstruation, guidance on how to maintain hygiene during menstruation, and information about various products available.
Since December 2020, Lakshmy has to date conducted MHM sessions for around 200-300 girls in the under-19 age group.
The MHM sessions are conducted under Eco Femme’s “Pad For Pad” program, which also has a provision of providing four reusable cloth pads for children. So far, Lakshmy has provided cloth pads for 100 children.
Lakshmy has conducted in-person MHM sessions in a tribal settlement, in anganwadis, and government school in Kumily. She has also conducted a session in one of the rural colleges in Tamil Nadu, as Kumily falls near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.
“There the situation is a little different because we actually face a lot of cultural problems… the issues that we face are of a different nature, one thing is like even sanitation is a problem in many places, so addressing that group is a little tricky,” Lakshmy said about her session in neighboring Tamil Nadu.
Apart from in-person sessions, Lakshmy has also conducted online sessions due to the restrictions owing to the pandemic. Altogether she has reached around 700 people.
“Even if 10% of the population of that 700 changes that will be a lot of difference,” Lakshmy said.
As a result of Lakshmy’s work in Kumily, Eco Femme, with their supporter Saphara Foundation, now wants to offer cloth pads to 100 women through Maanushi, Lakshmy said adding that this would mean a total of 400 cloth pads and that they are planning to give these to women living in the forest boundary area.
“It’s very exciting in terms of the impact, because we will be able to reach older women this time,” an excited Lakshmy said.
Menstrual Health In India
Menstrual health is a low-priority issue in India that is impaired with shame, taboos, misinformation, and poor access to sanitation facilities and menstrual products.
There remain many households in India that follow a custom of making women sleep outside the house during their menstruation days or not allowing them to enter the kitchen or touch any utensils in the house.
“Particularly when we were dealing with children from the tribal community this was the main concern, we cannot push them into saying that this is not right, that is not how we can work in such communities, so that was a little tricky for us. So we had to convince them that this was a natural functioning of their bodies and that there was no shame associated with it. The fundamental of the work that we do is to remove the shame associated with the natural process of menstruation,” Lakshmy said.
Lakshmy pointed out that she has noticed changes among the people in her community with regards to talks surrounding menstruation or menstrual health.
She said that though there had been hesitant reactions initially, but once people understood the importance of MHM sessions and what is being talked about they were more willing to attend the sessions.
Lakshmy added that something that was striking to her was the single-most reaction that they got from all the 100-200 children they spoke in person to. All the children asked Lakshmy to conduct sessions for their mothers.
“That’s where it comes from. But that will take a bit of time I guess because when I was taking online sessions for college students, we see more resistance. They are a little more resistant to even try or process that sort of information, and when it goes to older women group as I did it with an NGO, they were so taken aback, they were like we cannot think of touching the blood because that is not good, and I had to sit and tell them that your menstrual blood is naturally antifungal and antibacterial, there was nothing wrong with it, and so these dialogs are actually important.”
Lakshmy narrated another incident that amazed her: “I had gone to a school to take a session, there was a girl who had attended another session in her Anganwadi, and during the class, while I was distributing the cloth pads, she stood up and was like, ‘girls you don’t have to worry about this because I have been using these cloth pads for four months now and I have used it when I came to school, there was no problem’, she stood up and said this and I was stuck because you know that’s the impact of what we want, we want even if one person starts using it, they will advocate for it.”
A survey conducted under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (MoWCD) in 2018-19 reported that more than one-fourth of total girls enrolled in class VI-VIII drop out of school as soon as they hit puberty.
Lakshmy said that they have not been able to advocate for menstrual cups, another sustainable alternative to sanitary napkins, because of the taboo surrounding them.
Apart from working for menstrual health awareness, Lakshmy is also engaged in creating awareness for people to switch to sustainable living habits. She parallelly conducts small sustainability workshops and produces chemical-free soaps and bio enzymes.A postgraduate in English, Lakshmy is also a full-time copy editor, and author, and has now enrolled for Ph.D. program.Lakshmy uses her income from copy editing for the petrol expenses required for her sessions and workshops. Apart from that, they haven’t required funding for the sessions as the MHM program is part of Eco Femme and is conducted in schools or anganwadis.
Recently Lakshmy had carried out a food distribution drive, and for this she crowdsourced funds. Maanushi has not approached the government for any tie-ups, though they are in an agreement with the panchayat, Lakshmy said.
Lakshmy plans to utilise the remaining fund from crowdsourcing to develop a small network of producers or people who can make daily use products and sell them through other networks that they have.
She says the community in Kumily was involved in tourism and because of the pandemic, the entire sector is incomeless now. Though ration kits are provided they are only a supplement, says Lakshmy.
“Plan to give an income boost to the women in the community is something we are working on currently, and one of the products is this soap.”
She said that they are planning to launch a few food items such as banana chips, or mushrooms since mushroom cultivation is suitable in Kumily because of the climate.
“One of the things that we were planning to ask people to do was shift from rice to millets. We are planning along with the other small economical model. We are thinking of generating a small plant where we can make millets available for people because a large part of our health crisis comes from the fact that we have stopped using millets… That’s the sort of work that we are doing and we are slowly trying to build a conscious community, that’s the whole point actually,” Lakshmy said.
“That’s just one idea, and gradually we are thinking of developing a network of people who can produce organic vegetables. Maybe 10 plants of tomatoes are enough, but if they can sell it, that will be like a supplementary income. We cannot provide full-fledged income to people, but anything that supplements their income sort of benefits in a different way.”
Maanushi is also working on a model where it can support the producers to market their products and sell them.
Apart from the community work, Lakshmy also plans to launch another book soon. It will be a compilation of a few of her works.
Lakshmy has previously authored a book named “On The Way Back Home”, a compilation of short stories. Lakshmy has always had a strong feeling for home and that reflects in this book as well as the community work she does.
Message For Aspiring Community Workers
“Start doing is what I would say, we cannot wait for a perfect situation to begin work. If you think you need to protect or if you think you need to work on the plastic reduction in your community, start with your house, start with ten houses around you, start with your resident association.”
This thought of Lakshmy also comes from one of her inspirations, Dr. Abraham, whom she met during her days in Auroville.
Lakshmy also highlighted that people get stuck because they think of doing huge, but that all that is needed is to begin small.
“It has to come from the understanding that it’s only a small group that can make the difference. Resistance will have to happen from grassroot levels against anything.”
Lakshmy pointed out that social media activism is not enough and that the younger generation has to reflect on what narrative is being sold to us as a consumer.