Host, Navjot K. Dhillon speaks to Manjit K. Gill, Founder and CEO at Binti International on educational programs for the women to openly discuss their menstrual issues & hopeful to eliminate taboos that have been established through generations.
Binti: ‘It has become easy for me to educate girls and boys about menstruation. Everywhere I go I #smashshame’
“Some people believe that there is no shame around periods in the UK,” says Manjit Gill, chief executive and founder of Binti. “Some of those who move here from south Asia bring the taboos of their countries with them. We have heard from girls who miss their sister’s wedding because they cannot participate in a religious ceremony while menstruating, or from others who are not allowed to cook or sit with the rest of the family.”
Binti aims to educate girls about menstruation and teach them that it is not something to be ashamed of. “We try to promote menstrual dignity here and across the world, as well as providing sanitary protection to those who need it.”
Since 27-year-old Londoner Jaipreet Kaur’s involvement, she has realised the importance of properly educating young girls about menstruation. “We need to make sure that women are empowered and comfortable with talking about it in all situations. It’s also made me more comfortable talking about it with people I know – especially men. It’s really important that both women and men work together to stop this.”
For 42-year-old Nomcebo Mkhali from Swaziland, Binti has changed her life completely. “When I look back to where I was and where I am now, it’s unbelievable. Binti has made a huge impact in my life as well as to many others in trying to promote menstrual dignity and access to sanitary protection. Yes, some still view menstruation as a taboo but to those that Binti has reached its a whole new world.
“It has become easy for me to educate girls and boys about menstruation whether at schools, at home, or at community events. Everywhere I go I #smashshame. Today I stand tall that I bleed and am normal and healthy because of the help I received from Binti.”
The tale of an entrepreneur who has revolutionised the lives of thousands of women in India with a machine which produces low cost sanitary towels, helping to reduced the very significant stigma surrounding women's periods in rural parts of the country.
When Arunachalam Muruganatham discovered his wife, Shanthi, collecting filthy rags and newspapers to use during her period due to the high cost of sanitary products, he felt compelled to act, eventually creating a machine which could make them cheaply.
His invention was more successful than even he could have hoped, and to date has transformed the lives of thousands of women worldwide, as well as inspiring the film Pad Man.
"Everything I started for my wife, now it has gone global," he explained.
In India where Mr Muruganatham is from, only 12% of women have access to affordable sanitary pads, and instead many use, rags, leaves and straw.
Not only this, but the topic of menstruation is a huge taboo in the country, something producer Twinkle Khanna hopes the film will address.
On Thursday, the actress-turned-campaigner took her message to Oxford University, saying the film had "already begun the conversation".
Ms Khanna told how when filming, many of the actors would not come back after they were ask to hold sanitary pads, as they were "mortified".
It is not only in India that Mr Muruganatham's machine has helped women, it is also now used in parts of Africa - where one in 10 girls miss school or drop out due to their periods - and other countries worldwide.
But so called "period poverty" is not just a problem in poorer countries, with an estimated one in 10 girls and women in the UK aged 14-21 unable to afford sanitary products.
"If girls don't have access to pads they will miss school, and if they miss school then they don't complete their education, so they are held back," explained campaigner Manjit Gill.
Tackling taboos is often made easier by compelling, engaging stories, and it is hoped that that is what the new film will achieve
The world's first feature film on periods is set to be released in the UK. Can a comedy help break the taboo of female menstruation?
It's a scene that captures the 20-year struggle by a poor school drop-out from southern India to buy sanitary pads for his wife - and ended up changing the lives of millions of women around the world.
Arunachalam Muruganantham - played by Bollywood star Akshay Kumar - cycles through his local village waving cheerfully.
Unbeknown to his neighbours, he is testing the effectiveness of his new invention by wearing pink pants and a home-made sanitary pad which is slowly filling with goat's blood from a football bladder tied around his waist.
But behind the laughter of the comedy- Pad Man - is the true story of how Muruganantham invented a low-cost machine that revolutionised women's healthcare.
It started in 1998 when newly married Muruganantham noticed his wife Shanti hiding something.
"It was a nasty rag cloth - she was going to use it during her menstruation. I wouldn't even use it to clean my vehicle," he tells the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme.
"So I decided to gift her a sanitary pad. The shopkeeper gave it to me as a smuggled product. Out of curiosity I opened the packet. The cotton product was sold for four rupees (4p) - 40 times what it cost to make."
Muruganantham, now 55, threw himself into researching a cheaper alternative.
