One of our favorite NYT writers, author of Half the Sky Nicholas Kristof, wrote an article about menstruation challenges in the developing world and some of the work being done by SHE Innovates. The article, entitled The D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution, is quite long, but I've included some of the relevant highlights below. Feel free to follow the link above if you'd like to read the full article!
Scharpf was interning in the summer of 2005 for the World Bank
in Mozambique, helping local entrepreneurs, when she encountered a
business impediment that she had never heard of. It was unmentionable,
and thus unmentioned. It was menstruation.
A female boss griped to Scharpf about absenteeism caused by women
reluctant to come to work during their menstrual periods. “It was
because pads were too expensive,” Scharpf recalls. “I was trying to
figure out why I had never heard of this before. This was causing
productivity rates to go down.”
Scharpf began asking around, and everybody told her — in whispers —
that, yes, of course menstruation was keeping women and girls from jobs.
Back at Harvard, where she was pursuing joint degrees at the business school and the John F. Kennedy School of Government,
she began asking friends from Bangladesh, Nicaragua and other countries
if they were aware of this problem. Of course, they said. “This spoke
to me,” Scharpf recalled. “Hasn’t every girl or woman experienced the
inconvenience, the disadvantage and the embarrassment in her life, when
her period strikes at the ‘wrong’ time? I think half the world can
relate to that. What really struck me was that this was a global issue
that seemingly had significant costs. From back-of-the-envelope
calculations, it had huge costs. And it could have a simple solution.”
She paused and smiled tightly. “I was a little naïve there.”
Scharpf is a mild-mannered policy wonk, but the more she thought about
it, the more indignant she became. Girls were missing school because
they couldn’t afford sanitary pads? Women couldn’t go to work for lack
of pads? And all this was taboo to discuss? Scharpf began to scheme.
Commercial pads turned out to be expensive to manufacture largely
because the raw materials were pricey, so Scharpf started from scratch.
She recruited a team of like-minded wonks, and they consulted villagers,
agriculture experts and professors of textile engineering. What is
there that is really absorbent, widely available and cheap? The team
came up with five finalists: cassava leaves, banana leaves, banana-tree
trunk fibers, foam mattresses, textile scraps. “We brought a blender to
Rwanda and started blending things, boiling leaves from potato and
cassava, things like that,” Scharpf said. “We would drop Coke on it to
measure absorbency.” That was when they had their eureka moment. “We
saw, hey, those banana fibers really slurp up the Coke!”
Scharpf accepted a $60,000 grant from Echoing Green, an organization
that works like a venture-capital fund to finance people with great
ideas. Later she won a social-entrepreneurship fellowship from Harvard
Business School, and now her team has engineered a new sanitary pad that
she hopes can transform life for women and girls in the developing
world. It looks like a regular pad but is made chiefly out of
banana-tree fibers, so it is sustainable and for the most part
biodegradable. Best of all, it’s cheap: a pack of 10 should retail for
75 cents or less.
Scharpf’s organization, Sustainable Health Enterprises
(or SHE), will begin manufacturing pads early next year in a tiny
factory in Rwanda. It will be a pilot project, producing some 1,200 pads
per hour, but once the kinks are worked out she hopes to have women in
other countries franchise the system so that it spreads around the
world. SHE has also taken on advocacy, calling on the Rwandan government
to lift an 18 percent sales tax on feminine hygiene products so that
they become more affordable. Awakened to the issue, the Rwandan
Parliament recently appropriated $35,000 to pay for sanitary pads for
impoverished girls who otherwise might miss school — a small sum, but an
acknowledgment that the problem is important and real. Some Rwandan
women Scharpf has interviewed say that the attention has made a
difference in their homes: their husbands are now more willing to allow
them to spend money on pads.
Will banana-fiber sanitary pads succeed? No one knows. It is entirely
possible that Scharpf will find that even if manufacturing goes smoothly
— a huge “if” — there is simply not much of a market for sanitary pads
in poor countries. Families may consider a 60- or 70-cent pack just as
unaffordable as a $1.10 pack. Or suppose for a moment that everything
goes perfectly, and pad franchises spread and families buy packets of
pads for girls who are now missing school because of difficulties
managing menstruation. Will those girls now stay in school? We can’t be
sure of that either.
This article was written in 2010, so check out the SHE Innovates blog for updates on their work, which we're excited about because it complements our education work so well!