Gender issues

Kolkata’s Padman: A college student distributes free sanitary pads in public toilets

Sobhan Mukherjee wants to help break the taboo around menstruation.

Late last October, Sobhan Mukherjee was in a monthly meeting at Kobi Kolom – a poetry magazine that he is editor of – when he saw one of his female colleagues leaving the room midway. When they spoke later, she told him that she had to rush out to buy a sanitary pad, as her period had started. The incident moved Mukherjee deeply – “It was disturbing to think that in an emergency situation like this, my friend has to go and find a pharmacy. This is when I came up with the idea of Project Bandhan – distributing sanitary napkins in public toilets.”

As part of this project, Mukherjee, a 21-year-old MSc student in Kolkata, has been installing indigenous sanitary pad-dispensing carton boxes in public toilets across the city. In an email interview, he said, “This [the period] is a natural process, yet people make it a hush-hush affair, making it more difficult for women to deal with the situation. That troubles me a lot.” He wanted to help break this taboo.

Initially, he used his pocket money to buy sanitary napkins at Rs 2 each and distributed them free, placing his own study table in one of the public toilets in Bansdroni, south Kolkata. But soon, he realised that the pads were being misused. So now he charges a nominal fee – the cost price for each packet.

Mukherjee’s first challenge was to convince municipal ward councillors. Starting in October 2017, as more councillors understood the efficacy of his project, Mukherjee began installing Bandhan boxes in public toilets. By the end of February, the tally had reached 30 public toilets across Kolkata.

Anita Kar Majumdar, councillor of ward number 112, said, “This is a very noble venture coming from a young boy like Sobhan. I am going to support him in this and would like to see him succeed.”

Support system

Mukherjee’s interest in social entrepreneurship is rooted in his upbringing – his parents helped him cultivate a sense of empathy and they continue to support him. “Even when I was not at home, attending my classes, they would organise the sanitary napkins and pack them for me. You can well imagine how inspiring that can be for me.” His friends have also been rallying behind him to help.

“This was a much-needed endeavour,” said Mouli Ghosh, a friend of Mukherjee’s.

Project Bandhan is not Mukherjee’s first foray into social entrepreneurship. In August, he launched Tridhara, a project that marks separate public toilets for transgender people. Mukherjee knew it would cost the government lakhs to build brand new toilets, and a sustainable and low-cost alternative would just be to earmark space in existing ones. A ward councillor agreed. Together they set aside a cubicle each in public toilets for the transgender community by pasting a sticker, called Tridhara, that bears the universally accepted transgender symbol. Fifteen toilets today have the sticker.

Right now, Sobhan incurs an expense of around Rs 3,500 per month for the Bandhan boxes that he maintains. Ward councillors have assured him of financial support in the coming days, but for now, his father and some friends chip in to help him meet the cost. On posting about Project Bandhan on social media, many friends and acquaintances have come forward to support him. “A 13-year-old girl contacted me and offered help with her little pocket money. She won’t take it for a no, no matter how much I tried to convince her.”

Mukherjee hopes that Project Bandhan will take off on a national level so that women across the country can avail of the convenience of sanitary napkins in public toilets.

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