I thought that as a graduate student, I was beyond the hormonal awkwardness of my teenage years. As it turns out, getting a surprise period on my first day of grad school was just as mortifying last week as it was back in junior high. Luckily for me, pads and tampons were just a short walk (or an awkward nudge to a female friend) away. That does not hold true, however, for many young girls and women throughout the world. Sophia Grinvalds, co-founder of AFRIpads, discovered the serious repercussions of this feminine health inequality while working in community development outside Masaka, Uganda. Amongst female students, she began to notice a strikingly cyclical absence from the classroom. And when she found herself lacking any sanitary napkins, her husband and AFRIpads co-founder, Paul Grinvalds, had to travel 35-miles to the nearest store where he could procure a paltry (but for many people, prohibitively expensive) pack of pads.
While menstruation is not a particularly comfortable topic in much of the world, in some countries, the “week of shame” carries serious stigma and even more serious consequences. The absence of safe and accessible feminine hygiene options is a huge barrier to women’s health, education, and economic empowerment. According to UNICEF and UNESCO, 1 out of 10 African schoolgirls skips or completely drops out of school due to the shame of embarrassing leaks in class, and the health risks of frequent infection. Losing out on education has all sort of negative implications for most social issues, ranging from employment to teen pregnancy to maternal health. So in 2009, Sophia and Paul stepped out into the unknown territory of social entrepreneurship, and the AFRIpads menstrual kits (washable sanitary pads that can last 12+ months) were born.
Community Needs Assessment
During my interview with Sophia about starting AFRIpads, I was blown away by the company’s effective model of community engagement to achieve wide-reaching impact. Many social enterprises struggle to implement one-size-fits-all solutions without considering cultural context, but AFRIpads has worked alongside community members from the start.
For one, the organization had a uniquely successful process for assessing community needs. The co-founders noticed that, while some product options existed (including cloth pads, cups, and organic sea sponges), they were designed to be eco-friendly rather than to address cost and accessibility. Most families cannot afford commercialized pads at all—so the girls improvise. Amongst the rare few that send daughters to private boarding schools, most can only supply 2 packs of 8-10 disposable pads for a 3-month school semester. Without stretching that supply beyond comfort, those expensive packs would barely last a week.
The Grinvalds also realized that washing re-usable products was not a taboo among women—however, the current homemade options were often uncomfortable and unsustainable. So they tapped into a local women’s group with sewing machines, partnered with a recent tailoring school graduate, and stitched their first cloth pad prototype. Soon enough, they had a feasibility study up-and-running in order to test cost, design, and interest. After all, if the people didn’t want or use the product, AFRIpads wouldn’t have much footing. As Sophia said, “who knew if people would use it as a pad or a shoe cushion. You see people fishing with mosquito nets, so you have to be prepared for failure.”
But it turns out, interest was not a problem.
First, a single girl arrived at their make-shift factory asking to buy pads for her exams; then she returned the next week with two friends; suddenly, the word was spreading like wildfire. AFRIpads was featured in the national newspaper, as journalists and angel investors alike were flabbergasted that a start-up was sewing cloth pads in a village without electricity or running water. And moreover, people were buying! It seems that “[women] were looking for options, and were excited to hear there were alternatives that they didn’t know about.”
Today, there have been over 750,000 AFRIpads kits sold, and benefits are trickling down to the entire community. A core motivation for Sophia and Paul was not to just produce a social good, but to create economic opportunities in the regions where they work. By employing 130 people who live walking distance from their factory in Masaka (plus 15 more in Kampala), they are engendering local buy-in and “empower[ing] women and girls through employment, bringing women into the formal economy and out of the periphery.”
Despite the taboos associated with women’s “time of the month,” men too are celebrating AFRIpads. They are witnessing a lightening of their monthly expenses on hygiene products, often viewed as luxuries, and have their families' budgets supported by added income from newly employed wives and daughters. Indeed, studies show that women invest almost three times more of their earned income on their families than men, passing forward almost 70% of their profits. So even in an enterprise as gendered as sanitary napkins, AFRIpads solutions are creating a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Breaking the Silence to Break Down Barriers
While AFRIpads has done amazing work, there is so much more to be done. This includes removing the stigma around something completely natural—a stigma that creates such unnatural and unjust obstacles to women’s success. Sophia said it better than I ever could: “Menstruation is this common bond that women share whether you are Muslim or Christian or white or black. Why is it that my period …was just a hiccup in my month, but for so many women it is something that is so challenging and is almost a barrier for participating in daily life?”
Although perhaps menstruation is not typically anyone’s favorite topic, it is time we break the silence. The consequences of being complacent are so much worse than our conversational discomfort, and so much worse than me bleeding through my pants at grad school orientation. The consequences are girls’ futures and women’s livelihoods. So I think we should follow AFRIpads’ lead. Let’s talk about periods.