The Pad Maker of Lavatar
Sheela Chhetri sits on her veranda in Lavatar village in Barnesbeg Tea Estate, Darjeeling, West Bengal, surrounded by her plants, her foot rhythmically pushing the pedal of her sewing machine. She has cut strips of cloth which she’s layering into reusable cloth sanitary napkins. At 61, she does not need the pads herself. “But I make them on order and for my neighbours,” she says.
A peer educator on menstrual hygiene management under the Twinings and WaterAid India project to provide access to safe drinking water, improved sanitation and hygiene, and an Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) worker and member of the village Self Help Group, Sheela has spent her life working for her community. It was during a menstrual health awareness session organised by WaterAid India and their implementation partner DLR Prerna that she learnt about the benefits of using cotton pads. “I came to know here that commercial pads are extremely harmful, not just for the environment but also to women’s health,” she says. As an ICDS worker, she saw women, especially new mothers suffer rashes and infections from the overuse of commercial pads. “I felt that they must have the option of using cotton pads as they are gentle on the skin as well as the environment.”
A skilled seamstress, Sheela used the design of the pad developed by DLR Prerna and carefully chose the softest flannel for the outer layer. “I made inner layers out of old cotton,” she says. The waterproof layer was a little harder to source especially as this village is quite far from the main market in Darjeeling. “I was not able to find any good fabric so I decided to improvise,” she says, showing a well-crafted pad she has recently made. “I re-used the fabric from an old umbrella instead!”
Sheela’s pads reflect the compassion she has for her fellow women. They are soft, reusable and have quaint prints. Every set of three pads has one meant for heavy flow, which is folded like a Japanese fan. She opens it out to demonstrate how many absorbent layers it has. “Presently, I handle four to five orders a month,” she says. “Each pad can be reused for at least two years!” Sheela would love to train other women in the community to make their own pads. However as most of them work in the tea garden, they only have time on the weekend. She herself is busy through the week too, but somehow manages to find time to make pads. “I sell them at Rs 50 per piece, which just about covers the cost of the raw materials,” she says. Her son keeps asking Sheela to retire, saying that this is not her age to work so hard. However, the 61-year-old finds lot of purpose in her work. “I see it as social work and want to do it for as long as I am able to!”