You don’t need to be in power or have authority to create change or make peoples lives better. If you have the will, there will be a way. This what I believe in and people around me have supported me on this journey and have been changing gears to move ahead…

Read the story of the Padwoman of India – Maya Vishwakarma, and her journey that inspires many across the world.

How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?

I come from a small village called Mehra Gaon in Narsinghpur district, it’s close to Jabalpur and Itarsi in Madhya Pradesh. I was born and brought up there. I attended a government school right up to 8th standard. Our village did not have any education facilities beyond 8th standard. I moved from one place to another until I graduated. I completed graduation and post-graduation from Jabalpur Rani Durgavati University. During my Masters, I wrote a dissertation thesis at AIIMS in New Delhi. I moved to the US for an engineering research fellowship. I completed my Ph.D from South Dakota in the United States.

“We won many awards for Swaraj Mumkin Hain.“

Coming from a village, I know life can be hard. I’m familiar with the kind of hardships people face. When I was in the US, I heard about this village called Relegaon Siddhi, which followed the Gandhian model. People had toiled and worked relentlessly for over 30 years to create a village, that was truly progressive. For example through the village, systems for rain water harvesting was implemented. Harijan/ST/SC were required to live outside the village, in this part of India even in the early 2000s. But in Relegaon Siddhi, all the lower-caste people lived in the heart of the village, next to a temple. They could enter the temple and pray, which was extremely rare. All of this was possible due to Surendra Aseem and his team. All of this did not happen overnight; it took them over 30 years of relentless toil.

“ In 2016, I met with Arunachalam Muruganantham.”

I was extremely impressed with this village, and I asked them if I could create a documentary film about the village. I felt this would provide the necessary inspiration to the other villages to follow the footsteps of Relegaon Siddhi. I started working on the film in 2015/16. In addition, I authored a book that we could distribute in the nearby villages when we screened the film.

The documentary was titled “Swaraj Mumkin Hai” and was screened across Rajasthan, and across the Bay area in the US. We won many awards for this movie. I ensured every award was dedicated and also sent across to the village that had worked hard to where it was.

In the meantime, due to my regular trips to India, I was a volunteer for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). I also got to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh from AAP. As part of the campaigning, I went from village to village canvassing. The promises were always on “Bijili, paani and sadak” (aka electricity, water and roads). Education and health came a remote 4th or 5th. While I was campaigning, I realized people did have a lot of issues that needed to be fixed.

I lost the election; I came third. But something had already taken root in my determination and soul to bring about the change that I was hoping for, if I had gotten elected. This was the start of the Sukarma Foundation. I started looking at various issues and mapping them to NGOs, and I saw that no one was working in the area of women’s health. In particular menstrual hygiene. I decided that I need to know more, to make a difference in this space. I met with Arunachalam Muruganantham in 2016, who is the original Padman of India. That’s how my journey started.

“I got them to understand that the making a sanitary pad is working like a nurse in a hospital.”

Please tell us about the success on this journey?

A sweet success which is special to me was to set up our first factory at Narsimhpur in 2017. Mr. Muruganantham in a Ted Talk on how he started the Sanitary pad revolution, had a tremendous impact on me. I reached out to him and met with him in Coimbatore. I visited his factory. His factory set-up was extremely inspiring. This gave me an idea, can I take this to my remote village in Madhya Pradesh. I had to understand it better, as the machine Mr. Muruganatham was using was basic and could not create pads with wings etc. So I started exploring the options available. A friend of mine Suhani, from Saral Design, also makes these machines but they are very expensive. But we decided to go ahead and opened our first factory in Narsimhpur staffed by local villagers.

The factory was only start of this long journey; I started an awareness campaign on menstrual Hygiene. No woman in my village was wearing a pad. I felt that nothing had changed from the time I was growing up and now. They were using the same piece of cloth, cycle after cycle through the year. This had turned out to be extremely unhygienic and would lead to a lot of infections that would be repetitive. Because of using cloth, during the cycle, girls would not attend school during their cycles as they are uncomfortable and also don’t have adequate toilet facilities to change their cloth pads. Getting them aware was the first step.

