From stigma to sustainability: Transforming menstrual health in schools and villages of rural Odisha


By Sharbani Chattoraj

4 March 2024

The students of Gram Vikas Residential School, Kankia received their Baala Kits. Photographs by Pritipatna Sahoo

Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is crucial in a world where 1.8 billion individuals menstruate. Many girls, women, transgender men and non-binary persons struggle to manage their menstrual cycle in a dignified, healthy way.

The barriers they face are often rooted in gender inequality, discriminatory social norms, deeply ingrained cultural taboos, economic constraints, and a lack of basic amenities such as accessible toilets and affordable sanitary products. The consequences of these challenges can be profound, affecting not only physical health but also the overall well-being and opportunities of those affected.

As global awareness grows and initiatives take shape to address these pressing issues, it is essential to highlight MHM’s importance and advocate for equitable access to menstrual health and hygiene resources. Breaking the silence on menstrual issues is key to empowering individuals to manage their  cycles with dignity and good health.

The challenge of single-use menstrual products

Nearly 400 young girls in the four Gram Vikas residential schools relied on single-use plastic-based menstrual pads, a convenience they obtained from the market or as part of government initiatives. While these products addressed a critical need, they introduced complex challenges primarily concerning waste management and environmental impact.

Once these products had served their purpose, the disposal options were far from ideal. Students and their communities often resorted to two primary methods: burning the used pads in small incinerators or burying them in pits. This practice presented environmental hazards and raised hygiene and safety concerns.

Girls and women faced significant challenges around menstrual hygiene, including low access to sanitary napkins, inadequate disposal methods, and the social stigma associated with menstruation.

Sukanti Bhuyan, a Class X student at Gram Vikas High School in Ganjam, shared her thoughts, “Previously, we used to burn used pads for disposal. If we discarded these used pads in the trash, stray dogs would retrieve them and scatter them around, creating an unsightly mess.”

Recognising these challenges, Gram Vikas focused on introducing ecofriendly menstrual products and providing menstrual health education. This approach aimed to replace harmful practices with alternatives that promote environmental responsibility and empower young girls.

A partnership for good health and environment

Recognising the importance of supporting girls to tackle these concerns collectively, Gram Vikas collaborated with Project Baala in October 2021. The partnership marked an important step towards helping these young women embrace their cycles with confidence and pride and enhancing menstrual health.

Project Baala provides reusable sanitary kits along with delivering an eight-module curriculum that educates and dispels myths and disinformation around menstruation. Additionally, the initiative fosters village-level women entrepreneurs, known as Baala Associates, who raise local awareness and sell pads, thus supporting menstrual health and generating income.

Assured health in a kit

Project Baala provided 500 reusable menstrual hygiene kits to four Gram Vikas schools, benefiting both students and staff. Each durable kit, lasting up to 18 months, includes two small and one large washable pad. To complement the distribution, Project Baala conducted online training sessions, primarily for lady teachers, focusing on effective menstrual hygiene management.

The transition to these reusable pads was met with positive responses. Students like Arpita Mala Bisoyi expressed relief over moving away from the challenges of disposing of single-use pads, “We spent a lot of time trying to burn the pads. It was actually a headache. If we left it in the trash, we would find our school littered with parts of the pad all around. It was an awkward situation every time.”

Each school has a designated female teacher overseeing the kit distribution, offering them to students on request. The programme’s flexibility allows for multiple kit purchases, with the first kit provided free and subsequent ones available for sale. Students can obtain kits for personal use or to share with others in need.

The students’ positive experiences with the sustainable pads have sparked a keen interest in acquiring more kits to aid family members. This enthusiasm is evident as 170 girls have already purchased additional kits, contributing to a more hygienic environment at the school.

Priced at ₹240, each Baala kit, which can last up to 18 months, represents an eco-friendlier and cleaner alternative. Arati Ojha, a teacher at Gram Vikas High School in Ganjam district, underscored the kits’ cost-effectiveness, “They’re economical, lasting for months. Previously, some students, who experienced heavy menstrual flow, spent up to ₹70-80 monthly on multiple packets. Now, they are saving this expense, avoiding hassles with disposal and unclean surroundings.”

In support of this initiative, local entrepreneur Sibaratri Naik, a Baala Associate, plays a crucial role in the community by distributing these kits. The pricing strategy of the kits not only supports Project Baala’s mission with ₹200 per kit but also empowers Sibaratri with a ₹40 commission for each sale.

This joint effort has resulted in the distribution of nearly 498 kits to students in need, with an additional 307 kits being successfully sold. The approach effectively promotes menstrual health awareness and bolsters local entrepreneurship.

A shift to dignified and sustainable menstrual health practices

Over three years, there has been a notable shift among students towards using eco-friendly and biodegradable menstrual products, significantly reducing menstrual waste and contributing to a cleaner, healthier environment. Sharbani Chattoraj, the Manager for Education Innovation and Strategy at Gram Vikas schools, notes the significance of the change,   “It has laid the groundwork for important discussions among students, extending from menstrual health to broader issues like breaking menstrual taboos, promoting gender equality, and emphasising environmental conservation.”

The approach underscores the integral role of menstrual health and hygiene in various aspects of life and highlights the need for comprehensive education and awareness in these areas. The initiative has not only transformed menstrual hygiene practices within the schools but also fuelled a wider interest in eco-friendly and cost-effective solutions in the community.

Distribution of the Baala Kits to the children in Gram Vikas Residential School, Kankia. Photographs by Pritipatna Sahoo


Priya Pillai edited the story.


Sharbani Chattoraj enabled the partnership and oversaw the programme implementation as the Manager for Education Innovation and Strategy at Gram Vikas schools.


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