Breaking the taboo: how managing menstruation in a hygienic and environment-friendly way can empower thousands of girls and women while reducing waste in developing countries
While it may have gone unnoticed to many, the 28th of May was the International Menstrual Hygiene Day; a day initiated by WASH United to create awareness around the right of women and girls to hygienically manage their menstruation – in privacy, safety and with dignity – where ever they are. Menstruation is a natural process that is part of nearly every girl’s and woman’s life and still, the subject remains taboo in many cultures and society. Why do we need to talk about it? Because while most people in Western societies do not think twice about it, millions of women around the world lack access to safe, clean sanitary products and facilities for their menstruation cycles, which results in school absence or drop out and in illness among girls. Furthermore, it affects women’s ability to work and the stigmas around the subject cause stress, discomfort and shame to many women, which have serious effects on their social and mental well-being as well as on their economic position in society and in their households.
Some of the challenges
Unaffordability results in high risk of illness:
Most women in developing countries can simply not afford the standard brand-made products. Take for example the case of Uganda. With over 70% of its population living on less than a dollar a day, Ugandan women find it particularly difficult to attain the mainstream sanitary products which cost about $2.50 per pack. In fact, less than 5 per cent of young women and girls who need a regular supply of sanitary pads can afford them. As a result, women and girls are often forced to choose free or cheaper alternatives such as old newspapers or dirty rags to stop the blood flow, leading to bacterial, fungal or yeast-related infections, cervical cancer and labour complications. For example, WASH Unites reports that 73% of the Bangladeshi garment workers cannot attend work for an average of 6 days per month (resulting in unpaid work days) due to vaginal infections caused by unsanitary menstrual materials.
To address the issue, international agencies generally look to provide women with free name-brand products; however, the price point for these products makes it difficult to deliver in a whole region or country for a sustained period of time. In addition, the lack of access to painkillers means that many suffer from significant physical discomfort.
Lack of facilities and stigmas cause school dropouts and loss of employment:
Poor quality toilets, inadequate facilities to change and lack of access to water and disposal facilities all contribute to girls dropping out of school or women not being able to attend work. Women also face social stigmas related to menstruation. For instance, they are often not able to talk about their periods and the risk of seeing menstrual blood on their clothes forces women to avoid social activities while they are menstruating, creating isolation and disengagement. Furthermore, the lack of education of boys and men regularly lead to harassment and a lack of understanding of women’s basic needs. According to a WASH United study, for instance, 83% of girls in Burkina Faso and 77% in Niger have no place at school to change their sanitary menstrual materials, and it is estimated that girl miss on average 24-40 school days a year which eventually leads to a higher dropout rate
Most commercial name-brand sanitary products are not biodegradable and take hundreds of years to biodegrade. In addition, they generally contain harsh chemicals including pesticides and dioxin; serious environmental pollutants. The lack of waste disposal management and infrastructure in many countries means feminine hygiene products commonly end up on the street or are thrown down the toilets, causing blockages and breakdowns of sanitary systems, both resulting in potential public health problems. Those that do end up in landfills can leak into the groundwater, causing pollution and more health concerns.
How can local entrepreneurs provide a solution?
BanaPads, which won a 2013 SEED Award, is a social and environmental enterprise in Uganda that produces comfortable sanitary pads from natural agricultural waste materials since 2012 to address the affordability and environmental gap in sanitary products. They're sterilised, safe and hygienic pads are made of organic materials derived from banana trees, making the pads easily decomposable. Compared to mainstream western brands, which cost on average about $2.50 per pack, the BanaPads are cheap; a pack costs only $0.75.
The enterprise employs a franchise model led by young rural women to manufacture and distribute the pads. The ﬁnished products are marketed and sold across the region and proﬁts go towards repaying micro-loans, salaries and eventually revenue. Using a door-to-door distribution model, BanaPads employs young female entrepreneurs known as “Champions", providing them with a complete start-up kit of inventory, training and marketing support.
By addressing the health and social issues associated with menstruation in Uganda, BanaPads creates positive social, economic and environmental impacts throughout the society:
- For one, girls can stay in school and women can go to work, increasing the rates of education for girls and income opportunities for women. So far over 4,000 girls aged 10-19 in rural and poor areas were able to stay in school.
- Furthermore, women can feel free to meet with friends or participate in community activities.
- Thirdly, Banapads offers training and job opportunities to young women in the production of sanitary pads, sales and collection activities and creates alternative livelihoods through the distribution model, allowing women to create a sustainable business that beneﬁts the entire community. So far Banapads has been able to create 20 full-time positions.
- Finally, Banapads reduces not only the waste that would have originated from mainstream non-biodegradable pads but also agricultural waste from banana pseudostem. So far, 130,680 environmentally friendly sanitary pads have been produced.
BanaPads is only an example of how enterprises can contribute towards empowering women during their menstruation. Various other projects and organisations, for example, Ruby Cup, have developed their own ways to help women cope with menstruation in a healthy and environmentally sound manner.
Moving forward to a world where menstruation is accepted and understood
Menstruation should not be seen as a shameful or dirty condemnation. It is one of life’s natural processes that should be embraced as much as it is to be able to bear children. While international movements such as the International Menstrual Hygiene Day or the programmes initiated by UN Women and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC) are opening the dialogue to create awareness and understanding of this neglected area in women’s health and education, much can also be done on the ground. BanaPads illustrates how local enterprises can not only help further the knowledge and acceptance on the ground but take it a step further by turning it into a profitable environment-friendly business. Sustainable, local, hygienic alternatives are possible and they can help us take women’s health and empowerment to a higher level.
With thanks for the contribution of Tim Chipperfield
More resources on BanaPads:
Practitioner Hub: Producing affordable, eco-friendly sanitary pads in Uganda - BanaPads