Maya Vishwakarma, popularly known as the “Padwoman Of India” is on a mission to promote menstrual hygiene and to fight against menstrual stigma in rural India. Her organization ‘Sukarma Foundation’ campaigns at the community level in remote villages about menstrual hygiene and manufactures low-cost sanitary napkins for tribal women in Madhya Pradesh, India.
Hailing from a very remote village in India, Maya went to the US for her Ph.D on full scholarships only to return to her village after a few years to serve her community and empower the rural women who didn’t have the access to basic necessities of life.
In 2016, she founded Sukarma Foundation, and started manufacturing low cost sanitary pads. Later, in 2018 she decided to campaign in remote villages to raise awareness about menstrual health. She didn’t find anybody to accompany her in the campaign, such strong was the stigma and taboo associated with menstruation! She then took a bank loan to purchase a SUV and traveled through 15 tribal villages alone to talk about menstruation health and hygiene – such strong was her determination!
Maya’s story has been featured widely by the mainstream media in India and she received a lot of accolades and awards for her efforts in empowering rural women.
Maya, could you please tell us about your work in promoting women empowerment and gender equality in rural India?
Menstruation in rural India is still a taboo, and women do not have access or affordability to any menstruation hygiene products. We have been educating the women in tribal and rural areas of Madhya Pradesh about safe menstrual health and hygiene and providing them menstruation hygiene products at a very low cost.
We also conduct workshops and seminars in schools, and visit tribal villages and talk to women to promote awareness about menstrual health and hygiene.
We have a small sanitary pad manufacturing factory in my village in Madhya Pradesh where we employ only women from marginalized and underprivileged backgrounds. We are trying to empower these women by providing them economic independence in a very dignified way. The entire factory is run by these women – they manage the entire operations and manufacturing work. This is a huge achievement for these women.
We also run a telemedicine clinic in our village where only women are employed.
We promote gender equality by providing the economic freedom to women, by encouraging girls to pursue higher education, and by telling these women that they are not less than men – something they could not even imagine until a few years ago.
Please tell us more about your journey..
I was born and raised in a remote village in Madhya Pradesh, India. My father was a blacksmith and agricultural labor. We had a small carpentry work. As a child, I worked with my parents in the agricultural field. I had a very tough childhood, but that gave me a lot of strength and resilience.
The only girls’ school in our village only had up to 8th grades. My parents were not educated - my father studied till 5th graduated and my mother never went to school, but they always encouraged me to study further. I went to a neighboring village for high school, then went to college and later did my post-graduation in Biochemistry from Jabalpur.
I joined AIIMS, Delhi for a research fellowship. In AIIMs, I got a lot of exposure in basic science research, started attending a lot of conferences, and seminars and got interested in research. After that I went to the US for Ph. D.in Chemical and Biological Engineering at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. I was the first girl in our entire locality who went to the US in full scholarship. But, I didn’t really enjoy engineering and dropped out of my Phd after 2 years, and moved to California Bay Area. I joined a cancer research lab in UCSF, and started working as a Senior Research Associate.
What motivated you to take this path or start this work?
Coming from such a humble background, I started from zero, I had nothing to lose.
After coming to America, I was exposed to a very different world. At the same time, there I got the opportunity to learn a lot in terms of working hard in establishing myself.
But when I would come to my village on vacation, there were still no roads and electricity. One issue which started bothering me really bad was the lack of awareness and access to proper menstrual hygiene. There was a huge taboo around menstruation, and women had no concept about menstrual hygiene. I wanted do something to remove that.
I was looking for an opportunity to broaden my network in the areas of social transformation and social changes. In 2011, I participated in the Anna Movement as volunteers and eventually in 2014, I got the ticket for Member of Parliament (MPs) from Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). I ran for the Indian Parliament election from Hoshangabad Constituency, Madhya Pradesh. During the election campaign I travelled to remote places and got myself familiar with a lot of issues in the tribal areas in Madhya Pradesh.
I lost the election, but after the election, I realized I wanted to continue my social and community work. I didn’t want to get stuck in the US with a regular job. I felt I wasn't born for that life.
I started my social work by making a small documentary film Swaraj Mumkin Hai on sustainable villages and promoted the movie in the neighbouring villages. I also wrote a book on sustainable villages.
Then I formed my non-profit, Sukarma Foundation. We started spreading awareness in all the tribal areas about menstruation hygiene and started a small low-cost sanitary napkin manufacturing unit called ‘No Tension’ where we employed only local women.
Recently, during the lockdown due to covid 19, we have been working every day for the last 4 months to provide relief packages to villagers and migrant workers.The lockdown had a horrific impact on the villagers and migrant workers.
Can you share some of the major challenges and roadblocks which you’ve faced in empowering women and girls in rural India?
Absolutely! The two primary challenges I faced were, providing these women a sense of freedom, and increasing their level of confidence.
Girls and women are required to follow a lot of social restrictions here. They are not allowed to go out, pursue higher studies or to have a job. in fact, they are not even allowed to go to the market alone. Very few girls in these areas pursue higher education. Girls in villages, starting from as early as 11/12 years, have huge domestic responsibilities. Giving them the freedom to continue their education is unthinkable for the parents. Convincing the parents to allow their daughters to go to school, or allowing them to work as well as changing the mind of the girls and diverting them towards education were really very difficult at the beginning.
These were the major obstacles that I have been facing in empowering the girls and women. Fortunately, we were able to make some impact, situation and mindset of people are changing very slowly.
Could you please share some of your achievements and major milestones so far?
I don’t think I have really achieved anything big yet. I do this work because I was really passionate about this issue. However, giving talks in institutions like IIITs, addressing hundreds of students, going to TED Talk- all these were amazing experiences for me.
My work have received a lot of media attention. According to the media, my work is very unique in rural India, So, media approach me every time I do something new.
I’ve also received quite a few awards. Recently I’ve received the SBI Women Empowerment Award and New India Times Devi Award 2019. All these are small milestones for me.
What would you advise to our readers who want to help and empower women?
Well, my advice to all the readers would be – please don’t compare or discriminate between boys and girls or sons and daughters. I was the only girl in my family, I had three brothers. My parents treated me the same as my brothers – I didn’t have any restrictions, I was allowed to do everything that my brothers would do – lifting weight, playing kabaddi with other boys.
Being treated equally and respectfully at childhood would make the girls confident as adults. Confidence and freedom both are equally important in our lives. If your daughters are not confident, even if you give them the freedom they’ll not be able to do anything. Please raise your daughters with equality, dignity, and teach them that everyone is equal.
We see in our villages, women, and girls are treated differently. For instance, in the same family, boys go to private schools, whereas girls hardly make it to govt. Schools. Such huge discrimination by parents at an early age impacts the entire life of a girl.
This interview was conducted and recorded by Swagata Sen. It was later transcribed, edited and published by our Editorial Team.
You can read here about some recognitions and accolades of Maya Vishwakarma –