CHENNAI: Menstruation and hygiene have been issues that women have been concerned about for ages. While the market is filled with disposable sanitary napkins (gel-based pads), environmental activists claim that a single disposable pad can take 500-800 years to decompose. If you’re one of those people who wants to create a sustainable environment, but haven’t been able to think of an alternative, here’s your blessing – cloth pads by Eco Femme!
Eco Femme is a women-led social enterprise founded by Kathy Walkling in 2010. It has been creating a social change through revitalising menstrual practices by producing and selling washable cloth pads and also providing education in menstrual health. “The first two years of the venture was spent in product R&D on the menstrual practices of rural women and girls. Insights from these studies revealed the cultural taboo, poor education and understanding of menstrual cycle,” says Kathy.
In 2012, Eco Femme launched the product commercially (in India and abroad). It also flagged off the ‘Pad for Pad’ programme linking international sales with sponsoring pads for adolescent girls (which are distributed as part of a menstrual education workshop offered in schools). “In the last few years, our business and sales have been growing. We’ve expanded the programme by increasing our partnerships (for implementation) across India and figuring out a strategy to make cloth pads affordable and accessible for economically disadvantaged women,” explains Kathy.
Addressing the stigma around menstruation and the lack of awareness among rural women, Kathy found that most women were relieved to talk about it. “Women have questions, fears, concerns and are happy when someone is addressing these doubts. But they’re comfortable talking about it when men aren’t around,” she shares.
So, how can men be a part of breaking the menstruation taboo? “There are backlashes all over the world now about period shaming. Men certainly have a role to play – to be informed and understand that this is a process in creating gender equality. And women have a role to play in speaking about it with men instead of keeping them in the dark. This lack of awareness breeds misinformation and taboo,” she says.
With the concept of cloth pads receiving mixed response, Kathy reveals that early users of cloth pads were aware of the chemicals in disposable ones. “There are many women and girls who are aware of the adverse reactions of using these plastics and chemicals; these are the same people who are also concerned about pollution. So when presented with factual information about sanitary waste from disposables, they’re motivated to try cloth pads,” she explains.
Without this information, most women however are happy with the convenience of disposable pads — find them liberating even — and they think the idea of cloth pads is a taking a step backwards. “The shift is gradual; it takes time to educate women about the limitations of disposable pads…as in getting rid of them after use,” rues Kathy.
Kathy opines that educational institutions must have open dialogues on menstruation, so that it become more mainstream. “It should become a part of school curriculum — for both girls and boys. It’s important to look at our own negative biases against menstruation. Many of us are conditioned to feel disgust and aversion towards menstruation/menstrual blood and while this remains unexamined, the same messages will get transmitted to children (either offspring or in a classroom). That’s why menstruation is seen as something dirty, secretive and shameful,” she avers.
Apart from products such as reusable baby diapers and breast pads for lactating mothers (which will be launched within the next six months), Eco Femme is working towards expanding partnerships for its’ non-profit, educational work. “We are still figuring out effective ways to streamline distribution for the subsidised pads (Pads for Sisters programme) via NGO’s and other channels. We will also be developing more adult education programmes – to help educators, activists and ambassadors feel more confident, so that we can bring this conversation into the community at different levels,” she adds.
Listen to Kathy talk about Eco Femme, followed by a panel discussion with
Dr Gita Arjun on November 9 at Ashvita Bistro, Alwarpet, 6 pm onwards.
For details, call: 9003365436