Sutopa Dasgupta is part of Sakhi, the team that won SAI’s 2017 Seed For Change competition. She spoke to SAI to update us on the status of Sakhi’s project – the development of high-quality, affordable, and environmentally safe menstrual cups for people in India.
In 2018, Sakhi will launch its pilot program with the Sri Likhi Women Welfare Association in Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India. Each program will include a site-specific training curriculum. Sakhi custom designed and tested their FDA-approved menstrual cup and sterilization case in collaboration with Casco Bay Molding.
Sutopa is currently a PhD student in South Asian Studies at Harvard University.
The 2018 Seed for Change application is due on February 15, 2018.
What fueled your interest in menstrual management in South Asia?
My research is on South Asian religion and culture. Specifically, I have been looking at the social construction of the auspicious and the inauspicious—and related to this, what gets designated as taboo and why. I look at the way ideas and values have traveled and changed over time.
Through my research at Harvard, I have found that the characterization of menstruation is as something inauspicious and polluting. Menstruating women as impure or taboo in many social contexts have long histories in South Asian culture and this continues to perpetuate stigmatization today. For example, women are prohibited from entering the temple during their periods and are prohibited from touching certain foods or being in certain spaces in their own homes.
Tackling the issue of menstruation in the real world was a natural progression of my research. My project, funded by SAI, addresses the challenges menstruating women in India face today—with the idea that we cannot address issues of stigmatization without also helping women feel empowered in their menstrual health management. Thus, we have a two-fold approach: first, putting an environmentally sustainable and safe menstrual management product in every woman’s hand and secondly, by raising awareness around menstruation so that women feel empowered to manage their menstrual health and resist taboos that are detrimental to their safety, mobility, and agency.
We have to empower women to get them engaged in managing their own menstrual health. So much of the stigmatization has to do with patriarchal perspectives, including the lack of inadequate sanitation in workplaces and schools.
How has your project progressed?
I have spent the last few months building relationships so that our project can manufacture and distribute culturally-specific menstrual products and establish menstrual health programming in India. Designing menstrual products that are customized for the Indian market, FDA approved and safe for the body. It facilitates managing menstruation safely and with dignity. Since the menstrual cup we have designed and manufactured allows single inserts that last all day, it also alleviates the problem of absenteeism at school or work; the sterilization case that we designed helps maintain privacy and sanitation in water-scarce environments. Both are reusable and there is no environmentally polluting disposal required. You cannot do that with a tampon or a pad. This menstrual cup and case could last a woman ten years and so is economically much more viable too. I really want women to feel empowered with the use of these products, and to feel a sense of ownership of their bodies.
I am building a social enterprise model where women will take these subsidized cups that the grant is funding, and sell them to establish an income for themselves. This last mile distribution model is key to raising awareness and putting women in charge of the sale and distribution of these products. A culturally-specific training curriculum accompanies the distribution of the menstrual management kit—so there is plenty of support in place.
Can you talk about some of the challenges you have faced during this process?
Addressing a stigmatized area such as menstrual management involves a complex process of raising awareness in order to change the social dynamic. Women are afraid to talk about their periods and how they manage them in public; it is a taboo subject. We have worked with our advisor, Dr. Langer, in conjunction with specialists at the Harvard School of Public Health to help us deal with these challenges. We are also partnering with local community leaders so that they are the ones leading the training sessions. Setting up your own business, distribution and teaching women how to use the product one by one to help the business grow is not easy—so each effort is locally managed and emerges from local demand.
Even in the USA, talking about menstrual health management is not easy to do. We talk about condoms all the time, for which, by the way, there is no tax levied. Whereas menstruation is penalized, as we have to pay taxes on menstrual products. Why do we have to pay a tax on an item that is a necessary and natural part of managing women’s health? There is an enormous inequity with respect to managing menstruation for women across the globe. Eventually, I would like to expand this project, but for me as a South Asian, tackling the challenge in South Asia is the first step.
What has been the impact of receiving this grant money from Seed for Change?
Harvard’s Seed for Change support allows this aspiration to make a difference in women’s lives in India to become a reality. It has also broadened the impact of my research interests and given it greater scope and application. The first thing I did when I got the grant was to attend the Society for Menstrual Research Conference in early June where I presented on this project and got great feedback. There is a collective of researchers, activists, public health professionals and politicians trying to create policy around this important topic. With Harvard’s support, I was able to take this project to the next level.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.