Period Poverty in FinlandOnce a month, women worldwide are forced to take roughly a week of absence from their everyday lives. They miss school, meetings, weekly tasks and other events outside of their homes because of something they cannot control: their periods. This is called period poverty. Period poverty in Finland is a real struggle that many women face. The United Nations defines this struggle as simply “the inability to afford menstrual products.” Other sources elaborate on period poverty as “a lack of access to menstrual products, hygiene facilities, waste management and education.”

Periods Are a Part of Life

In Finland, as well as many other parts of the world, menstruation is a private matter. While it is beneficial to set boundaries, this line of thinking has created an illusion that periods are taboo. In reality, they are simply part of life. Arja Karhuvaara, a Helsinki City Councillor for the National Coalition Party, did not believe the topic was relevant to city council proceedings in June of 2021. When asked about her opinions on discussing menstrual hygiene, she stated that “there are T-shirts at home that one can make sanitary pads out of if the situation is quite hopeless.” This comment demonstrates just how little people publicly discuss periods, despite the fact that menstruation takes up “on average… about seven years” of a woman’s life. This is a significant amount of time to be deprived of education, experiences and proper care methods.

The Price of Periods

The nature of current public policy around period poverty in Finland has more deeply embedded the idea that menstruation is only to be addressed through consumerism and not open communication. In other words, women buy period products because they are the silent solution that has been offered. In Finland, however, people face heavy taxes and rising prices on these hygienic items. They may cost anywhere from “a couple of euros up to as much as ten euros.” This is a significant part of students’ monthly budgets. As such, some women cannot afford these items. In a survey conducted by the city of Helsinki, “eight percent said they had skipped school because they didn’t have period protection.” That is why, in 2021, the Helsinki City Council composed an experiment in which they would provide period products for free to young, financially constrained women during their menstrual cycles.

The Experiment

Out of the participants chosen, “eighteen percent of respondents—or nearly a fifth—said monetary constraints had prevented them from purchasing menstrual products.” This is why the experiment was so vital. Twenty-four councilors signed the proposal. They conveyed the message that “no one [should have] to choose whether to use their money on food or menstrual products.” Additionally, they hoped to create a change, whereby menstruation would not be a sign of inequality or seen as a stigmatized defect, but rather a natural phenomenon and normal experience. Finally, in December 2021, “the Helsinki City Council voted for the proposal with a majority of 50 to 31. A four-month trial started in September.”

Results and Looking Forward

After distributing sanitary products to 753 pupils, the city of Helsinki declared the study a success. The distribution reached four educational institutions. Close to half of the students who participated in the study also took part in a survey. The results showed that pupils were grateful for free sanitary products. It seems that with such a positive response, the experiment was able to make a crack in the code of silence surrounding period poverty in Finland. Hopefully, this small victory will lead to considerable changes over time.

– Rachel Breeden
Photo: Flickr

Healthcare startup Saathi is on a mission — to empower Indian women through increased access to sanitary pads. Saathi’s unique approach involves recycling discarded banana fibers into a biodegradable and compostable form of feminine hygiene.

Founded in 2015 by MIT graduate Kristin Kagetsu, Saathi addresses the unfortunate reality that only 16 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads during menstruation. Sanitary pads and other feminine hygiene products like tampons and menstrual cups are out of reach for most Indian women because of the cost.

As an alternative, Indian women will either use rags, sawdust, leaves or ashes for feminine hygiene. Unfortunately, these practices can negatively impact cleanliness and, in turn, adversely affect productivity. A 2011 Nielsen study discovered that an alarming 30 percent of girls in northern India dropped out of school once they started menstruating.

Saathi plans to address the cost issue by partnering with NGOs to sell the pads at discounted rates in rural areas and urban slums.

Sustainable Supply Chain

Saathi’s unique approach doesn’t just benefit women, though. The company supports sustainability and local agriculture by purchasing its banana fibers from local farmers. Thrown away before Saathi stepped in, the banana fibers now have a second life after the fruit is harvested. “We realized our strength and uniqueness was in the banana fiber itself. In Gujarat, the plant ends up getting tossed aside on the road,” Kagetsu said.

Kagetsu also acknowledged the importance of their supply chain approach: “Most other pad companies like to think about women as the beneficiaries. That is there, but the greater impact we have is on our supply chain. You can think of it as fair trade and ethical sourcing.”

Sustainability continues on the production floor. Saathi uses a chemical and plastic-free process, and all manufacturing waste is either sold or recycled. Even after the pads are used, the waste products can be recycled as compost feed or used to power biogas systems.