The next step was to train them to make pads. In our village, women use mud to clean their hands. I told them to come close to the factory with their hands and feet cleaned. I saw all the women had a lot of dirt under the nails, that would be extremely unhygienic to manufacture sanitary pads. I got them to understand that the making a sanitary pad is working like a nurse in a hospital. One needed to be sterile, wear aprons, gloves and keep themselves clean to create a clean pad. To emphasize this further, I told them the clean pad they were making was going to be used by them or their daughter. This led to us manufacturing a fully cotton pad and gel (sap gel and wood pulp), as cotton itself is not a good absorbing. The last layer is only plastic. We gave the families in our villages free pads as supplies for about a year. The Padman movie was also released around the same time in 2018, the women were extremely enthusiastic and it helped in giving a big push to the message on women personal hygiene.

With the campaign we had started, I realized that this was not a problem of our village in our district, but of all the same villages in MP and the tribal areas marked by the government of Madhya Pradesh (MP). In MP, we had a 21 tribal district which is marked by government of Madhya Pradesh. I marked those locations like Alirajpur, Jhabua, Khargone etc. I started the campaign with a SUV loaded with posters and calendar over 2 months. The calendar had a theme every month on women personal hygiene. The calendar was meant for educational purposes. It was extremely well-designed and catchy to the eye. The calendar help break the taboos in schools. I started working with girls starting from class 5. As these days, due to hormonal changes and the food we eat, girls as young as 10-11 years start the menstrual cycle.

“We provided all the families in the village with one year’s supply of sanitary napkins.“

There is no one talking about this in their homes or schools for them to be prepared mentally and physically. Also they would not know how to use a pad and also how to dispose one. I also educated these girls and women/adults in the areas on the hygiene as well as effective disposal of a sanitary pad.

What are your future plans?

The Sukarma Foundation has one factory right now. But we need to think of how can meet the scale that this country needs, while ensuring the pad we create is a A-class product close to what a P&G sells in the market. I visited China recently and got a first-hand view into their women personal hygiene policy and implementations. I also got to see how their machines are designed, the raw materials and the supply chain. This has given me more ideas on how we can work on meeting the scale and quality. Also during this process, look at how can we get more women employable or offer employability options in remote villages.

The other thing we are looking to expand is the awareness circle for school going girls. How can we get more girls from 10 years and above aware of menstrual cycles and hygiene. The work we have done so far, tells us that if we are able to get the girls in the house aware of these issues, it has a larger impact on their home and society, as they go back and talk about this in their homes.

The third and important aspect is sustainable way of disposing pads after using. How do we teach the girls to dispose the pads, so that its hygienic and while ensuring its sustainable.

How can someone work with you or join you?

The Sukarma Foundation is constantly looking for volunteers in the US and in India to support our initiatives. We are looking for some volunteers to help us with Sevathon in August this year at San Jose.

“Dr. Shivanada Koteshwar with Maya Vishwakarma“

We are also looking to take the reach of our messages to a larger audience in India. We are looking to convert our menstrual calendar that we distribute in schools into an app. This app can track the cycles, provide quick tips on menstrual hygiene and also provide information on ATMs, hospital and other local information that the villagers can benefit from.

We are also looking at bettering the quality and the quantity of the pads produced without increasing the price of the pad. So that more women can start using pads. Also explore and look for opportunity on how to create sustainable ways to dispose the sanitary pads in villages.

If anyone would like to partner with us on our initiatives, please write to our Facebook page and we will get in touch with you. Or if you would also like to start a movement on women hygiene, we are more than happy to collaborate or even help you with your plans and outreach programs. In addition, please get in touch with the YPS founders and they will also get in touch with us.

This story was authored with the help of our summer intern Sanjana Jilla.