A new, simple, and affordable product could become a gateway to a better future for these school girls.
Affordable sanitary pads 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 sanitary pads, but they cost US$1.30 for a pack of six. Her brother, the only family member who earns any money, brings home just $1 a day. 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. The limited options for menstrual hygiene make it difficult for girls 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.
PATH and other groups are working to address this problem. Our aim is to support the health and empowerment of girls and women as active contributors to society by making affordable sanitary pads widely available in low-resource settings.
At a TEDxRainier event, PATH staff Nancy Muller discusses the importance of safe, low-cost sanitary pads and possible solutions for making them widely available in low-resource settings.
The case for an education
Though girls and women worldwide find ways to improvise sanitary pads, the materials they use have been linked to certain reproductive tract infections. They also offer limited absorbency, making it challenging for girls to participate in school and continue their educations.
The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that one in ten school-age African girls either skips school during menstruation or drops out entirely because of a lack of hygiene solutions. Studies in Uganda and Ghana have shown that absenteeism decreases significantly when girls have access to sanitary pads and underwear. 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 in their jobs, and educate their own children.
Solutions for low-resource settings
We began investigating options for affordable menstrual management products to see what would make sense for low-resource settings. Though there are reusable options (cloth pads and menstrual cups) that can last for several years, they require a higher up-front cost, access to clean water and soap, and thorough drying—resources that aren’t always available in poor communities. We found that girls and women are interested in disposable products that offer better absorbency and have a cheaper price tag.
We are testing a range of sanitary pads currently on the market worldwide and further evaluating cost-effective, creative strategies for making and marketing better pads. From this process, we are learning that many of the locally made pads work as well as the imported pads. We have also learned that the local groups making the pads need technical assistance to improve their production processes.
A pad made from agricultural waste
Working with the University of Washington, we have made and tested absorbent sanitary pad material from agricultural waste.
As we look for ways to make pads more affordable, we have made and tested absorbent sanitary pad 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 transforming agricultural waste products—materials that are readily available in developing countries—into absorbent materials suitable for sanitary pads. We worked with the UW lab to turn seven fibers—including corn, banana stem fiber, rice straw, and wheat straw—into fluff pulp, the absorbent material used in pads and disposable diapers. Though this processing method was successful, it relies on pulp mills to be made in large quantities, which are a challenge to find in most of Africa.
Addressing environmental and disposal concerns
We also are exploring a hybrid reusable and disposable sanitary pad to address the growing challenge of disposing of pads lined with plastics and super-absorbent polymers. A hybrid pad that combines a leak-proof, reusable sleeve with a disposable absorbent core would reduce the disposal burden, and it would offer girls and women a variety of biodegradable, absorbent materials that protect against leaks.
Gateway to a better future
As we develop new products, we engage the users—girls and women in developing countries—to ensure the products meet their needs. Addressing girls' and women’s menstrual management needs will help girls like Beatrice stay in school, improve their health, contribute to their communities, and take advantage of opportunities that provide a positive and lasting impact on their families and society. A new, simple, and affordable product could become a gateway to a better future for Beatrice and her peers.
Photos, from top: Wendy Stone, PATH/Patrick McKern. Video: TEDx Rainier.