There are presently a number of campaigns going on to highlight and raise money for girls and women in developing countries, especially African countries, especially but not only Zimbabwe where, according to an often-quoted statistic, a packet of tampons costs half a month’s wages and women cannot afford them. (Having said that, they often can’t afford food either, even if there were food to buy.)

The problem is that girls and women find themselves unable to manage their periods hygienically or discreetly. This can cause various problems – it can make it difficult or impossible for a girl to attend school or a woman to work if they are unable to manage their blood, with obvious short and long term consequences for them and for their families. Some girls may also wish to hide their menarche from their fathers or other relatives because they know that this sign of sexual maturation is likely to lead to their being taken out of school and married off. So, yes, it is a big problem.

My concern, though, is to be clear on the root causes of these problems, and to understand the motivation of those who seem to offer help. Only then can we have any sort of idea what to do next.

The two big campaigns I have heard about are “Dignity, Period” which seems to be funded by Bodyform (who as Erika points out are owned by Nestle) and “Protecting Futures”, a North American campaign funded by Always/Tampax (owned by Proctor & Gamble). Where names like Nestle and P&G are involved, I am on my guard. Erika sets out pretty much every reason we have to be worried about the involvement of these big companies in the promotion of disposable sanpro for developing countries.

[Correction: Bodyform is not in fact owned by Nestle but by SCA, another global corporation, albeit with a less toxic reputation.]

Infant formula was heavily promoted by big-hitting global companies in poor countries, companies who presented themselves as giving aid and doing good works, companies who evidently did not care that they were destroying a healthy culture of breastfeeding, destroying women’s knowledge of breastfeeding in favour of a dangerous and unsustainable artificial product. They did not care that women in countries with little or no access to clean running water could not use formula milk without creating an extremely serious risk of killing their babies through infections, diarrhoea, gastroenteritis and so on. They did it anyway.

A question I would like to ask Bodyform and Always/Tampax – how much money are you putting into promoting this cause, and advertising the campaigns? and how much money are you raising? Would it be cheaper just to buy a shipment of sanpro and send it over? Or is that missing the point?

Yes, it’s missing the point. Of course it is. The point of these campaigns is not to raise money or awareness or to do what would be most useful to the women and girls who are actually at the butt end of the problem – the point is to promote Bodyform, Always and Tampax in the West and to open up markets in the developing world. The point is to make us believe that BigSanPro is benevolent, and to make women in developing countries believe (as we already believe) that they need Western pads and tampons instead of more sustainable and/or traditional solutions.

Why isn’t dispoable sanpro aid a good solution? Here’s a few reasons:

  • When the campaign is over and the freebies have run out, the women will be in the same position as they were before.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because they may find that their traditional knowledge has been undermined and overwhelmed by the Disposable Message.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because used sanitary towels will be piling up in the streets*.
  • Actually, they may be in a worse position because they will be contributing to carbon emissions and environmental damage that is most likely to affect, guess who? – the very people that this aid has “helped”.

(*When do the rubbish collectors come round in Zimbabwe? Tuesdays? Thursdays?)

OK, so what might help?

Starting with actual menstruation products, I’ve heard recently about two projects which seem to have much more mileage in them than the Great Western Disposable Solution:

1. In an edition of From Our Own Correspondent at the weekend (I think you’ve just about time to listen to it, if you catch this post in the next day or two – it’s towards the end of the World Service edition), there was an item about a project in Uganda where a small factory has been set up to turn weeds into sanitary pads. Apparently these plants grow everywhere, and they are really absorbent naturally so don’t need to be processed anything like as much as the paper or cotton-based pads, so they are much much cheaper than buying imported Western sanpro. I imagine that they will also decompose much more rapidly than Western sanpro which is obviously also important. Women work in the factory, earning money to support themselves and their families, and everyone wins.

2. Poverty Action Lab are doing some research in Nepal into the viability of menstrual cups as a sustainable way for women in developing countries to manage their periods in an age where (sadly!) sitting on moss or straw for a few days just isn’t a realistic option any more. Every reader of this blog now knows what a fan I am of menstrual cups and even if you don’t it must be obvious that this is a far more sustainable solution than paper pads: you only need one of them, and it can be reused month after month for years; they are relatively easy to keep clean even without access to running water (rinse or wipe as often as you can, then boil it up once a month); no waste, no pad-miles, no bloody pads piling up all around the town… What’s not to like?

Turning away from sustainable menstrual products, I want to briefly mention some other issues that are highly relevant.

Access to clean, running water. If people had plenty of clean water to use, they could wash their pads, mooncups, camel skins, or whatever and would not need expensive, wasteful Western “luxuries” like disposable pads.

(And, apart from the 70,001 other problems of not having access to clean water, there is this one: if you cannot wash your hands after you change a pad, then you probably aren’t going to go to work/school even with paper pads. Ironically, the very thing that makes washable pads difficult to manage also makes the “saviour” paper pads difficult to manage. )

Access to clean, running water. This one’s so unbelievably important that I’ll say it again. Give some money to Water Aid (an actual charity, unlike Nestle or P&G). You can buy two taps for £12. Now that’s what I call a Christmas present.

Give them water, and they will go.

Appropriate toilet facilities at schools. Girls don’t go to school while they are menstruating because they do not want to deal with their blood in a shared, open latrine.

Give them privacy, and they will go.

Culture of shame, pubescent marriage and sexual harrassment. Girls don’t go to school while they are menstruating because they don’t want people to know. That’s a Western problem too – a blob of menses on a pair of white jeans being spotted by a boy they fancy is probably the most embarrassing thing that most Western teenage girls could think of… Yet in many places the girls face much worse than embarrassment: menstruation may be accompanied by genuine ostracism, by horror and disgust; menstruation as a sign of sexual maturation may be accompanied by increasing sexual harassment, even by male teachers, and by increasing pressure from relatives to get married, even before school is out.

Give them safety, and they will go.

Further reading:

New York Times: Another School Barrier for African Girls: No Toilet

best quote: In Guinea, enrollment rates for girls from 1997 to 2002 jumped 17 percent after improvements in school sanitation, according to a recent Unicef report. The dropout rate among girls fell by an even bigger percentage. Schools in northeastern Nigeria showed substantial gains after Unicef and donors built thousands of latrines, trained thousands of teachers and established school health clubs, the agency contends.

New York Times: A Not-So-Simple Plan To Keep African Girls In School

best quote: The question, of course, is what’s in it for Procter? A great deal, marketing experts say. For one, girls who use free pads today can turn into paying customers when they grow out of the school programs. They could persuade their mothers and aunts to use the products. “When you need to change a culture, it’s good strategy to start with the younger generation,” said Jill Avery, an assistant professor of marketing at the Simmons School of Management… Lisa Jones Christensen, an assistant professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, who is familiar with Procter’s philanthropy programs, says that Procter receives special treatment when its containers hit Kenya’s docks. “No one is saying, ‘Just unload the pads, leave the boxes of Tide,’ ” she said. “This program is giving P&G a license to operate in Africa for all its products.”

School Sanitation toolkit

worst quote: Girls will not use [toilet] facilities that are situated in an isolated location because of the risk of rape or harassment. This problem of rape and harassment at school toilets has been mainly reported for the Southern part of Africa. In a Medical Research Council survey conducted in South African schools in 2000, over 30 percent of girls reported being raped at school.

Finally, I’d like to give an honourable mention to Grace, who is indeed a very nice woman, and inspired this post.