World Menstrual Hygiene Day was on 28 May: In India, people discussed the importance of menstruation waste disposal (a Water India initiative), while the Not Just a Piece of Cloth campaign discussed the importance of sanitary napkins.

With menstruation itself being a taboo subject, the topic of menstruation and hygiene is rarely discussed. Improper hygiene can lead to severe UTIs and in some cases, severe reproductive health problems.

Many woman in rural India don't have access to sanitary napkins or tampons — which means they are at a risk of contracting severe infections. Those who do are faced with the problem of how to dispose of sanitary napkins. A small community startup in Auroville might have an answer to that, with its eco-friendly, accessible sanitary napkins.

Kathy Walkling, originally from Australia, had been making washable cloth pads for her own personal use and for other Auroville community members. Kathy was moved to act by the fact that there was no environmentally friendly way to throw her used tampons when she first moved to India in 1998. That's how she created the company EcoFemme, which manufactures environmentally friendly, cloth sanitary napkins. These are priced at Rs 235 per piece but are entirely re-usable (for up to three years), and claim to be better than regular pads.

Laura O'Connell, the communications officer of EcoFemme  talked to Firstpost about the initiative. "Most pads are made from LDPE plastic polymers, bleached wood pulp, and super-absorbent gel (polyacrylate). The organic material (wood pulp and any cotton present) often contains dioxins and furans; dioxin is a byproduct of the chlorine-bleaching process that makes organic materials white and furans are present in organic materials that have been sprayed with pesticides."

These pads are almost entirely plastic and they take an estimated 500-800 years to bio degrade. Though incinerators are attractive because they seem to make used pads ‘disappear’, most incinerators produce toxic ash and emissions; if plastic polymers are not burned at an appropriate temperature (above 800 degrees Celsius) they release asphyxiates and irritant gases into the atmosphere. Furans and dioxins are highly carcinogenic and toxic air pollutants. Exposure to these emissions and/or resulting ash may cause adverse health effects to the immune, nervous, endocrine, and reproductive systems. Finally, the production of petroleum-based plastic pads also has an adverse environmental impact.

O'Connell argues that cloth pads are a better alternative because, "Many women report experiencing less cramps, and other health issues like rashes or itching when using cloth rather than plastic disposable pads. Cotton pads are made of natural materials (with only a very thin layer of plastic leak-proofing) and the flannel in our pads is un-bleached. They are reusable for 3+ years which means financial saving in the long term too. Furthermore, washable cloth pads produce much less upstream waste as they are not a petroleum-based product. It is true that cloth pads require a clean, reliable water source and take a little time to maintain but many women find that it quickly becomes part of their routine (our pads can be put in the wash with other clothes). With regards to cloth pads being thought of as unhygienic, provided they are washed well and preferably dried in the sun (easier here in India than Europe for example!) they are no more unhygienic than your underwear."

1

Beginnings 

In 2009, Kathy was working with a grassroots development NGO called Auroville Village Action Group. They were looking into possible projects that could lead to livelihood creation for rural women and it was then that she began to dream of taking this project to another level — to market cloth pads stitched by rural women. She felt confident that if they actually tried to sell the pads (at least overseas), that it could work out on a larger scale.

At this stage Jessamijn Miedema, from the Netherlands, had joined Auroville and they quickly discovered a common interest to work together on developing a project producing cloth washable pads and integrating more elements like livelihood creation and education on menstruation as they had discovered through reading and some field based research, that menstruation was also a subject that women were poorly informed about that health repercussions. Together they co-founded Eco Femme in its current incarnation as a social business in 2010.

Developing this venture naturally raised questions about MHM (menstrual hygiene management) practices among rural women in Tamil Nadu; Eco Femme partnered with local NGO AVAG (Auroville Village Action Group) to conduct research on this topic in the form of individual surveys with rural women. The findings revealed many gaps and pointed to a need for an integral approach that included opening dialogues on menstruation, MHM education (especially for adolescent girls) and affordable and sustainable menstrual products.

The EcFemme sanitary napkins

The EcoFemme sanitary napkins

Funding the program 

O'Connell says, initial seed funding came via loans from friends and small grants for research and working capital from a few international organisations that believed in EcoFemme's work such as Village Outreach Society Canada and UK and Saphara.

"Early on we became an investee of the incubator Unlimited Tamil Nadu; in addition to some seed funding they supported us with coaching and providing a support network of social entrepreneurs to tackle business questions that we had — having not much background in business ourselves," she says.

"In January of 2014 we entered a relationship with Dasra, an organisation that proactively brings philanthropist and social entrepreneurs together to enhance their change making abilities. This relationship gave us much needed business development support and they helped channel a grant from USAID to help us scale up our impact. We continue to remain rooted in the Auroville community — Auroville has been a testing ground for many of our ideas and is home and endless source of inspiration."

Who's the target

O'Connell adds that their target customer is primarily women between the ages of 18-35 although "we have customers above and below that age too! We are seeing that many women in both rural and urban areas in India are rethinking what products they use for menstruation. We observe a great interest in urban areas, perhaps due to the conspicuous nature of municipal waste which is visibly clogging waterways and city streets. The ‘green’ movement is also popular with urban women who see themselves as progressive and empowered and who are adopting socially and environmentally responsible consumption practices. We find another trigger to switching is that many women suffer from rashes when they use disposable pads — they like cloth pads because they find them more natural and comfortable."

Sisterhood of the eco napkins

15202701_1276885369000753_792465565674365435_n

O'Connell also told us a little about their initiative Pad for Pad. "We offer educational sessions to school girls as part of our Pad for Pad program. With each pad sold outside of India, the cost of another pad is donated to this program and cloth pads kits are offered freely as a choice at the end of an educational session (which covers menstrual health, hygiene, different products and their impact on the environment, cycle tracking and natural ways of caring for the body during menstruation)."

Another programme called Pads for Sisters focuses on rural empowerment. Pads are offered at a heavily subsidised rate ensuring they are affordable for women to buy them for themselves. In educational seminars for both women and girls, the subject of environment is discussed with group analysis on the impact of disposable vs reusable, safe methods of disposal and the problems of managing sanitary waste.

Waste Management

EcoFemme also emphasis how their pads help in better waste management (keeping in sync with Auroville's eco-friendly policy) — which for the founders was a necessity in India.

O'Connell says, "Many women and girls easily recognise that disposing of sanitary waste is a problem that has an impact on the environment, public health and even social justice issues associated with manual handling of sanitary waste and clearing drains blocked by flushed disposable napkins. They see that there is a need for change but usually don’t know there are alternative options to disposable products."

(All images courtesy EcoFemme)