A group of Bendigo university students are taking action to help women across the world tackle an issue that prevents them from fully engaging in daily life.
For most Australian women, access to products that allow them to manage their period discreetly and hygienically is taken for granted.
But this is not the case for many living in less privileged parts of the world, as some La Trobe University Bendigo students have seen first-hand – and decided to do something about.
Lauren Drechsler, Riaz Vickers, Natalie O’Brien, Jaryd Stobaus and Natalie Dillon were among a group of 25 outdoor and environmental education, early childhood education and social work students who travelled to India in November with CERES Global and the support of the federal government’s New Colombo Plan.
Most of their time was spent in a district called Jalgaon, north-east of Mumbai, an area that has experienced drought and subsequently heightened poverty.
Each night, the students would debrief on their activities and what they had found.
“We were coming back and telling stories of personal hygiene not being at a standard that was providing a decent level of health… We were getting reports of people using rags, straw, whatever they could use for their personal hygiene, and as a result of that, they were encountering a whole lot of social issues, which was systemic,” social work student Lauren said.
“It was stopping them from attending school, it was stopping them from having a quality level of health.”
A national family health survey conducted in 2015-16 found only about 58 per cent of women aged 15 to 24 used hygienic methods to manage their periods, a figure that dropped to 48.2 per cent for young women in rural areas.
One study found 28 per cent of girls did not attend school while menstruating.
And campaigners who earlier this year successfully had the Indian government drop goods and services tax on menstrual products said periods were one of the main reasons girls dropped out of school.
Riaz said this meant girls did not receive as quality an education as boys.
“That leads to more systemic issues of gender inequality,” Lauren said.
Riaz and Natalie found out about absorbent period underwear when one of their outdoor and environmental education peers had given a presentation on it, encouraging its use because it was easy to wash, hang out and reuse.
This inspired the idea to use the underwear to help women in India manage their menstruation.
The students took the concept to a woman named Snehlata, the leader of a village’s women’s ‘self-help’ group.
As it turned out, she had long been looking for a solution like this, as most potential fixes had not been culturally appropriate.
Within 24 hours, the students met with Snehlata’s self-help group and those of three other villages in the area to discuss their idea.
Not only were the women receptive to it, but they were excited.
“When we got there, they were kind of scattered, filling the room, but by the end they were all moving in really close,” Natalie said.
The women were so excited by the idea, they coined their own term for the underwear – MCPs, or menstrual cycle pants – told the students how it would change their lives, and readily gave them their names, contact numbers and underwear sizes.
Then and there, the group promised to provide underwear for the women to try – and so was born the I Am Women: Rural India Project.
Riaz remembers a conversation with one woman following that meeting, which she describes as a “really lovely moment”.
“She came up to me and she looked like she was going to cry, and she was like, ‘I’m 60 years old and I only find out about this now. I can’t believe this, I can’t wait to share this with my children and my grandchildren’... She was just so happy,” she said.
The Indian women saw the potential in the underwear not only to manage their periods, but other issues, such as incontinence.
Meeting Snehlata, and what has followed from that, was serendipitous: had the students come just a week later, Snehlata would have been retired and the project might not have been born.
Snehlata herself thinks it was fate they should meet, and is confident of the eventual success of the project.
It’s quite profound that this small piece of clothing could have such a significant impact on women’s lives, specifically children in allowing them to have a very different education and all the things that come from actually being able to have education.Lauren Drechsler
The five La Trobe students are now seeking community support to raise enough money – about $4500 – to provide the women in the self-help groups with three pairs of underwear each.
Social workers in India will help unpack and distribute the underwear once it arrives, which the group hopes will happen as soon as possible.
After three months, the women will answer a survey on their experiences using the underwear.
Once the group receives the feedback from the women, they hope to continue the project and next provide the underwear to girls attending school, with one social worker in India already offering to help teach the girls about menstruation and using the underwear.
The students have taken a community participatory approach, in that it is led by those women and how they want it to unfold.
The students also hope to look at ways the women can raise their own money in the longer term to buy the underwear themselves.
“But in the beginning, we’re wanting to launch and support them… provide them a level of dignity they currently don’t have access to, because of gender inequalities,” Lauren said.
The group is in contact with period underwear manufacturer Modibodi, from where they will purchase the underwear for India.
They are supported by international social work lecturer, Annie Townsend.
“It’s quite profound that this small piece of clothing could have such a significant impact on women’s lives, specifically children in allowing them to have a very different education and all the things that come from actually being able to have education,” Lauren said.
For more information on the students’ project, visit the Facebook page.
More information on supporting the project can be found at the Go Fund Me page.
Have you signed up to the Bendigo Advertiser's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in central Victoria.