Meet Nepal’s ‘Pad Man’ who is challenging age-old menstrual taboosNot content with selling reusable sanitary pads, Gyan Maharjan visits communities and schools in Lalitpur, teaching girls, boys and teachers about menstrual hygiene
Gyan Maharjan never leaves his home in Khokana without his small backpack. Inside the bag is something that he believes is intrinsically important—not for him, but for women. Neatly wrapped and in various vibrant colours are a handful of reusable sanitary pads that Maharjan makes himself.
Forty-one-year-old Maharjan believes that menstruation is not a taboo; in fact, it is a celebration of womanhood and must be treated as such, by everyone. This is why he does what he does—advocating for menstrual hygiene and providing affordable reusable cloth sanitary pads for women.
Thus, whenever he gets the chance, he talks to men and women about the benefits of using a reusable sanitary pad as opposed to the use-and-throw variety that most employ.
“Initially, they would either give me a skeptical smile or get embarrassed and run away,” says Maharjan. “But now, they understand what I’m doing.”
Maharjan’s efforts have earned him a nickname in his home of Khokana, in the south of the Kathmandu Valley in Lalitpur district — ‘Pad Man’, after the hit Indian dramedy. Maharjan is often compared to Arunachalam Muruganantham, an Indian social entrepreneur, who received plaudits for developing low-cost sanitary pads, on whom the film was based on. In the film, the lead character embarks on his crusade to spread awareness of menstrual hygiene after getting married. In Mahajan’s case, he didn’t need to get married — he’d seen it all around him.
Growing up in Khokana, Maharjan had seen first-hand how his own community treated his mother, sisters and relatives during their menstrual period. Much of his community was illiterate and did not understand proper menstrual health and sanitation. Even though he’d seen this from a young age, actual awareness came when he got a chance to assist a film crew who were filming a documentary regarding women rights in 2004, when he had just completed his tenth grade.
“While filming the documentary, I got a chance to closely observe how women are forced to stay in one corner of a dark room during their menstrual period,” says Maharjan. “It was heart -wrenching to see them being treated as untouchables for four days. And they were using dirty pieces of cloth during their periods.”
This might have been the first time that Maharjan was exposed to the horrific ways in which women are treated during their menstruation, but he had long seen the injustices that women have to deal with every day in Nepali society. His mother and father were poor and often beaten by their relatives for small slights, he says. But he also saw how women were specifically targeted — by drunk husbands who beat their wives, by overzealous young men who verbally harassed women in public, and by criminals who went so far as to molest and rape women.
Early on, in 2007, Maharjan connected with seven friends to form X-pose, an organisation that sought to ‘expose’ the violence women faced in society. It was seven years later, in 2014, that he formally began to campaign for menstrual health and make sanitary pads.
So far, Maharjan’s organisation has trained over 700 women to make sanitary pads, which he sells through a store in Khokana and Pulchowk. He sells over 1,500 handmade pads a month, says Maharjan.
Maharjan’s pads come in different colours—pink, red, blue, white, and yellow—and in three sizes—standard, medium and large. The former two cost Rs 150 and the latter Rs 160, all hand-stitched with cotton and flannel fabrics. These pads can be washed and reused for up to two years.
Readymade pads, on the other hand, cost a minimum of Rs 55 each. During one menstrual cycle, about 10 pads are used on average, which means, women have to spend Rs 550 for just one menstrual cycle.
“If you buy four handmade reusable sanitary pads, they can be used for two years for just Rs 640,” says Maharjan.
Most of the money made from selling the pads goes back to the women who made them. His employees make Rs 115 for each pad they make. One person can make an average of 17 pads a day, totalling Rs 1955 in a single day’s income.
But Maharjan doesn’t just sell pads, he spreads awareness. Initially, he worked in the community, but now he’s started talking in schools. He cites a recent incident as the catalyst for why he decided to concentrate on schools. A male teacher in a Kathmandu school found a sanitary pad in a female student’s bag and decided to humiliate her publicly for having it.
“It was due to a lack of knowledge,” says Maharjan. “The male teacher did not understand how important a pad is for girls during their menstruation.”
So far, Maharjan has reached out to 17 community schools in Lalitpur, where he teaches everyone, from boys and girls to teachers. And he is happy to hear that these days, some private and government schools have started providing sanitary pads for free to female students.
Maharjan believes that we need to concentrate on our communities first, before looking to others. He takes issue with the fact that there is so much outrage over Chhaupadi when similar forms of discrimination are being practiced even in the urban centres of the country.
“Every day we talk about Chhaupadi in the far west, but the situation is not too different here even in the capital city,” he says. “We don’t need to go far. The fear of menstruation is ubiquitous in almost all upper-caste families in Kathmandu. Women are still considered untouchable during their menstruation period and deprived of basic hygiene and sanitation.”
Maharjan says he doesn’t believe that it is women alone who should campaign for menstrual health and hygiene and try to get rid of archaic notions of purity and cleanliness. Men, too, need to step up to discard age-old taboos that don’t make sense in the modern world.
“We are living in a paradox. At a time when women need more nutrition and care, they are kept away and treated as untouchables,” says Maharjan. “If women are healthy then the whole family becomes healthy.”