Gentle Reader, we are going to talk about menstruation. Before you skip to the crossword, gentlemen, please acknowledge all the females in your life between the ages of 12 and 50. Every one of you was born of a woman who bled every month for about 35 years. It’s nothing to be squeamish about. Please get over it.
The women you know are the lucky ones. Messy and inconvenient as menstruation usually is, they can go to a drugstore and buy what they need once a month. But there are hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of girls and women in this country who don’t have that option. They’re very poor and live in remote areas. There is no drugstore, or any other kind of store. There’s nothing to buy and no money not to buy it with.
They make do with old rags, dry grass, paper, corn husks- whatever they can find. Sometimes they have nothing at all. They get infections. They miss school, fall behind, then drop out because they can’t keep up. So they marry young, losing their chance to break out of the poverty cycle. It’s a common scenario in the poorer parts of the developing world. This is unacceptable. This must change. There are initiatives in other countries to address this huge, largely taboo issue. According to an article by Jennifer Weiss-Wolf in the New York Times in September this year, ”In the quest to address issues of menstrual health and hygiene most of the ingenuity and innovation has been spearheaded in the developing world, where millions can’t access sanitary products, often resorting to dirt, leaves and bark to absorb menstrual blood. Lack of plumbing and access to toilets further exacerbate the problem. Superstition and religious tradition leave countless women isolated and ashamed.”
In India only 12 percent of women use commercial sanitary products. Weiss Wolf travelled there to meet Arunachalam Muruganantham, the creator of a revolutionary menstrual micro-enterprise model. “A school dropout from a poor family in southern India, he first became aware of the issue in 1998; newly married, he was shocked to witness his wife’s struggle to manage and hide her monthly bleeding. At great personal cost, both financial and social, he dedicated himself to inventing a machine to make low-cost sanitary pads out of pulverized wood fiber. Today he supplies machines to more than 400 production sites serving 1,300 villages in the poorest and most under-developed regions of India. All are managed and staffed by women, who make the pads and sell them at a cost of about 4 cents each.
“Swati Bedekar, a former science and math teacher, observed that girls missed school for several days every month due to menstruation. She started with Muruganantham’s machines, simplified the production process and created a slimmer, more modern pad. She’s since launched 40 production sites, run by women who are paid on a piecework basis. The workers also receive training in menstruation education, which they share with both genders in their communities. “Bedekar’s husband Shyam, a textile engineer and farmer, invented a special incinerator to dispose of the pads. Made from terracotta or cement, it requires no electricity and can be operated discreetly to burn the used pads. The production of the incinerators has become a source of livelihood for local potters.”
Indonesian entrepreneurs, where are you? There’s urgent need for this kind of initiative; I haven’t been able to discover anything similar in this country. But this is certainly the direction to follow.
Days for Girls (DFG) www.daysforgirls.org is an international NGO dedicated to empower girls and women worldwide with more dignity, health and safety through quality sustainable menstrual management. In consultation with African girls, the NGO developed a sustainable/washable feminine hygiene kit which lasts about three years.
DFG International founder Celeste Mergens remembers how it all began. Working in an orphanage in Kenya, she asked what the girls were doing for feminine hygiene and was told, “Nothing. They wait in their rooms.” Celeste quickly realized that girls were sitting on cardboard, often going without food and water for days every month. Something had to be done.
This was the beginning of Days for Girls. Since 2008, it’s grown to a vibrant, passionate global network of over 370 volunteer Chapters and Teams providing washable cotton feminine hygiene kits. These pads keep girls from missing school, let women to continue working in the fields during menstruation, and generally allow them to live normally within their communities instead of hiding.
With a kind donation from Bali Buda, I brought in an initial 50 DFG kits from Australia which were distributed to teen girls in West Sumba through a reproductive health workshop by Yayasan Harapan Sumba. A further 500 kits are being sewn in Australia through Rotary Club projects for distribution in West Sumba, but getting them into Indonesia without paying duty (Customs considers the kits to be garments) is a big issue. The best solution, I believe, is to set up small workshops in which women can make and distribute the kits locally. Distribution could be subsidised by donors for the very poor, or kits could be sold at low cost to women who could afford them.
Of the samples I’ve seen, the most appropriate is the Rungu brand kit of unbleached 100% cotton flannel pads made near Ubud and sold through www.dewirungu.com This light, attractive kit was adapted for tropical conditions by the producer, who has generously agreed to share the pattern and provide initial training in making them. But she relies on flannel imported from Japan and we need to make the components of these kits as local as possible. Can someone out there help us to source thick, 100% cotton flannel made in Java?
Commercial single-use sanitary pads (Asian women won’t generally use tampons or menstrual cups for cultural reasons) are not the answer. The main problems here are the potentially dangerous chemicals they contain, the natural resources required to make them and the huge waste management issues they produce on disposal. This lucrative (about US$3 billion a year in the US alone) industry is unregulated; producers are not required to disclose what the products are made of. But according to Wikipedia the materials used to manufacture most pads are derived from the petroleum and forestry industries. The absorbent core is made from chlorine-bleached wood pulp mixed with absorbent polymer powders. The cover stock and leak-proof barriers are made from petroleum-based non-woven polypropylene and polyethylene film respectively.
Pads may include chlorine, dioxins and furans, pesticide residues, fragrance chemicals (including those known to be carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, irritants and allergens) and adhesive chemicals such as methyldibromo glutaronitrile. Studies also link pad use to allergic rashes. See www.womensvoices.org/reports-feminine-care-products.
In terms of waste management, about 20 billion pads and tampons are dumped into the North American environment every year; the average Western woman uses between 7,000 and 12,000 pieces in her lifetime. Managing that kind of waste in the developed world is challenging enough; imagine coping with it in areas without infrastructure. Then there are the environmental issues of deforestation, pulp processing and the petroleum industry to include in the equation of producing single use pads and tampons. (And disposable diapers. But that’s another rant.)
Increasing numbers of women in developed countries and thinking women everywhere are opting for sustainable alternatives to single-use pads and tampons. It’s a subject seldom raised in mixed company. But I’m not going to shut up about it until more girls and women in Indonesia can manage their natural cycles with safety and dignity. Period.
Will anyone out there join with me in helping to make this happen?
Ibu Kat’s book of stories Bali Daze – Free-fall off the Tourist Trail is available from :
– Ganesha Books in Ubud, Sanur and Seminyak
– Amazon downloadable for Kindle