Meet the man fighting the stigma surrounding menstruation

Dilip Kumar 
A degree from a prestigious university in London coupled with social work experience made Dilip Kumar Pattubala an ideal candidate for many social enterprises in the country.  However, this 26-year-old is cut from a different cloth. Instead of joining an NGO, Dilip started his own; a venture that dared to create awareness about a much-maligned topic that very few men would discuss, Menstruation. Sukhibhava was founded in 2014 by Dilip to educate urban poor women about menstrual health and provide affordable menstrual hygiene products like sanitary pads through trained local female micro-entrepreneurs. 

Today, Dilip’s organisation has found admirers both nationally and internationally, but his journey was not an easy one. In spite of this, he continues his fight against the stigma surrounding menstruation in urban India.

Menstrual hygiene among Indian women is abysmally low, and as one goes down the economic ladder, the issue gets magnified. In spite of Government of India approving Rs 150 crore scheme in 2010, under National Health Mission to increase access of sanitary napkins among women and girls, the awareness around clean products is found wanting in many areas. Reasons for such terrible hygienic conditions stem from various cultural taboos and a biased understanding of Menstruation. The repercussions of such a skewed narrative have a severe negative impact on women especially on those from the poor socio-economic sections living in urban India. It is this section, that Sukhibhava aims to help.

Sukhibhava’s growth:

Before starting Sukhibhava, Dilip initiated a survey to find out the level of menstrual hygiene among the urban poor women.  His survey threw up some alarming facts; only 12 per cent of women all over the country use sanitary pads. Further, interviewing 250 women from three government schools, three urban slums and two garment factories in Bengaluru, Dilip found out that overwhelming 82 per cent women said they don’t use pads, 76 per cent used old cloths while six per cent said they use materials like plastic, paper, sand, among others. 

“Lack of proper hygiene can and do have a grave short term and debilitating long term side effects for women, impacting them both physically and emotionally. Moreover, these effects not only hurt women but also have larger social ramifications,” says Dilip.

He adds, “According to the research undertaken and the survey conducted, we found out that terrible hygiene practices have two major consequences; infections and absenteeism. Among those interviewed for the survey, 36 per cent women said they refrain from going to work while menstruating," He points out that due to terrible hygiene and the shame involved, young girls often drop out of schools at the onset of puberty, pushing them deeper into the vicious circle of poverty.

“The average household income is already low among the urban poor, and absenteeism compounds their existing financial troubles. Moreover, girls quitting schools forces them to undertake informal employment leaving them open to various dangers, or are married off quickly leading to various other issues,” Dilip explains.  

One of the primary reasons for the lack of sanitary products among urban women is the price of these products. To create a sustainable solution to these pressing issues, Sukhibhava utilizes a two-pronged approach. “We choose a particular community (neighbourhood) and then request women to convene at a particular place where we show them a 25-minute video about menstruation and the correct menstrual practices. We then introduce the sanitary pads, and with the help of micro- entrepreneurs, we distribute them among the women. After some months, we take a feedback from the women documenting their experience,” he says. There is an almost 92 per cent retention rate among women in the communities Sukhibhava introduced sanitary pads.

The organisation started out with six micro-entrepreneurs. Today, it has 14 micro-entrepreneurs reaching out 7,200 women every month. “We are currently working with 4,100 adolescent girls providing awareness and distributing sanitary pads every month,” Dilip adds.

A lonely road:

Despite his commendable work, Dilip’s journey was not an easy one. When his family and friends learned about his plans, Dilip found support for him fast dwindling. “I come from a conservative middle-class family. In our family, like many other families, we don’t talk about stuff like Menstruation openly. I could sense the discomfort among my family members and friends. However, soon they understood the impact that Sukhibhava can create in the lives of so many women. And, today I have their complete support," he says.

In terms of funding, Dilip had to weather the initial storm on his own. “To start this organisation, I invested every penny I had to my name. For the initial two years after the launch of Sukhibhava, I was not even able to draw a salary for myself. I had to pay the micro-entrepreneurs, and utilize the rest of the funds to buy sanitary pads,” he adds.  

Today, Sukhibhava is nationally and internationally heralded. Its work has been recognized by UN-Habitat, India Youth Fund, The Tata Social Enterprise Challenge, NASSCOM Social Innovation Challenge, Deshpande Foundation, Acumen Fellowship and Indian Institute of Management – Bangalore.

Dilip himself is an Acumen Fellow, a highly regarded Fellowship in Development sector.  

"My team comprising Sahana, the Co-founder, Feba, the Operations Manager, and Bhoomika, the Sales manager, have made Sukhibhava what it is today. Also, none of these would have been possible without the efforts of the hard working and enterprising Micro Entrepreneurs and trainers," says Dilip.  

Today, Sukhibhava's dedicated efforts are changing hundreds of lives across Bengaluru.

- Gayatri Nair 
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