Women Helping Women

Saathi employs nine local women in its Ahmedabad factory. Once considered low-income, these women now enjoy empowerment. The female-led factory produces approximately 1,300 all-natural pads a day.

According to Saathi’s website, it is steadily growing. In Dec. 2016, they announced plans to hire a design engineer, supply chain engineer, an administrative assistant and a sales and distribution lead.

Gisele Dunn

Photo: Flickr

Women’s HealthAccording to data from Trading Economics, Malawi’s GDP in 2015 totaled $6.57 billion, or 0.01 percent of the global economy. The highest influxes of extremely impoverished Malawians are concentrated in rural areas and face a constant struggle when conceptualizing economic development from agricultural practices.

Established in 1993, the Malawi Children’s Fund has initiated and supported youth in Malawi by developing initiatives that facilitate entrepreneurial, educational and medical facilities. The Green Malata Entrepreneurial Village, one of the fund’s centers for development, provides children with courses in subjects such as renewable energy and information technology, in addition to a tailoring program that manufactures reusable Malawian sanitary pads.

Women and children studying tailoring also construct reusable pads that are then combined into “The School Girl Pack,” consisting of three pads and a pair of underwear, which is then sold for $3.50. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that one in 10 school-aged girls in Africa drop out of school or miss class due to their period. Skills development programs established by the entrepreneurial village are not only providing personal development of individual’s trade abilities but also ensuring a better quality of life for women and children in Malawi.

Access to quality female hygiene products is also vital to beneficial health practices to prevent malfunctions such as leaking, which spreads infection and subsequent sores and rashes. Other organizations such as AFRIpads, locally headquartered in Uganda, distribute sanitary pads to women in dire need of reliable assistance.

The Malawian sanitary pads initiative has also committed to participation in Project 50/50, a trans-regional campaign that aims to facilitate greater political representation of women, as outlined in 2008 Southern African Development Community (SADC) Protocol on Gender and Development. On location, training events are held to empower and educate women to become leaders in local and national government.

Amber Bailey

Photo: Flickr

Right now, there are more than 800 million women and girls around the world who are menstruating. Many of them, thanks to modern day convinces such as easily accessible feminine products, are able to go about their day as they normally would.

However, girls and women living in poverty do not have this luxury. Thousands of them do not have access to a clean toilet with running water. Most of them are not able to afford menstrual hygiene supplies and some might not even know what is happening to them.

A study in India found that almost 70 percent of girls had never been educated on menstruation and were unaware of what was happening to their body the first time they menstruated.

Seeing as about half of the world’s population menstruates at some point in their life and the inability to effectively manage it has rippling effects, ensuring that girls and women have the proper tools and knowledge to manage their monthly cycle is imperative to allow them to prosper every day of every year.

In many developing countries, primary and secondary school dropout rates are higher for girls when compared to boys. Girls make up over 54 percent of the uneducated population of the world.

In many countries, girls are not culturally or legally allowed to attend school or they are needed to stay home and help generate an income for their families. However, at least a portion of this percentage have dropped out of school due to more subtle, but more easily addressable, reasons.

Girls in developing countries not only have to face intense discrimination in their pursuit of an education but also the fact that, in many poor countries, feminine hygiene products are unavailable or too expensive.

So, girls are left to make due with alternatives such as unsterilized cloths, newspaper, bark, banana leaves and even dung. Most of these alternatives are not only unhygienic and can lead to serious health issues, but are also ineffective.

This leads to many girls staying home from school while they are menstruating, thus causing them to miss nearly an entire month of school every year.

Most sanitary pads that are used during menstruation are made from pine-fiber, which is an expensive material to make and is generally imported from Norway or North America.

An organization in Kenya, ZanaAfrica, which is supported by Grand Challenges Canada and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has been working to patent a new, inexpensive pad that is made using free agricultural byproducts. It is their hope that these new sanitary pads improve health for girls.

Megan Mukuria and Dr. Lawino Kagumba from the organization are the primary leaders of this effort and they have been experimenting with different formulas and designs on how to manufacture an effective, yet inexpensive sanitary pad for girls living in developing or poor nations.

They are hopeful that by addressing the need for cheaper, yet still effective, feminine hygiene products they can not only decrease health issues resulting from improper menstruation care, but also decrease school dropout rates for young girls.

Brittney Dimond

Sources: UNICEF, Impatient Optimists 1, Impatient Optimists 2
Photo: Pixabay