Period poverty leaves an estimated 300 million women in India without access to sanitary products - making them vulnerable to disease, infertility and even death.
He began analysing pads from Western companies, canvassing opinions - and used napkins - of female medical students and, finally, tested his inventions out himself.
"I wanted volunteers to try my new pads and give me feedback - but not even my wife was ready."
It all came at a cost.
"My wife left, mother left. The whole village thought I had a sexual disease," he explains.
But he persevered, and in 2006 launched not-for-profit Jayaashree Industries, which supplies machines making Muruganantham's sanitary pads at cost-price to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and women's organisations across India.
Today it reaches an estimated 40 million Indian women, and there are plans to take the machines to Kenya, Sri Lanka, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
Twinkle Khanna, Pad Man's co-producer, spotted his story online and says she was immediately gripped by the magnitude of what he had achieved.
"I thought this was a remarkable story which really needed to reach every household in India, and globally, because I think the taboo around menstruation is not just in India, it's a global problem."
Khanna's husband, actor Akshay Kumar, immediately signed on to play Muruganantham.
The 50-year-old, who is a popular and powerful role model in India, has a history of political message projects and is calling for sanitary pads to be made free for all women in India.
"Tackling the taboo is very important to me, because I am only now learning about the extent of the crises that countries around the world have been suffering with," he tells the programme.
"I'm ashamed to say how little of all this I knew, which is why this issue has become so close to my heart.
"The conversation is starting though - I've seen men talking about pads on my social media account.
"After Pad Man starts the conversation, it will be up to audiences to take it forward and help to end all of the taboos around periods worldwide."
But period poverty is not only a problem affecting women in India.
In the UK, one in 10 disadvantaged girls below the age of 21 cannot afford sanitary products, according to charity Plan International UK.
Manjit Gill, who co-runs London based charity Binti - which campaigns against period poverty - says the film is a watershed moment for "smashing shame around periods".
"We have worked with Muruganantham for a few years now - we use one of his machines in India - and he really does have a halo," she says.
"The conversation has definitely been started around this film - the words 'pad' and 'periods' have been used more in the last month than in the last 10 years."
The potentially revolutionary nature of Pad Man lies not only in how it tackles a subject that is still considered unmentionable in many countries, but also in the vote of confidence from distributors Sony Pictures in giving a foreign language film about periods a worldwide release as a major motion picture.
The real 'Pad Man', who now has a daughter with his wife after she came back to him, feels "happy" about seeing his life on the big screen but prefers to throw a spotlight on the women taking the movement forward.
Despite his success, he owns no shares in his company and earns roughly 70,000 Rupees (£790) a month - enough for him to cover the storage and transportation for the raw material he imports from the US and Germany.
"A school drop-out, to a rural innovator, to now [there being] a movie, shows the power of dreams," Muruganantham says.
"My vision is to make India into a 100% sanitary-pad using country. Menstruation is no more a taboo."
Pad Man will be released across the UK in February.
Uses biz expertise to tackle the taboo associated with periods, that menstruating women are impure is a myth being perpetuated from generation to generation since centuries.
Despite women breaking the glass ceiling in every sphere, there are places where women are still kept 'isolated' for those 5-7 days.
“It's time to bust these myths and create a world where all women have menstrual dignity,“ says UK-born Sikh girl Manjit Kaur Gill, who has taken an initiative to rope in Sikh religious bodies in the UK to raise the issue of gender inequality in Punjab.
“I am in talks with Shri Guru Singh Sabha and the Sikh Press Association in UK to get this dialogue started at the highest level so that we can tell the sangat what is written about menstruation in Gurbani,“ Manjit told TOI on Wednesday.
Manjit, founder and CEO, Binti International, was in India to deliver a talk on menstruation at the British High Commission. She said she was shocked to learn that Sikh girls were prohibited from performing spiritual rituals in gurdwaras.
Underlining the fact that only 12% of women in India had access to sanitary napkins, she said she was aghast to find during her trips to Punjab and other states that girls were taught that periods were dirty. She said 85% of the girls she spoke to could not explain what the menstrual cycle was. “Some follow local and cultural taboos such as not touching pickle, while others confuse religion with culture and follow the restrictions of menstruation. One girl said I can't enter the temple or perform Kirtan. I have to sleep on a separate bedding on the floor and not touch anything in the kitchen.“
Gill said many rural women in Punjab still use sand-filled socks during periods as they can't afford sanitary napkins.
