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Powering women’s livelihoods and building a community’s resilience to the pandemic with solar energy

The LEADS Resource Centre in Perka village, Khunti, Jharkhand, supported and established by Jharkhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (JREDA), The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and ICCO, is a rooftop solar-powered facility providing women with livelihood in these uncertain times.

As of mid-2019, only 36% of menstruating girls and women in India use sanitary napkins. Female students also drop out of schools upon reaching puberty—this is also attributed to absence of necessary infrastructure in the schools (such as toilets with running water) to help them manage their menstruation safely. Jharkhand was reported to have the country’s highest school dropout rates. Only 3 in 10 students go on to complete their schooling in the state.

Jharkhand’s vast tribal population has little access to running electricity and water. The cost of electricity to pump running water in toilets, and for drinking, is considerable for these families. This cost is also an important factor in determining whether girls have access to hygienic menstrual solutions thus forming a deep connection between menstruation and school dropouts.

Enter, COVID-19. The pandemic has not only put acute stress on India’s healthcare infrastructure but also the livelihood of women in rural India. Matters such as self-help group-led livelihood security and menstrual hygiene were pushed even further back.

But the LEADS Resource Centre in Perka village, Khunti, Jharkhand has managed to combine the above challenges faced by women and equip them with menstrual sanitation as well as a living during the national lockdown and beyond.

Each one, teach one

A packet of disposable sanitary napkins that lasts through one menstrual cycle costs an average Rs 30 in the village. This amounts to Rs 360 in a year. Most families cannot afford such expense.

However, four reusable sanitary napkins, tested for absorbance and efficiency, only cost Rs 100. These are enough to last a menstruating person up to 1 year. This product was designed by the women of the village themselves. It brought down the initial cost of purchase substantially as the napkins can be washed and reused.

Powered by the sun

A 5 kW solar PV system was installed at this LEADS resource center in March 2019 in Perka in Jharkhand’s Khunti District. This reusable sanitary pad and mask manufacturing unit was established with the aim to create employment opportunities for females in the rural areas. They are well trained in stitching and operating the solar-powered sewing machines installed at the Resource Centre.

The power harnessed by the rooftop solar installation was used to run 10 sewing machines. 30 girls are trained to use these machines on rotation. They have earned an average of Rs 8,000 per month manufacturing reusable sanitary napkins, masks, and other clothing apparel. As of August 2020, the team has manufactured 25,000 masks.

The girls and women have managed to monetarily contribute to the households’ disposable income with this additional and alternative livelihood opportunity during the worst of the pandemic and lockdown.

Furthermore, they have also been the harbingers of change – moving through the region and educating other women on the importance of menstrual hygiene along with the affordable handmade solutions as well as wearing masks to minimize easy transmission of the virus.

Watch how this effort created impact:

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