sanitary pads in rural india, are they really changing lives for the better?

I read this article yesterday in Triple Pundit on How A Humble Sanitary Pad is Changing the Lives of Rural Women in India by Akhila Vijayaraghavan.  Basically, Jayaashree Industries in India has found a low cost way to make sanitary pads.  The machine they created can produce 12o pads made of waste wood an hour.  The social enterprise sells these machines to women entrepreneurs in India.

Jayaashree Industries claims to address three major issues with this initiative:

  • Millions of women around the world cannot afford sanitary napkins, mainly because they’re manufactured using expensive machinery and thus priced at a premium. Such women resort to an older and cheaper alternative – a piece of cloth or rag. This is an unhygienic alternative and can cause vaginal infections, skin irritations and embarrassing stains in public. But by reducing the unit price of a napkin, Muruganantham’s model enables women to switch over to napkins – dignity must never be unaffordable.
  • A light-weight and voluminous product like the sanitary napkin introduces high transportation cost. This model allows local production and thus solves the problem.
  • Muruganantham’s model addresses the issue of rampant unemployment amongst the poor in rural, urban and semi-urban areas of all developing nations.

Overall, Muruganantham’s model offers livelihood, hygiene, dignity and empowerment to women all over the world. And it does so using a sustainable business framework.

Yes, lack of access to feminine products in developing countries can be a problem as Jayaashree Industries points out.  Yes, this social enterprise does have the ability to create much needed jobs.  But, there is a development problem that this ignores and actually contributes to.  And that is trash.

The cost-benefit of providing sanitary pads to women in rural areas was first brought to my attention while I was in Nepal.  We were discussing how sometimes development programs are one step ahead and ignore what people truly need.  This is the case with sanitary pads.

In Nepal, many of the small communities outside of the city centers do not have a trash system.  It’s not like the United States where a garbage truck comes around once a week to pick up your trash and cart it off.  That doesn’t exist.  So, what happens to the sanitary pads?  They get discarded on the side of the road.  The women we lived with were very candid about this issue.  They were more than happy to share the fact that they simply toss them outside.

The lack of sanitary pads might be a personal hygiene issue.  But, having used sanitary pads littered around the community produces another, potentially bigger, hygiene issue.

Now, to be fair, I don’t know much about rural India.  I have never been to rural India myself.  But, I imagine it’s at least somewhat similar to Nepal.  And if that’s the case I doubt many of the communities they are selling this machine to have a trash system.

You can’t start selling sanitary pads if there isn’t an appropriate trash system in place to deal with the waste.  You need to focus on creating the trash system first.  It’s not nearly as glamorous of a cause, but it’s equally necessary.

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