On May 28, 2014, the world celebrated its first Menstrual Hygiene Day. Organized by WASH United, the now-annual event is part of a burgeoning focus in international development on menstrual hygiene management (MHM) and its impact on the lives of women and girls. Like Family Planning 2020 (for which the first convening was also held recently, in 2012), this focus on MHM is rooted in the growing movement towards gender equality worldwide.
Within the WASH Impact Network, there are at least 29 innovators (almost one fourth of our total first cohort) working in MHM, each testing different methods of enabling women to manage their periods and have equal access to education, health, and other opportunities in life that might otherwise be at risk. Of these programs, 16 are operating in India, 12 in East Africa, and 1 program (WASH United) works in both. So what can we learn from a look at this cohort?
- They are young. Over half (59%) of the innovative MHM programs in the Network have been founded in the last 5 years. This trend would suggest that innovators either are enabled or triggered to focus on a particular issue, given sufficient prioritization of attention and resources.
- They are producing environmentally sustainable pads. Of the 29 programs that focus on MHM, 18 are involved in the manufacturing of sanitary pads, many of which incorporate various methods of ensuring environmental sustainability. It is vitally important to consider the environmental impact of MHM interventions, especially in high population density settings, such as in many regions of India. Without reusable MHM products, roughly 305 million women and girls in India would be throwing away disposable pads into already overburdened solid waste dumps. As disposable sanitary products become increasingly popular over cloth rags or other informal methods, the amount of waste produced will also increasingly become a sustainability issue in itself, and innovators within the Network are experimenting with alternative methods.
- Many are developing reusable, washable pads, such as Uger Menstrual Pads in India. Jatan Sanasthan partnered with Vikalp Design to offer a new (“uger” in Mewadi language) way to think about and manage menstruation, which takes into account the environmental impact of the harmful plastic options that had been and continue to be on the market. Similarly, some programs, such as Aakar Innovations also in India, produce a compostable option.
- Some programs also use recycled materials to produce their pads, whether that is through leveraging leftover factory textiles, such as what Eva Wear is doing in Ethiopia, or local agricultural products such as banana tree fiber in the case of Saathi Pads in India.
- Finally, programs are promoting sustainability by using local production methods. By producing pads in-country, programs not only create livelihood opportunities but also cut down on the environmental impact of transporting the pads internationally. Dignity Period partners with Mariam Seba Sanitary Products Factory, which employs 42 local women to produce 600,000 low-cost, environmentally friendly, washable, and reusable pads per year for girls across Ethiopia.
- They are integrating with other sectors. In addition to prioritizing environmental sustainability, MHM innovators are integrating their programs with other sectors for increased impact.
- The Kasiisi Project Girls’ Program not only addresses the WASH needs of girls in schools as an integral part of their ability to manage their periods, by supporting safe water sources and girl-friendly toilets, but also integrates sexual and reproductive health issues more broadly. Kasiisi employs a local female Community Health Worker to educate girls at participating schools on relevant topics, and to set up peer education workshops, giving peer educators in schools the tools and knowledge to be effective role models.
- Like Kasiisi, at least 18 of the 29 MHM programs in the Network integrate their activities into schools. Many stress the importance of girls learning early how to manage their periods, particularly so that they are able to continue to attend classes instead of dropping out due to a lack of the necessary education or products to manage it. Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organization (JeCCDO) in Ethiopia supports school clubs to foster awareness and action on not only WASH and MHM issues, but also health, leadership, agriculture, and other issues relevant to their lives
- They are creating livelihood opportunities, especially for women. In addition to many programs creating jobs in the production of sanitary pads, many are supporting livelihood opportunities for community members in the sales of their products as well.
- They need government and financial support, as well as improved evidence generation. Compared to the Network as a whole, these innovators report the following trends in what their programs need to reach more people with greater impact.
- Twenty-three of these 29 innovators spoke with the Network about the need for Operational Financing. Despite a trend toward this category amongst all 120+ programs, MHM innovators’ higher percentage suggests what Dignity Period reports from Ethiopia, that “donor funds are critical to reach hundreds of thousands more Ethiopian girls who are eager to stay in school free of fear and embarrassment.”
- There was also a trend towards improved Monitoring and Evaluation. Nine programs (31%) reported M&E as a top need, including knowing what indicators to track, making sense of data already collected, and strategic planning for how to act based on that information.
- Finally, 6 programs (21%) reported a need for increased Government Support for MHM, ranging from general advocacy among government officials to improved policy regarding how sanitary products are currently taxed.
The responsiveness of these innovators to the world’s burgeoning focus on MHM is encouraging; however, there is still much work to be done. The WASH Impact Network will be working to connect these innovators with each other and with other resources they have identified as key needs for their programs.
For more information, read the Network’s interview with Kathy Walkling, founder of EcoFemme in India; check out Spot On!, our Regional Partner Dasra’s in-depth look at MHM in India; or contact us at WASH@r4d.org.