When I first began researching the question of sanitary protection for women during their menstrual periods, it was some decades ago. The particular story that had grabbed my attention was about how women in a refugee camp did not have any sanitary protection because no one had thought about that need.
So I began researching, and discovered a wide variety of solutions that were being developed or promoted. There was a professor in Uganda who had developed Makapads using papyrus derived from bulrushes, after learning that many young women were resorting to rags and leaves and newspapers during that time of the month. He was horrified. The product he developed was biodegradable, and it has changed many lives.
Equally horrified was an NGO in India which had discovered that because women had to hide their menstruation, the rags they used and washed after use often did not dry properly, and caused many infections. They looked around and realized that there was a surplus of extra material in the form of discarded clothing – they found a way to turn them into Asha pads.
Women in North America, too, were horrified to read these stories. They started developing programs to help women make their own reusable pads. And in time, new technologies – like menstrual cups – were promoted.
As the link between menstruation, lack of sanitary protection, and girls’ education has become ever clearer to policy makers, corporations, governments, and women worldwide, a movement has sprung up to make such protection available in schools. Some examples from Africa can be found here.
At first, I was focused on the health and education impacts of the lack of accessible, affordable sanitary protection for womens’ periods.
What I eventually came to recognize – and taught students at university about – was that sanitary napkins had also become an engine of economic growth for women’s groups. It was one way that international aid activities (that is what I was teaching) could meet a whole variety of needs at the same time – and women’s self-help groups in India and Africa grasped that early on.
In Uganda, women refugees from neighbouring Rwanda learned to make Makapads. In India, self-help groups discovered they could buy machines to make pads, and sell the pads at a reasonable price while also making money for their own activities. During the pandemic, self-help groups shared this knowledge in online workshops.
The power of engaging men is evident in the story of Makapads. One of the most amazing for me is the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu who learned how to make a machine to create sanitary pads.There are now 877 brands making his pads – and there is a movie about him.
One of the most popular brands in India got engaged in trying to dispel the shame that had come to be associated with menstruation with its award-winning Touch the Pickle campaign. They linked up with Menstrupedia, an accessible guide for young girls, to make sure that young girls and boys were getting accurate information.
Cover image: Seeds of Good Anthropocenes