GESI's ongoing partnership with UGER helps promote reproductive health in India

October 26, 2015

“There are two ways of learning: by keeping your nose to a book or by opening your eyes to the world. GESI provides the rare learning opportunity as it combines both forms. I know I have walked away invariably changed for the better.”

-Kalindi Shah, GESI 2011 India participant and Jatan Sanasthan intern 

Each year, the Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) sends undergraduate students from around the country to collaborate on grassroots projects with local NGOs in Bolivia, India, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Uganda, and Kenya. Several teams of GESI students have collaborated with Jatan Sansthan in Udaipur, India, where students helped develop their innovative and globally recognized UGER sanitary pad product.

GESI 2011: A Partnership Begins

In the summer of 2011, GESI students Colette Ghunim, Danielle Littman, Kalindi Shah, and Abigail Weitman traveled to Udaipur, India, for their 10-week internship with Jatan Sansthan, a grassroots NGO that works with rural populations in the state of Rajasthan. Upon arrival, they were tasked with assisting a self-help group (SHG) and cooperative business for low-income women. After some initial interviews and research, the interns found that the SHG women had been trained by Jatan to sew, but the bags they were sewing were not selling. It was time to re-evaluate their product and marketing strategy.

But none of the four GESI students had a business background, and they were initially concerned that meant they were unqualified to help. However, as Danielle Littman discovered, “it was a little better not being experts” in the business field, because they sought what turned out to be a more effective and sustainable option.

With assistance from Jatan, the GESI interns found business and marketing experts in Udaipur to provide professional advice. These local experts led educational sessions for the SHG on business marketing and product research. The GESI interns also brought the SHG to local banks where employees were able to speak to them about obtaining credit and business loans.

After weeks of training and planning, the women’s SHG was getting close to a final decision on what would be their new signature product. However, the internship was quickly coming to a close, and the GESI students would be back home before the SHG reached their final decision. Before leaving, the GESI team gave the SHG seed funding to help launch the new product in the following year. It was a bittersweet end to the project: great progress had been made, but there was still so much more to be done, and the interns wouldn’t be there to see it.

“We felt like we only did a little, but at least we didn’t bite off more than we could chew – it was a manageable amount of work,” recalled Danielle.

“New Beginnings” at Jatan Sansthan

The GESI interns had no idea that 2011 would end up being such an important year for Jatan and the women’s SHG. Soon after the four students returned home, Jatan and the SHG enlisted the help of Lakshmi Murthy, a graphic designer and a social activist from Rajasthan focused on developing media for rural women and teenagers on issues related to sexuality. Her design firm, Vikalp Design, worked with Jatan to develop an eco-friendly cloth sanitary pad for rural women that could be sewn and sold by the women of the SHG.  UGER women measuring in 2012

Besides having appeal to local markets and being simple to make, the cloth pad functions as a healthy, environmentally safe replacement for the traditional menstruation management methods of rural India. In Udaipur and many other regions of India, many women still have very little knowledge about menstruation and reproductive health.

In rural areas of India, using dirty rags or cloth filled with sand or ash to manage periods is not uncommon and poses a major health risk. In more affluent and urban regions, synthetic disposable pads are common but still extremely expensive for a large portion of women. The reusable cotton cloth pads cost less, produce less harmful waste, and could help provide a sustainable livelihood and income for rural Indian women. 

The SHG also finally decided on a name: UGER, which means “new beginnings” in Mewari, a major dialect of Rajasthan. The name signifies a “new beginning” in how women approach their health and menstruation, but also hopefully a new beginning in overall attitudes towards menstruation in India, where it is still a very taboo subject. Their product would become known as UGER pads.

GESI 2012: Bringing UGER to the market

Not long after UGER’s official debut, a new cohort of GESI interns returned to Jatan in 2012. UGER needed training, product testing, and a well-defined marketing strategy to increase their sales. With the help of Lakshmi Murthy, GESI interns Stephanie Charouk, Nathaniel Henry, and Rachel Vrabec facilitated a five-day workshop during which six UGER women created a trial run of 80 sanitary pads.

In addition to conducting training sessions on how to sew pads, the interns developed marketing materials and updated the Jatan website to facilitate selling them to a wider audience. In order to increase awareness of both the product and best practices in women’s reproductive health, they sent product samples and pamphlets to NGOs across India that work with rural women.

Major growth in 2015 

In 2015, UGER has increased production of its pads to 300-450 per day. Sales have recently increased dramatically: UGER sold 30 pads a month in 2014 and is now selling an average of 200 a month in 2015. The product and its benefits have been highlighted recently in several major Indian and global news outlets. In 2015 UGER has become an international brand and a symbol for a more progressive approach to women’s reproductive health in India.

GESI 2015 student Kamila Muhammad tries her hand at sewing a sanitary pad

It was also in 2015 that a group of GESI interns returned to Jatan to work with UGER. Unlike their 2011 and 2012 GESI predecessors, Jematia Chepyator, Vivien Hastings, and Kamila Muhammad had a fully developed product ready to sell. However, they still had a significant challenge in continuing to educate rural women and teenagers about menstruation, reproductive health, and why cloth pads are a good alternative to some of the traditional unhygienic methods.

As a means to educate, build community, and increase product awareness, the three interns help set up workshops for local women to learn more about reproductive health. They shared health knowledge and worked to dispel common myths about menstruation in the community – certain foods they were banned from eating, places they were not allowed to go, and items they were not allowed to touch while on their period. They created books and guides so that future community members and Jatan staff can continue their work and continue to build on their success. And they even started an online store for UGER pads on Etsy. Learn more about 2015 GESI students' work with Jatan Sansthan.

With such exciting growth in just a few short years, we can’t wait to see what the future will bring for Jatan and the women of UGER.

Asia, Global Health, Undergraduate Students