Let’s talk sanitary pads. As an American man, I don’t think about these products often. Although I knew that there are alternatives available for managing menstruation, the details matter in places like India.
Currently, only about 12 percent of India’s women use sanitary pads. This leaves approximately 559 million women and girls who do not use sanitary pads in the country, many of whom are resorting to uncomfortable and unsanitary methods of managing flow. These methods include using absorbents ranging from old cloths (one of the better methods when cloths are properly washed and dried) to mud, leaves, and, in extreme cases, cow dung. Sixty percent of adolescent girls in a recent UNICEF survey report having “missed school on account of menstruation.” The bottom line: lack of access to hygienic ways to manage periods is a problem that is adversely affecting Indian women’s health and opportunities.
There are multiple reasons for India’s low pad usage rates. First, there is a social taboo regarding menstruation that prevents girls and women from receiving the information and education that they need to manage their periods safely. In fact, according to UNICEF, “47% of mothers did not agree with girls knowing about menstruation before onset.” Second, pads are cost prohibitive for many women, especially in rural areas. Third, pads are not always easy to find and purchase.
In recent years, many organizations have banded together to help more women gain access to sanitary pads. Their contributions include leading awareness workshops to break down taboos and educate about menstruation management. Many also introduce innovations to increase access to pads, like installing vending machines in school and workplace restrooms to distribute free sanitary pads. These efforts will likely result in some very needed victories in women’s health. But there is one aspect of the access equation that most organizations have not considered.
One thing that most people don’t know about sanitary pads is that most pads take 500-800 years to decompose in a landfill. On average, a woman who uses sanitary pads will generate 108 kilos (238 pounds) of sanitary pad waste over her lifetime. So, if efforts are successful in introducing over 500 million new pad users to the world’s second-most-populous country, Indian waste managers are looking at a large and rapidly growing environmental problem.
Fortunately, there are companies with the foresight to anticipate both the short-term need for access and the long-term need for environmental sustainability. I recently learned about Saathi pads, a for-profit startup based in Ahmedabad, India. Saathi is working on an innovative solution to meet India’s needs for an accessible, environmentally friendly and culturally integrated sanitary pad. They aim to create a 100 percent biodegradable sanitary pad by using a new type of absorbent, banana tree fiber.
Farmers usually consider banana tree fiber to be a waste product, but Saathi has discovered that this material, when properly processed, can provide a high-quality and comfortable absorbent perfect for managing periods, which can biodegrade in as little as one year. Saathi stimulates local economies by sourcing fibers from local farmers. Saathi’s engineering team is still working to perfect the product but results from early user tests are very encouraging. They anticipate a product launch as early as May of 2016.
Saathi’s example of creating an innovative solution to a social problem is exciting and definitely places them on my list of socially innovative companies to watch in coming months.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Katy Sperry, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.