Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Picture of the Week: Sanitary pads: now that's low tech!

Huru International distributes locally manufactured,  colorful menstrual hygiene
kits to girls in Kenya. Kits include HIV prevention information.
Puberty is a risky time for girls in low resource settings.  Without any advance information shared, menarche is upsetting and scary.
Misinformation, cultural myths, and taboos kick in along with the onset of their periods. Young women use

  • mud, 
  • leaves
  • rags 
  • even newspapers
which are not just ineffective and uncomfortable, but can cause infection. School girls fear staining and the resulting humiliation. Without private toilets for changing napkins or  receptacles to discreetly discard soiled napkins, girls are subject to public harassment from equally poorly-informed male classmates.

Innovators are attacking this problem in two complementary ways: designing appropriate menstrual hygiene products and using the presentation of them as an attention-capturing moment to educate girls about their bodies, menstrual management, and reproductive health.  This needs to happen in late grade school, so girls are prepared ahead of menarche.
Teaching reproductive health is almost as important as the kits themselves. Imagine not knowing why you were "bleeding" (one girl had thought she might be ill with HIV before we came) or thinking it was a curse due to your doing something wrong.  - Days For Girls  (This is corroborated by a pilot study on pads and menstrual ed provision for girls in Ghana.)
Sanitary napkin initiatives divide into two main options, disposable or RUMPs, reusable menstrual pads.  Distribution is likewise developing on two tracks, market enterprise development along with free provision by governments or NGOs.  The two tracks merge when napkins purchased from local social enterprises are distributed for free to schoolgirls.

Disposables pads are easier, of course, provided there is a system in place to dispose of them. They require a monthly cash outlay by the government, NGO, or end-users. (This makes them a good business proposition.)  Cloth pads must be washed and dried which in some settings is dangerous, since pads hanging on a line publicly announce a girl's status.  In damp climates or during rainy seasons, RUMPs can mildew.  However, they last for years, making them a nearly free, sustainable solution.

The dearth of affordable menstrual supplies in the developing world, combined with upward mobility and lowered fertility - women with fewer children have more periods over their lifespans - is creating a large potential market.  Several enterprises are producing disposable napkins sourced from locally available materials,  not only lowering their cost, but providing much needed employment along the supply chain.  In Uganda, Dr. Moses Kiiza Musaazi of Makerere University in Kampala has designed napkins made from local papyrus.  Many of the MakaPad employees are refugee women.  Among their customers is the UNHCR which distributes them in camps and OneGirl, an Australian NGO working with girls in Sierra Leone.

JaniPads, piloted by a group of Swedish design students, are made from water hyacinth, an invasive plant which sucks up water.  This absorbency is a virtue in a menstrual product, creating a green, local win-win-win solution.  Village Volunteers has taken on the project and is seeking funding.
SHE, Sustainable Health Enterprises, has been hard at work designing and installing machinery to fabricate disposable pads made of processed banana fiber, agricultural waste.  Based in Rwanda, SHE provides local employment both in manufacturing and sales, including microfinancing for franchisees.  Pads are 5¢ .Donations to help ramp up this social enterprise are welcomed;  suggested amount: $28 per month.

In India many women's Self Help Groups are setting up micro-businesses producing sanitary napkins using the machine invented by Arunachalam Muruganantham.   His award-winning invention produces 120 napkins per hour at one third of the cost of imported products.  Over 600 machines in 23 Indian states have been deployed, each one generating income and jobs, and improving women's health and quality of life.  Also Azadi Pads, marketed by Indian women's group, fill the gap.  85% of kiosks are owned by men and they are uncomfortable selling intimate women's supply, so Azadi is doing it!  Important as it is to make sanitary napkins affordable, it is also crucial that women have more say in allocating family resources.

"Education, Empowerment, Employment, Environment" -
Afripads, where Rose has been tailor since 2009.
There is also a great deal of activity on the RUMP front, both manufactured in the Global South and lovingly stitched by volunteers around the world. Afripads, based in Uganda, provides local jobs and distributes their kits to school girls.  With over 60 employees, they have broken ground on their own factory.  Luna Pads, an American company, donates AfriPads in Uganda for purchases made in the USA through their Pads4Girls initiative.

Days For Girls has formed over 30 sewing clubs which educate members about the circumstances girls face in the developing world and set to work sewing colorful pad sets  which are distributed through NGO partners.  DFS has tested and refined designs which include a barrier layer. Their patterns are available at their site. Volunteer seamstresses do not need to belong to a club; they can work independently, like my friend's 80-something year old mother.  Programs like this create a network of informed, committed activists and advocates for global women's empowerment.
ZanaAfrica is another initiative working on menstrual hygiene solutions.
Hutterite girls from the Balder, Manitoba chapter of
Days For Girls showing off their handicraft.

This just in: a report on menstrual hygiene preferences of school girls in Uganda: they like disposables better, even if they cost more.

OneGirl is another initiative providing menstrual hygiene products, which are cleverly dubbed Launch Pads.  They purchase Makapads for resale and free distribution in Sierra Leone.

Many more resources are available at Menstrual Hygiene Day.  Celebrate it on May 28!
Menstrual Hygiene Day creates a united voice for women and girls around the world, helping to break the silence and confront the taboos that often prohibit girls and women from reaching their full potential.
Another initiative to check out: Transformational Textiles, which sews Feminine Hygiene Products from textile remnants.

EDU - Download the comprehensive Menstrual Hygiene Matters resource book from

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