Eco Femme cloth pads and menstrual programs have attracted curiosity and attention from many people around the world. How did it start? Where did the idea originate? Why did two foreigners end up in India, creating this social enterprise?
The thread that connects all these questions is Auroville – an experimental township in the south of India with a population of over 3000 people from sixty nations. It has been my home and greatest source of inspiration for the last twenty-five years.
Auroville shapes EVERYTHING we do at Eco Femme and in this blog I would like to make visible some of the ways this special relationship has influenced the evolution of our project.
As Auroville turns 54 it is a fitting time to share a bit of this back story with you.
My journey to Auroville
Originally from Australia, I found my way to Auroville in January 1996. I first heard about Auroville from a friend while traveling in Europe. Something in what he described ignited my imagination. An international community which aspired to be “an ideal township devoted to an experiment in human unity” evoked a deep curiosity to find out more! Within a year of that fateful meeting, I was sitting under the Banyan tree in the physical centre of Auroville and wrote in my journal “I feel like I am home”. I joined the community a year later and began living in a newly formed settlement, aptly named ‘Adventure’, and began a new life in India.
The birth of an ecological worldview
My first work in Auroville was tree planting. This birthed a new kind of awareness that nature and I are not separate but interconnected and interdependent in a relationship of mutual reciprocity. “Auroville wants to be the city the earth needs” was a frequently heard expression describing what Auroville aspired to be and I began to contemplate what this might mean.
Like many of Auroville’s early pioneers, I chose a life of voluntary simplicity, living communally in a simple hut made from natural materials, sharing common facilities, and growing and eating organic food. I discovered that it is possible to live lightly on the earth and doing so made me feel very happy and peaceful. Making the switch to reusable cloth pads became just one – albeit important – step away from consuming items that would produce waste and bring me closer in touch with my own body.
Integral perspective and systems thinking
Living in Auroville taught me to think differently – synergistic thinking was being modeled through many high impact projects that I saw flourishing all around me. Experiments in integral education, projects devoted to sustainability and social businesses that were supporting the empowerment and skill development of local villagers were all demonstrating an exciting and new way of living and creating prosperity.
In 2009 I met Jessamijn Miedema, and we teamed up and began envisioning what Eco Femme might become. Drawing inspiration from other Auroville projects and recognising the opportunities for collaboration within the community itself, we decided on a social enterprise business model that would enable us to generate income to enable us to afford to do ‘not for profit’ work, thus freeing ourselves from donor dependency.
This included harnessing an opportunity to collaborate with NGO Auroville Village Action Group, providing a local livelihood opportunity to their women self help group members who would stitch the cloth pads. This partnership also gave us access to the larger network of rural women who helped inform our understanding of the menstrual landscape in India from a grassroots perspective. This in turn enabled us to understand menstruation as a multi-faceted issue with health, economic, environmental, cultural and gender dimensions that could all be positively impacted if we were able to accommodate this complexity and not try and reduce it to an overly simplistic issue.
The significance of Eco Femme’s location in Auroville, South India
Our approach to menstrual education thus evolved as a result of our unique location. As a project of Auroville which has the ultimate goal of collectively evolving human consciousness, this evolutionary, global perspective informs what we do at Eco Femme to the core. Parallelly, being rooted in rural south India, with its combination of traditional knowledge and rapid development, has enabled a rich cross-fertilization between the global evolutionary impulse and the traditional knowledge of rural south India. This has provided us with ideal conditions in which to develop a ground-breaking approach to menstrual health education: one that has significance for India as well as internationally.
As an emerging city dedicated to human unity, collaboration is one of Auroville’s core values. In spite of a lot of struggle at times, there is a strong spirit of sharing and working together. Some examples include Auroville’s Free Store, Auroville Library of Things, experimentation with gift economy, alternative currencies and a strong volunteering ethic. This runs counter to the prevailing capitalistic mindset in so much of the world where society is structured around competition and survival of the fittest.
We have been the beneficiaries of this culture of collaboration and have received immense support from within the community – loans and other material resources, knowledge sharing and support with market linkages that has helped us grow and succeed. This generosity has led us to want to further this in our business practices. This is one reason why we say “the mission is bigger than the brand” and why we try to help as many people and organisations as we can to emulate what we are doing because we have realised that preventing plastic pollution for example has a far bigger value and impact than just selling loads of Eco Femme cloth pads.
Non ownership and Legacy for the earth
Auroville has a very futuristic vision that is expressed powerfully in its 4 point charter and another foundational document called A Dream written by Auroville’s founder known fondly as The Mother. Auroville is understood as a place that wants to model a way of living that lives in harmony with the Earth and is internationally known as a site that restored indigienous forest to a barren landscape. This idea has deeply touched our work at Eco Femme – our products and work is an expression of one of our most cherished core values – love of the earth.
Another very powerful and unique idea of Auroville is that property, land and business are not privately owned. This means that Eco Femme – like all Auroville commercial units – is not a private company. While we need to make money to operate and in particular to fund our educational activities, we are not generating income for personal gain. 33% of our surpluses each month are channeled back into Auroville’s central fund which in turn helps support the community to prosper.
Auroville is a large, complex and diverse project that can be hard to describe and understand. I hope through this piece you can touch a bit of the special magic of this place and how this filters into how Eco Femme has evolved. Without Auroville and all the ways it has influenced and inspired our decision making, values and choices, it would be a much more one dimensional project than it actually is. To learn more about Auroville visit: www.auroville.org or better still, come and visit us in person!
By Kathy Walkling (co-founder)