Kristin Kagetsu, co-founder and CEO of Indian startup Saathi, is tackling the stigma against menstruation in India by offering biodegradable sanitary items and cutting use of plastic along the way.
Saathi was set up in 2015 in the western city of Ahmedabad, making biodegradable sanitary items from the abundant banana and bamboo fibers available from local farms. As of 2022, the company had distributed around 1 million pads.
Kagetsu was inspired to jump into the business during her first trip to India in 2012. One thing she noticed while traveling, aside from the country’s rich culture, was the lack of sanitary items in stores. “[I] never even thought that was a big issue,” she said. But soon the MIT graduate from New York found out that it is indeed a deeply rooted problem in India.
The lack of sanitary products “impacts [women’s] ability to go to school and work. … It’s a limitation on your potential,” said Kagetsu, who was in Tokyo for Nikkei’s annual Future of Asia forum. Some girls resort to using old rags when menstruating, risking infection and leaks. “For a teenage girl, that’s just one more reason to get made fun of at school, and that is very impactful to your mental health,” she added.
Menstruation varies from woman to woman: Some have to change products multiple times, depending on their menstrual flow, and some experience more pain than others. Experts also point out that teenagers experience more drastic changes in menstruation due to fluctuations in hormone levels.
According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund in India in 2022, only 64.5% of adolescent girls in the country use sanitary napkins, although that was an improvement over the previous survey five years earlier. Reasons range from a lack of supplies in rural areas to religious taboos.
Overlooking the effects of menstruation can limit opportunities for women, interfering with their ability to go to school or work, said Kagetsu. “Maybe seven days in a month, every month, for the whole school year, you miss [classes]. … The child or the parents might make a decision that it is not worth it to send the girl to school and it’s better she stays home [and] does housework,” adding, “It’s a whole different path to opt out.”
Kagetsu says the fact that her company’s sanitary napkins are biodegradable will encourage their use in rural India. “One of the leading elements of why [customers] are interested in the product is that it doesn’t create waste.” Some women hesitate to use sanitary products because of the stigma, or anxiety associated with menstrual blood.
In rural areas where the waste disposal system is inadequate everyone in the community can see other people’s garbage. “If this product degrades, then it won’t be dug up by local animals or … just left out in the open,” Kagetsu said. Saathi’s products typically break down in around six months after composting, she said.
The MIT graduate emphasized the importance of tackling plastic waste in India and the lack of sanitary items together, as the problems are connected. She recalled the early days of the business, saying, “Everyone said, ‘Don’t do that. It’s not gonna work, you must choose one.'” But she pressed on.
“Maybe [we are] a little bit stubborn,” Kagetsu said.