A Sikh girl who was born in London but has family in Hoshiarpur, Manjit said she used her Punjabi upbringing combined with her international business expertise to tackle the shame associated with periods by providing innovative ideas across different platforms.
She said she was also in talks with various individuals, including Manika Kaur of Australia based “Kirtan for Causes“, and had plans to provide low-cost sanitary napkins for the girls and women in Punjab and elsewhere. She said that she would be collaborating with the NGO, Sikhs helping Sikhs, to provide these.
Binti focuses on increasing sustainability by hiring local women to produce and sell sanitary towels. Women will be economically independent, empowered and they will create an extra source of sustainable income. Profits will be used to fund Binti bespoke menstruation mindfulness education.
Alongside our production facilities, Binti aims to educate by providing educational programmes with the long term goal of changing perceptions and dispel shame and taboos around periods. Health issues will be discussed and a forum will be provided for women and men to be able to openly discuss periods without any prejudice.
A YOUNG girl told of “feeling unclean, dirty and impure” as she stood in the shower, sobbing, as she watched blood flow down the drain.
“The water was pure, while I was not,” she said. “I was overwhelmed and even felt slightly guilty for reasons even I do not understand. I only truly felt clean when I would leave the shower, a sense of satisfaction that all the dirty blood had left my body and I was finally clean.”
This young British Asian woman is referring to an aspect of her life that she cannot prevent or ignore, a part of herself that ultimately makes her female – her period.
The stigma and taboo of menstruation exists in cultures all around the world. Shameful, embarrassing, dirty, impure; these are all words that have been used to describe a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Despite sex education in schools, it is starkly evident that stigma, shame and lack of resources are still affecting girls in Britain today.
Binti, a UK-based charity that runs projects in India, Kenya and the UK, aims to smash stigmas surrounding menstruation.
Binti founder and CEO Manjit K Gill founded it after her involvement with the Cherie Blair Foundation five years ago. Working with the foundation as a mentor for a businesswoman in Kenya, she travelled to Nairobi and was shocked to see the conditions women endure while menstruating.
“One girl told me she used a chocolate box, stuffed with cotton wool, as an alternative way of using a sanitary pad. I asked if she was comfortable and she said she didn’t leave the house or go to school,” Gill told Eastern Eye.
In India’s Tamil Nadu state, a 12-year old committed suicide after a teacher publicly embarrassed her in front of her classmates, after she bled through her school uniform. The girl jumped off a building near her home, leaving a note saying her teacher had tortured her, officials said.
Only 12 per cent of girls in India have access to sanitary products and 23 per cent end up dropping out of school when they start their periods.
“There is a massive stigma and taboo associated with periods in India,” CEO Gill said, “but what we found while doing work in India is we have this massive chain that exists around menstruation in the UK too.”
Shockingly, Gill is right. Menstruating women and girls tell stories of being “hidden away” while they go through a natural bodily cycle.
“It’s absolutely true that we’ve spoken to many girls who, because of their religion or cultural beliefs, they can’t go to their dad’s funeral or their sister’s wedding. These are all cultural beliefs they’ve taken from Africa and India and brought here,” Gill said.
Binti ambassador Anila Dhami, 26, told Eastern Eye that she has heard stories from British Asian women who have rescheduled once-in-a-lifetime events due to their cycle.
“[One woman] basically cancelled her wedding and changed it to another day because she wasn’t allowed into the temple. It goes from not being able to talk about [periods] in the family to it affecting people’s lives. She’d probably been planning her wedding for an entire year and suddenly, you have to rearrange it because you’re on your period,” the journalist and activist said.
Stories such as these may seem alien to those unaware of some cultural and religious traditions, but they aren’t uncommon.
Anecdotes from the girls and women that Binti has worked with follow a pattern – they are discriminated against because of a natural bodily function, something they neither could nor should prevent.
Girls tell stories of being subjected to sleeping on the floor, being unable to hug family members as they are seen as “impure” and even being unable to attend funerals.
Shaamil Sedani, a 30-year-old volunteer has worked with Binti since June 2017. His drive comes from a personal experience when he was 15 and witnessed his aunt’s absence from her husband’s funeral.
“She couldn’t attend because she was menstruating. In Indian tradition, they bring the body to the house for prayers and she wasn’t allowed to be a part of that. How crazy is it that you can’t say goodbye to your husband? I was so angry about that because she had the right to say goodbye to her husband,” he said.
