The outgoing global Chairman of WinS, Rotary International President Nominee Sushil Gupta, says that he is handing over the “baby we produced in 2014” with great satisfaction to his successor PRID P T Prabhakar. His happiness with the way WinS has panned out across our region is on three fronts; group handwashing stations; bringing in behavioural change in hygiene and sanitation; and removing the taboo on talking about the importance of menstrual hygiene.
He told Rotary News: “I am very happy about the status of WinS, which you can say is now on auto pilot, because each and every Rotary district of our region is vying with each other on how many schools they can do. Earlier we were struggling to get the districts to take up WinS. They were confused and mixed up on whether they should do Literacy, WinS, or projects of other focus areas of Rotary.”
Earlier we were struggling to get the districts to take up WinS, but now with the districts vying with each other, the project is on auto pilot.
— RIPN Sushil Gupta
He added with a grin: “Let’s say that the baby we produced in 2014 is now healthy and kicking.” Another aspect of WinS that delights him is the fact that group handwashing has ushered in behavioural change among schoolchildren and their families through proper handwashing, which was the primary goal of WinS.
He then relates an interesting story on how the first group handwashing station was created a couple of years ago. There was no model available either with UNICEF or the Ministry of Education. “There was a planned visit of the then RI President to one of the schools done by a Rotary club where the WinS project was to be inaugurated by him. I told the club officers that the visit is in 10 days so you have only that much time to create a group handwashing station in that school. Within a week this was ready. Even though everybody including the UNICEF and the Government were talking about it, there was a lot of confusion because nobody had a model. So we created a model!”
Add to this the tough task he, his deputy and Vice Chair of WinS Prabhakar and the rest of the team had on their hands… “we had to go on dinning the message into Rotarians’ heads that WinS is not about building toilets; it has to do with bringing about behavioural change. Now that message has gone home, and I am very happy.”
Gupta recalls with a chuckle that the group handwashing model that Rotary is putting up in schools is so successful that a UNICEF executive had suggested that Rotary should patent this product. “But I said our aim is not to get credit or make money but to encourage the maximum number of schools to have these stations, where children can sing songs while washing their hands, and usher in behavioural change.”
No more taboo on menstruation talk
The other aspect that has thoroughly pleased him is that the taboo earlier associated with talking about MHM (menstrual hygiene management) has finally gone. “When we talk of a girl child and see the dropout rates from schools, we have to see at what stage it happens. We found it happens at puberty, because the girls don’t have separate toilets and the privacy they need particularly during that part of the month. But nobody wanted to talk about it. It was a taboo subject. Even in Rotary I had to work very hard telling everybody ki MHM karo!”
The next issue pertained to the use of sanitary napkins. UNICEF was very clear that they were not promoting any product; be it a sanitary napkin or a piece of cloth. They said whatever it is, let it be clean. This dialogue was happening at the UNICEF headquarters in New York, “but there was nothing in writing. For quite some time we struggled with getting the right product which would be sustainable and affordable. I remember PRIP John Germ bringing a large packet of sanitary napkins from Australia and saying ‘Australian women have sent this!’ We were looking at what kind of product would work best, and finally we have found it.”
Can you imagine Chennai alone produces 90 tonnes of sanitary pads — an environmental disaster. These napkins use plastic material which takes 500 years to degenerate.
— WinS Global Chair PRID PT Prabhakar
This, explains Prabhakar, is “a reusable and washable sanitary napkin which can be used for two years. And the cost of each kit is just ₹200 which anybody can afford today.”
Touching upon the adverse environmental hazards of the sanitary napkins available in the market, PRID Prabhakar, who is now the Global WinS Chair, says, “Can you imagine Chennai alone produces 90 tonnes of sanitary pads, which is an environmental disaster. These napkins use plastic material which research has shown takes 500 years to degenerate. Also, Dr Meenakshi Bharat, a gynaecologist from Bengaluru, who has researched this subject thoroughly, says that these commercially produced napkins use harmful chemicals which can trigger uterine cancer.”
Adds RIPN Gupta: “In most schools we have found that when you put sanitary napkin vending machines, they don’t work after two months. We’ve been working with a team of women, including Dr Meenakshi and Sangita Bansal, and we’ve finally come out with this economic and reusable kit, where cotton cloth is used and it is reusable, with a life of two years.”
Along with this find, he is very happy that from Kerala to Tamil Nadu to Odisha, “people have freely started talking about MHM.”
Prabhakar adds that finally the “reluctance and shyness to talk about MHM is going. Production has already begun on this eco-friendly and inexpensive product and at a recent WinS meet in Bengaluru, where the Director of Vocational Services was present, I told him that self-help groups could produce these sanitary napkin kits. And we are going to involve Inner Wheel members to popularise the use of these napkins across our region.”
He made it clear that these will be made available in the schools that Rotary has spruced up — 50,000 in all — but “they will not be given free of cost. Because anything that is given free is not valued.”
Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat