Khaleeda Khatoon lives in a make-shift house on the footpath of Rajabazar Canal, West Road, Kolkata. She lives with her husband and three children. Khaleeda’s husband lost his job during the COVID-19 lockdown; he used to drive a rickshaw van. As a result, the family became dependent on free rations supplied through the public distribution system (PDS) and other relief supplies by non-governmental agencies. After the lockdown was lifted, her husband tried to get back to his work but could not get employment. Though free rations continued, the family sank deeper into poverty without income.
Lakshmi Mondal’s story is similar. A former domestic worker, Lakshmi lives with her husband and son at Dhapa, Kolkata. Her husband, working at a box manufacturing company, also lost his job. PDS rations are available, but lack of income makes their lives harder than ever.
The crisis faced by women like Khaleeda and Lakshmi led Muktokantho, a women’s collective in Kolkata, to explore ways to provide livelihood support to women living in informal worker settlements in the city. Muktokantho has emerged in Kolkata out of the Young Urban Women (YUW) initiative by ActionAid Association. In Kolkata, the YUW started in 2018 in ten urban localities. Today the work has spread over to 16 urban localities, with more than 1,000 members. The Young Urban Women initiative is actively engaged across 13 cities in India. It seeks to build women’s access to decent work, sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), and participation and leadership in urban issues, primarily gender-responsive public services, and safe cities.
Both Khatoon and Mondal joined Muktokantho and, in one of the meetings, learned about menstrual hygiene and the health issues that women face due to unhygienic menstrual practices, and the scope of receiving training in sanitary napkin-making.
The discussion helped them decide to join the sanitary napkin-making training cum business unit established by ActionAid Association and with the support of corporate social responsibility (CSR) partner.
They learned to make sanitary napkins through the six-month-long training, developed sales and marketing skills, and received working knowledge of maintaining stocks and accounts. The first group of 10 young women from different slum areas has undergone the training with a napkin-making machine installed by ActionAid Association, with the support of a CSR partner. The raw material was also provided as part of the training and the start-up kit.
The sanitary pad-making unit is now ready to market its first product. “Feel Free” is a low-cost, eco-friendly, biodegradable, highly absorbent, and sterilized product. It will be made accessible and affordable to the women living in slums. Apart from marketing “Feel Free”, the women will be spreading awareness on napkin usage and preparing first-generation users for proper disposal of used napkins.
With other group members, both Khatoon and Mondal are now optimistic and eager to work hard to market the product well, help their unit become a profitable unit, and earn their livelihood.
“I always wanted a work wherein I could stand on my own and support my family,” said Khatoon.
“I come from a slum area of Kolkata. My family is economically not very sound. This training has helped me to enhance my skill and confidence. As a result, I found myself in a better position economically and socially,” said Mondal.
Indeed it is lovely to see the energies released amongst young women from deprived backgrounds when they get an opportunity to engage in decent work with dignity. However, like all start-ups, their micro-enterprise will face many challenges to remain viable and profitable. So we need to extend all the help they require in these early days.
Disclaimer: The article was originally published on Dailyhunt. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of ActionAid Association.