Empowering Poor Women with Affordable Sanitary Pads

By Den­nis Shaughnessy

Only 2% of women in India use san­i­tary prod­ucts dur­ing their men­strual cycle.  Nine of every ten women instead use rags, plas­tics, san and ash to man­age their period.  This leads to pain, infec­tion and mater­nal health com­pli­ca­tions, along with embar­rass­ment and low­ered self-esteem.  Many women suf­fer through an “unclean” period in which they limit their inter­ac­tions with oth­ers, with­draw from what­ever work or school they may have, and suf­fer through the emo­tional pain asso­ci­ated with the absence of basic human dignity.

All because these poor women can­not access, or afford, a basic health prod­uct that has been used in the devel­oped world for generations.

While this 2% san­i­tary prod­uct use rate in India may be among the low­est rates in the devel­op­ing world, the num­bers of women who aren’t using prod­ucts like san­i­tary pads in other low HDI coun­tries are equally stag­ger­ing.  Hun­dreds of mil­lions of women can­not access an afford­able health care prod­uct that most of the devel­oped world takes for granted.  More than 100 coun­tries, many with low UN HDI scores, have iden­ti­fied this as an impor­tant pub­lic health issue in their country.

For young women and for girls in par­tic­u­lar, the lack of san­i­tary prod­uct use leads to much higher school absence and drop-out rates that in turn lead to fur­ther eco­nomic hard­ship, and dis­em­pow­er­ment.  In India, it’s esti­mated that girls lose more than 50 days to absences each school year related to their peri­ods, and a drop-out rate among young girls of nearly 25% is largely attrib­uted to this problem.

The san­i­tary pad “gap” is clearly a major global devel­op­ment prob­lem, yet also presents a major mar­ket oppor­tu­nity for inno­v­a­tive, impact-driven social enterprises.

One solu­tion that is com­pelling from both a social and eco­nomic per­spec­tive is the idea of cre­at­ing low-cost, women-owned and oper­ated “mini-factories” pro­duc­ing san­i­tary pads from local agri­cul­tural waste.  Arunacha­lan Muru­ganan­tham, an Indian mechanic and school drop-out, invented and devel­oped a new pad man­u­fac­tur­ing machine that dra­mat­i­cally reduces the cap­i­tal needed to start a san­i­tary pad mak­ing busi­ness, from as much as $250,000 for a sin­gle machine before, to as lit­tle as $4,000 for a four machine man­u­fac­tur­ing “unit” now.  This machine is the core of the mini-factory con­cept that focuses on social impact along with local eco­nomic development.

The story of Muruganantham’s inven­tion is beau­ti­fully chron­i­cled in an award-winning short film by Chithra Jeyaram enti­tled “Rags to Pads”.

A $5,000 cap­i­tal invest­ment can pro­duce a mini-factory housed in only 150 square feet that uses these four pad mak­ing machines, employs five local women at a liv­ing wage (or 10–12 part-time), and pro­duce up to 2,000 san­i­tary pads each day.  These locally sourced, organic and com­postable san­i­tary pads are then sold by up to a dozen local women, akin to the Avon model of door-to-door sales, sup­ported by edu­ca­tion on the health and other ben­e­fits of using san­i­tary pads. And, the price is as low as 20 cents for a pack of eight san­i­tary pads.