You may brush off Kathy Walkling’s suggestion of using a cloth pad instantly. But if you give it some thought, you will realise that she does have a point. And a good one too.
It takes over 500 years for a single disposable sanitary pad to decompose. And how many does a woman use in a month and in a year? Do the math.
Disposal sanitary napkins pose a huge waste management problem in an over-populated country like India which has inadequate waste disposal mechanisms. “Have you ever wondered about the impact of all those throwaway sanitary pads on the ecosystem?” asks Kathy, a Pondicherry resident, who founded Eco Femme in 2009 as an alternative.
Kathy involved women of the Auroville Village Action Group, an NGO that runs various social enterprises, in Eco Femme. Besides designing, using and selling washable cloth pads, Eco Femme focuses on educating adolescent girls from underprivileged backgrounds on menstrual hygiene. The enterprise sells about 1,000 cloth pads a month with around 70 per cent of the cloth pads being exported to countries such as the UK, US, Netherlands, Italy, Mexico and Sri Lanka.
For seven years until 1997, Kathy was an occupational therapist in Australia. Auroville inspired her to move to India and work to overcome the challenges rural Indian women face. “I had been concerned about the growing waste in India and lack of disposal mechanisms for sanitary waste. I myself began using cloth pads not long after I arrived in India as I couldn’t bear to just toss aside so much waste every month. I was surprised by how comfortable and easy cloth pads were to use. This motivated me to start making them for women,” she recalls.
“I was looking for income generating projects as I learned about the long-standing traditional practice here of using cloth during menstruation. I felt there could be scope to introduce women to this product as a livelihood initiative and was soon joined by other women in 2010,” she says.
Kathy says it is hard to bring change when the topic is still taboo. “We found that when safe conditions are created, women are happy to open up and share their experiences of menstruation. The bigger challenge is reassuring women that cloth pads are viable and not dirty. Advertising has effectively persuaded many women that to be modern and healthy, you must use disposable sanitary napkins,” she says.
She feels many women are also put off with the idea of washing pads and prefer the convenience of disposability. “To explain to women that convenience isn’t everything and that cloth washable pads are effective and probably healthier for the body and certainly the earth in the long run is not an easy task,” she says.
And Eco Femme pads aren’t just bits of cloth. Available in bright colours, these thoughtfully designed pads are also leakproof and made of organic cotton, says Kathy.
So far, Kathy says she hasn’t approached rural health care centres in this regard. “We have actually just completed a very rigorous product testing process to evaluate acceptance of cloth washable pads among rural women. We are taking careful steps based on research before expanding in the rural sector. Kathy reiterates the value that has been placed on research and on educating people. “We put a lot of value on an ethical approach to business,” she says.
Kathy says she has quite a lot planned for the future—development of an organic, premium range of cloth washable pads, a range of cloth washable baby diapers and also breast pads for lactating mothers. “The trend towards disposable sanitary napkins and baby diapers presents a heavy burden on a populous country with inadequate waste disposal mechanisms. We want to offer quality alternatives,” she says.