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Group of girls in their school uniforms.

A new, simple, and affordable product could become a gateway to a better future for these school girls. Photo: Wendy Stone.

Affordable sanitary pads can give girls more options for their future

When 12-year-old Beatrice first begins bleeding, it takes her a day to work up the courage to tell her grandmother. “You are now a woman,” her grandmother tells her, and explains that her period will happen every month.

But in Uganda, where Beatrice and her siblings were orphaned by HIV and her family has little money, the girl wonders how she will manage her menstruation. She doesn’t own any underwear. Some shops in town sell disposable sanitary pads, but they’re too expensive for her family. Her brother, the only family member who earns any money, brings home too little to pay for the expense.

Women improvise with whatever they have, Beatrice’s grandmother tells her—rags, old towels, leaves, grass, school notebook paper, even dung.

At school, Beatrice can’t imagine asking her teacher, a man, to be excused to use the latrine several times a day. She soon notices that the older girls miss school four or five days a month and sometimes stop attending altogether. Limited options for menstrual hygiene make it difficult for these students—like female students worldwide—to participate in school during their periods, despite the proven benefits an education can have for the health and development of girls, their families, and society.

As part of our work to help girls and women reach their full potential, PATH and other groups are seeking innovative, low-cost solutions to this often-overlooked problem. Our aim is to support the health of girls and women in poor communities, and empower them to remain active contributors to society, by making affordable sanitary pads more widely available.

At a TEDxRainier event, PATH staff member Nancy Muller discusses the importance of safe, low-cost sanitary pads, and possible solutions for making them widely available in poor countries worldwide. Video: TEDx Rainier.

The case for an education

Although girls and women find resourceful ways to improvise sanitary pads, some of the materials they use offer limited absorbency, making it challenging for girls to participate in school.

As a result, millions of girls worldwide either skip school during menstruation or drop out entirely because of a lack of hygiene solutions—even though their education is crucial to their success and that of their communities. Girls who complete secondary school are less likely to get HIV or become pregnant when they are young, and more likely to have fewer children, earn higher wages, and educate their own children.

Better pads can help: studies in Uganda and Ghana have shown that absenteeism decreases significantly when girls have access to sanitary pads and underwear.

Solutions for poor communities

We began our effort by investigating options for affordable menstrual management products to see what would make sense in poor communities. Reusable options, such as cloth pads and menstrual cups, can last for several years, but they require higher up-front cost, access to clean water and soap, and thorough drying—resources that aren’t always available. We also heard from girls and women that they are interested in disposable products that offer better absorbency and have a cheaper price tag.

Next, we tested sanitary pads from markets around the world and evaluated cost-effective, creative strategies for making and selling better products. Through this process, we’ve learned that locally made pads often work as well as imported products. Increasing local production, in addition to improving availability for women, has the potential to provide a sustainable, locally based source of income.

We’ve learned that many local groups that make pads are enthusiastic about this prospect, but they would need technical assistance to improve their production processes before producing the pads.

A pad made from agricultural waste

Two clumps of fluffy, cotton-like fibers.

Working with the University of Washington, we have made and tested absorbent sanitary pad material from agricultural waste. Photo: PATH/Patrick McKern.

As we continue to look for ways to make pads more affordable, one option we’ve explored is making the filler material from agricultural waste. We partnered with fiber experts at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, just a few miles from our headquarters, to evaluate ways that we might transform these materials—which are readily available in developing countries—into absorbent materials suitable for sanitary pads. We worked with a UW lab to turn seven fibers—including corn, banana stem fiber, rice straw, and wheat straw—into fluff pulp, the absorbent material used in most pads and disposable diapers. Though this process was promising, making large quantities would require pulp mills, which are a challenge to find in most of Africa.

Addressing environmental and disposal concerns

We have also explored hybrid sanitary pads that are reusable,disposable, and partially biodegradable—an option that would address the growing challenge of disposing of pads lined with plastics and super-absorbent polymers. These options combine a leak-proof, reusable sleeve with a disposable absorbent core. They have the potential to reduce waste and offer girls and women the flexibility to use a wide variety of biodegradable, absorbent materials.

Gateway to a better future

As with all of our product development work, our sanitary pad efforts include close collaboration with the people who will actually use the product: girls and women in developing countries. Their insights help us accurately evaluate the pros and cons of existing products, and craft new options that will better meet their needs and desires. We also continue to explore local markets and resources to ensure that we’re working toward pads that will not only be effective and appealing, but sustainable over time.

A new, simple, and affordable menstrual pad has the potential to provide Beatrice—and millions of young students like her—a powerful gateway to a better future. Addressing girls’ and women’s menstrual management needs could help girls worldwide stay in school, improve their health, and contribute to their communities. When girls are empowered, families, communities, and societies stand to prosper, too.