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Developing pads for the developing world

reading time: 5 minutes reading time
sanitary protection in the developing world

We all know how tough our periods can be, the pain, the bloating and the mood swings. But, in a way, we are quite lucky. When growing up, we were taught about how our bodies would change; we can choose our favourite type of protection; and, most importantly, we can easily nip to shops to stock up.

But there are places where women can’t. Imagine living in a world where your earliest knowledge of periods was when yours first arrived; a world where the protection that we take for granted is not readily available; a world where you may be forced to choose between buying food or sanitary pads. For millions of women, this is the reality.

Women are ostracised all over the world during their periods, being seen as unclean and untouchable. This reaction stems from a lack of education in the local community and a reluctance to discuss such a taboo subject. Tampons and pads are also not readily available, and those that are, are often too expensive for many women to buy. Instead, they improvise, using old clothing, pieces of foam mattress, leaves or even sand. These substitutes are inadequate, uncomfortable and extremely unhygienic. Additionally, the lack of suitable sanitary protection means that a large number of girls take time off school during their periods, or stop going altogether. For example, in India 23% of girls drop out of education after they start menstruating1.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. A movement has started in the last few years to increase both the education around, and the availability of, feminine hygiene products in some of the poorest parts of the world. One example is the Water, Sanitation and good Hygiene (WASH) project, which launched the first annual Menstrual Hygiene Day on 28th May 2013 and are committed to education regarding periods, particularly among children.2

Companies like AFRIpads are manufacturing cheap, reusable sanitary pads and distributing these around villages in Uganda. Additionally, they employ local women to manufacture and sell the products, bringing more money into the local community.3 A similar venture, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), has launched in Rwanda, employing local women to manufacture and distribute sanitary pads made from processed banana fibres.4

But arguably the biggest hero in this fight is a man from southern India, whose belief and commitment are unmatched. Upon discovering the old rags that his wife used during menstruation, Arunachalam Muruganantham was determined to develop a cheap and easy way to produce sanitary pads. However, he faced resistance in such a traditional environment. A man taking an interest in periods was unheard of, and highly inappropriate. Over the next 10 years, his unrelenting commitment to period hygiene meant his wife left him and he was cast out by his village. He was alone and penniless. But Mr. Muruganantham didn’t give up. He perfected the design of his sanitary pads by testing them on himself, wearing a punctured football bladder filled with goat’s blood to act as a uterus.

Eventually, he designed a simple machine for producing low-cost pads. Not looking to make a financial gain, Arunachalam Muruganantham now distributes his machines all over India. Each one supplies pads for 3,000 women and provides employment for ten, who manufacture the pads and sell them directly to the customers. He is now exporting his machines worldwide and aims to reach over 100 countries.5 His commitment, grit and sheer determination have started a global revolution.

All of these projects are working tirelessly to increase the level of education around sanitary products, and their availability in the developing world. They show the phenomenal things that can be achieved by small groups of people with the desire to make a positive change. Whether this be the volunteers teaching children about periods, the women making pads in Africa, or even just one man from India, who refused to give up.