India has over 355 million menstruating girls and women, but only around half of them use menstrual products*. The consequences are serious health issues, absence from school, social isolation, and limited job opportunities which lead to financial dependence. Read why so many women in India have little or no access to menstrual products* and how to empower them by giving them access to them.
*Products used to collect the menstrual flow. Disposable menstrual products include pads, tampons, and pantyliners. Reusable menstrual products include menstrual cups, washable cloth pads, period panties, and sponges.
Women In India Are In A Dependence Spiral
The limited access to menstrual products and the lack of information about menstruation is called period poverty.
Limited access to menstrual products ➜ Isolation & health issues ➜ Dropping out of school & Limited job opportunities ➜ Financial dependence ➜ Limited access to menstrual products
Why Do So Many Women In India Have Limited Access To Menstrual Products?
One solution for women to break out of this ongoing dependence spiral is access to menstrual products. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Culture, religion, and economy play an important role why many women in India still have limited access to menstrual products.
Working with Eco Femme In India
Wondering what the challenges are, I traveled to India, where I volunteered with Eco Femme. Eco Femme is an organization committed to empowering women in India by providing access to menstrual products with respect to culture and the environment. Here are 5 solutions Eco Femme implements in their ethical business to help women become independent with menstrual products.
1. Educating Girls And Women On Menstruation & Menstrual Products
Taboos, myths, and shame around menstruation in India have their roots in gender inequality due to patriarchal norms in cultural and religious traditions. Menstruating girls and women are often considered ‘impure’ and are therefore excluded from social activities. This shame & isolation make girls and women feel uncomfortable talking about their period. As a result, more than half of the adolescent girls (age 10-19) in India haven’t even heard about menstruation before their first period!
Breaking the taboo and normalizing menstruation is key to a future of period equity*. We must create a safe space for open conversation through educational programs on menstrual health. Eco Femme gives free educational sessions in schools & organizations across India to encourage girls & women to ask questions and talk about their experiences. During the sessions, they also learn about the menstrual cycle, different menstrual products, and pain-relieving methods. To date, Eco Femme gave over 44,000 free educational sessions on menstrual health.
*Period or menstrual equity means equal access to menstrual health education and menstrual products.
2. Making Menstrual Products Accessible
Firstly, many girls and women in India aren’t informed about menstruation and the importance of menstrual products. Secondly, they don’t have the financial resources to buy them. For these reasons, women often end up using unclean fabrics, sand, ash, or newspapers to absorb their menstrual flow. This brings serious health issues and limited freedom of movement, resulting in 23 million girls in India dropping out of school every year.
Menstrual products must be available at affordable prices. As a part of their educational programs, Pad for Pad and Pad for Sisters, Eco Femme distributes free cloth pads to girls & women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. To finance these programs, Eco Femme developed a hybrid business model with commercial sales to international and affluent domestic markets. Since 2013, Eco Femme has distributed nearly 300,000 cloth pads to girls and women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds (March 2020). Support the programs here.
3. Offering A Variety Of Menstrual Products For Empowered Choices
Lack of choice can prevent women in India from using menstrual products. It is therefore important to offer different options. These should consider personal preferences as well as local cultures and infrastructures like washing facilities or waste management. For example, distributing tampons or menstrual cups in India is not the only solution. Because of the culture, women may not feel comfortable with vaginal insertion. Also, many don’t have the means to clean menstrual cups properly, which can be problematic.
Conducting menstrual product analysis & testings gives insight into what women feel comfortable using. Before launching their range of cloth pads, Eco Femme conducted such research with women across India. The results showed that the majority of women feel most comfortable using cloth pads. But Eco Femme also presents other different menstrual products in their educational sessions and informs how to use and clean them so that girls & women can make their own conscious choices.
4. Providing Reusable Menstrual Products To Make Women Independent Of Supply Chains
Many girls in India are dependent on schools that offer free disposable pads. During the coronavirus lockdown, both schools and shops shut down, leading to a ‘pad crisis’ in India. This means that millions of girls and women had no longer access to menstrual products, revealing an over-reliance on schools and supply chains. Menstruating people in other parts of the world also experienced severe supply shortages and increased prices for disposable period products during the lockdown.
Offering reusable menstrual products such as washable cloth pads and menstrual cups (like Eco Femme) makes women more independent of supply chains. With proper care and depending on the flow, cloth pads last up to 75 washes (1-5 years) and menstrual cups up to 10 years! Read our article on the menstrual cup.
5. Supporting Ethical Brands That Pay Women Fair Living Wages
Have you ever asked yourself where your period products come from? Most conventional brands mass-produce their menstrual products without supporting but exploiting the women who make them. What a paradox: These companies offer products for the well-being of women, but at the same time make them work under poor conditions.
To empower women, we must ensure fair living wages and a happy work environment. Eco Femme, for example, produces all of their cloth pads with rural women collectives. The women at Eco Femme learn how to stitch pads, enjoy free lunch, and are welcome to bring their children to work. Buying menstrual products from ethical brands that support women makes a huge difference! Shop their products here (due to the global pandemic the International online shop will be closed for now until further notice. But here you can find shops near you that sell Eco Femme pads.
What We Can Learn
After working with Eco Femme, I realized how essential access to menstrual products is to end period poverty* so that women can break out of the dependence spiral in low-income countries. Half of the world’s population is bleeding and access to menstrual products should be the norm in every country.
Text & Photos: Mia Windisch-Graetz
Copy Edit: Antonia Böhlke