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.