Meet the Pad-man of Bengal, Sobhan Mukherjee
Many important issues that need to be addressed are often buried under the stigma of societal marginalization. Be it accepting different sexualities, their needs or talking about something as natural and recurring as menstruation, our society simply refuses to talk. Something like menstruation happens to almost half the population of this world every month, plays a major role in procreation and yet is a taboo amongst many cultures. When we think of menstruation, the first thing that pops up in our heads is that it happens only to females and that it's only their problem to deal with. The non-conforming parts of society are often left out of these conversations, and they are left to figure out the way around 'their' issues.
The problem roots where periods are just associated with females and not with the other menstruators because we fail to acknowledge the fact that females aren't the only gender that menstruates. It is no news that the LGBTQ2+ community receives a lack of liberty, respect, and freedom of expression. Even though they have the freedom to live a safe, respectful, and indiscriminate life, the reality is much different from that. There is a dire need for awareness, acceptance, sensitivity, resources and most importantly, a conversation to put a period to all the societal constructs.
Sobhan Mukherjee is a 26-year-old, who not only acknowledges the stigma around menstruation and the needs of transgenders but is also actively working towards making hundreds of lives easier every day. His outstanding work with initiatives like Bandhan, Tridhara, Blood Relation Project, Ghore Ghore Sanitary Pad and his magazine, Kobi Kolom has been crowned with awards like the C. Subramaniam Award awarded by the National Foundation for India and the Ananya Samman 2018 Award awarded by the ZEE network and has also been mentioned in the Times of India.
Breaking the taboo around menstruation
Sobhan Mukherjee was born and brought up in Bansdroni, Tollygunge and Kolkata. He was born into a middle-class family and was always encouraged to focus on his education. The school introduced him to the unevenness in the privileges where one student came from a wealthier family than the other. This was when he felt the need for social service.
His journey led him to work towards breaking the taboo around menstruation and the facilities for transgender people. Talking about compassion towards transgenders, he imparted that from his parents. "Whenever the trans people from the Hijra association used to come, my mother used to chat with them, offer them beverages. My parents used to do the same with labourers and others too. They never looked at them as if they didn’t belong", he says.
In 2017, Sobhan started working towards transgender upliftment. He came up with his creative magazine, Kobi Kolom, which included real-life stories about the lives of transgender people in the existing ignorant society. He realized that the struggles are much deeper than what we see and that the community is disintegrating over even the most basic of daily necessities that the rest of us take for granted. While he was working to uplift the community by conducting various awareness camps and amplifying the stories to a bigger audience, he felt the need to make a bigger contribution by working on-ground. He also worked as a project coordinator at the Child In Need Institute (CINI) for some time. Soon enough, another issue caught his attention.
"It so happened that one day, we were having our quarterly meeting for our creative magazine, Kobi Kolom, and one of our female members was to attend, but suddenly cancelled the program and went halfway back home. Upon asking, she was a bit hesitant, but then I came to know that her period had started, and she did not have a pad at that time. That’s when I realized that not just my friend but many other people in Kolkata and outside who face the same problem every month and often must adjust their schedules, however important the work at hand may be, just because of the non-availability of sanitary pads.", said Sobhan.
Sobhan understood the problem and wanted to find a way to provide a pad to any girl that needed one at any time. He decided that he would provide sanitary pads for free and started with his college, where he handed out pads himself, although it didn't turn out to be the most efficient way. He started his first sanitary napkin initiative, 'Bandhan' in October 2017.
Sobhan says, "Initially, I had to use my pocket money to buy sanitary pads and provide them to women for free. Later, I started facing financial issues, and at a point in time, I had to mortgage even four of my rings to allocate money for my project. Slowly and gradually, with support from various organizations, I was successful in placing vending machines in 72 (and counting) public washrooms in south Kolkata. In 2018, Akshay Kumar himself invited and honoured me with the title, the Padman of Bengal, for our work throughout West Bengal."
The Bandhan initiative later inspired the birth of the Tridhara initiative, which focused on the need for a different washroom for the transgender community. Apart from the usual male and female signs, these washrooms have another room marked ‘Tridhara’, signifying transgenders with their internationally accepted symbol. "Tridhara, the idea popped up when I was writing in my magazine on the topic and felt that maybe it just wasn’t enough. Then, I was first lent the hand of support by the councillor of Ward number 112, Mrs Anita Kar Majumdar, who supported the initiative as being a unique and noble one for a greater cause. So, I worked towards providing public washrooms for transgenders in Kolkata as well as reserving separate seats for trans people in the buses of routes 205 and 205A.", says Sobhan.
The way forward
All that Sobhan could do, he gives major credit to his parents and especially his late mother, who always preached to him one thing, "Your dreams are valuable to none but you, and you have to fight to make them come true". Sobhan wouldn't have been able to impact thousands of lives today if it weren't for the wing beneath his wings, his parents, who helped him achieve his goals, from packing the sanitary pads with him to standing with him when people were criticizing him. Sobhan now carries that zeal with him to uplift the community that he lives in with all he has.
His latest initiative, Ghore Ghore Sanitary Pad, includes the provision of sanitary napkins at minimal cost to women across West Bengal, but in addition to that, it opens avenues for employment. So, he's not just solving their menstrual issues but also empowering women to be independent and strong.
He also carries out camps in villages where he talks to young girls and women about menstrual hygiene and spreads awareness about menstrual health and sustainability. "We provide them with pads ₹16/- per 5 pads and we encourage them to prioritize their menstrual health since many might refrain from spending on their menstrual health and prefer to go for the older, not very healthy methods. Today, we are working across West Bengal distributing around 5 Lakh packets of pads every month and spreading awareness as we go," he says.
Sobhan faced many obstacles along his journey where people judged him for what he did and tried to pull him down, but he always held his head high and focused on the bigger picture. He inspires us all to do our part in society because it is, after all, our home and we are responsible for all that goes right and wrong with it.
Exclusively written for Giving for Good Foundation by Bhairavi Hiremath