Gill said what she found shocking was that despite the awareness of menstruation in the UK, as compared to places such as India, some girls still see it as dirty and impure.
“If you speak to some of the girls, some of those thoughts are ingrained quite deeply and despite getting the education, they think they won’t go the temple because it doesn’t feel right,” she said.
Dhami, who promotes Binti’s message using her platform as a journalist, said that she feels as Asian communities are so tight-knit, taboos and stigmas can come from cultures that exist in the subcontinent and have been passed down the generations.
“Even with my generation, I have stories of people thinking they’re dying because they’ve got no idea what is happening to them and they don’t feel they can approach their parents because it isn’t something that is spoken about in the south Asian community,” she said.
Salman Farsi, the media and communications officer at East London Mosque said it was the first time he had heard about the stigma surrounding periods.
“I am aware women cannot pray during their period cycle, however, this should not stop them from visiting mosques. Calling anybody on their period ‘dirty’ or treating them any different would, of course, be wrong and unacceptable and clearly not from the Islamic tradition,” he said.
Dipen Rajyaguru, the director for equality and human rights in the Hindu Council, also said there shouldn’t be issues for girls or women who are menstruating.
“There are traditions, but I would say to women who are being stopped from doing certain things, we should not be constrained by customs and traditions that are probably alien anyway to the religion and hundreds or thousands of years old, which have no relevance to modern Hinduism,” he said.
Rajyaguru added that girls need to speak out if they feel they are being discriminated against.
“It’s a power issue over women,” he said, “It’s a woman’s choice at the end of the day. No man can or should be telling a woman what they should or should not be doing.”
Binti, still a relatively new charity, has more than 5,000 followers on Twitter, indicating that the issue is more widespread than most expect.
“[Binti] wants to educate girls. We aren’t saying ‘go to the temple’, but we are saying if you need to speak to God when you’re on your period, guess what? He won’t be mad at you,” Gill said.
“It’s that kind of change that will eradicate the shame for girls and generations to come.”
Binti International is shortlisted for the Best New Charity. Our vision is to create a world where all women have menstrual dignity. Our services are focused on providing the most economical solution to our users either by setting up projects for women to produce their own pads or running collection and donation drives to ensure there is ample supply. Binti Menstrual Education has been designed for different audiences taking culture and local practices into consideration. It has been rolled out globally and is available in three different languages. Our other area of expertise lies with our Global campaign to #Smashshame which utilises social media to normalise the conversations around periods and eradicate the stigma and taboos that currently exist.
Manjit K Gill CEO Founder said: “To be recognised for the work we do in the UK by such a well respected and esteemed organisation is a wonderful achievement for us. We look forward to meeting the other finalists in the category and thank our volunteers and followers for their continued generosity and support. We cannot not do this valuable work without them.”
The Charity Times Awards continue to be the pre-eminent celebration of best practice in the UK charity and not-for-profit sector. Now in their 18th year, the awards are run by Charity Times Magazine - the leading title for UK non-profit professionals. This year’s winners will be announced at the Charity Times Awards Gala Dinner & Ceremony on 4 October 2017 at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge, London. The event was attended by over six hundred guests in 2016 and this year is set to be bigger and better than ever.
About the Charity Times Awards: The Charity Times Awards continue to be the pre-eminent celebration of best practice in the UK charity and not-for-profit sector. The awards are free to enter and open to any UK-based registered charity, or international charity with registered UK offices. Now in their 18th year the awards are run by Charity Times Magazine, the leading title for UK non-profit professionals:
Blood isn’t blue. Now, before you look at me confused for stating the obvious. Think, about why nobody sent tampon (and/or sanitary towel) adverts that message. It may sound a silly thing to focus on for some people. Who cares if they show the absorbency of the pads through blue liquid? The blue liquid makes it feel more scientific; like you are at a hospital. Clinical. That’s probably why they do it. So it seems cleaner. But women don’t bleed blue liquid, and each time blue liquid is shown it reminds women that the world is afraid to see their blood. It reminds women that for a lot of people periods are the opposite of being clean. They are dirty and impure.
It’s no secret that as women we’re confronted with sexist stereotypes on a daily basis.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the workplace – and you don’t have to look far to find examples.
And these aren’t our only constraints – even mentioning your period at work is taboo. We’ve all been there – caught unawares at the office with no tampon or pad to hand and forced to request supplies from a female colleague, stuffing the offending item up our sleeve in the hope that no one catches wind of the fact that – God forbid – we’re on our period.