With lockdowns and quarantines limiting access, social enterprises are finding ways to provide products and education this Menstrual Hygiene Day
  • Lockdowns and quarantines have limited access to period products, especially in emerging markets
  • Social enterprises are finding creative ways to distribute products and educate consumers
  • Reusable period products, which are also more environmentally sustainable, are becoming a better option

Since 2014, Menstrual Hygiene Day has brought together social enterprises, government agencies, and nonprofits to highlight the importance of menstrual hygiene management for women and girls. 

In past years, the global platform addressed menstrual health education and “period poverty,” or limited financial and cultural access to pads, tampons, and period underwear. On Thursday’s 2020 Menstrual Hygiene Day, much of the world will still be under lockdown orders — and the social enterprises that produce period care products for women and girls in emerging markets will be finding new ways to keep the fight going. 

“How do you make sure that girls receive training and information — especially a girl who gets her first period in the middle of this, especially if the pandemic is prolonged?” said Sophia Grinvalds, the co-founder and director of Uganda-based reusable sanitary pad company AFRIpads. 

Like other menstrual health social enterprises, AFRIpads traditionally had a two-pronged market strategy: selling their products in shops and working with humanitarian channels to distribute them along with educational materials. With schools and shops closed, maintaining access is in the hands of humanitarian groups that, so far, are able to continue their work. That said, it’s unclear how much of an access gap still exists, and whether menstrual health will remain a priority in the post-COVID world.

“We’re continuing to see humanitarian players provide menstrual products in dignity kits or hygiene kits” that also include underwear, soap, face towels, and other basic necessities, Grinvalds said. “But looking at six, 12, 18 months ahead: is this only happening because those budget lines already existed?”

Another issue raised by the pandemic: quarantines and domestic violence. Experts say menstrual stigma may put girls and women in danger when they are in quarantine with male family members. 

BeGirl, another menstrual hygiene social enterprise, produces period underwear for girls for this exact reason: “Most girls have seen underwear before, so it’s less stigmatized than pads and tampons,” explained COO Audrey Anderson Duckett. 

Schools shutting down is also a problem during the pandemic. Transitioning educational materials to distance learning formats from a classroom setting is a challenge, especially in parts of the world where Internet access is spotty. 

ZanaAfrica, which produces disposable sanitary pads, had already eschewed a digital content strategy in favor of comic books and other printed materials to deliver menstrual and adolescent health education. “We went with printed magazines because they’re cherished, they’re read, they’re shared,” explained Megan White Mukuria, ZanaAfrica’s founder. 

Now, ZanaAfrica is incorporating COVID-19 public health announcements into their magazines, leaflets, and posters. 

“Our health content covers things like body changes, social dynamics, and consent, and now we’re adding content for things like hand-washing social distancing, non-physical greetings,” said White Mukuria. ZanaAfrica is also doubling down on partnerships with nonprofits and other social enterprises that address domestic violence, family planning, and mental health to reach people during lockdown through calls and text messages. 

There is a sustainability silver lining to the pandemic: reusable menstrual products are now that much more attractive because they do not require consumers to replenish their supply every month. Buying pads or tampons each month can be a burdensome recurring cost for low-income consumers, and the products themselves may also stress sanitation systems and supply chains in emerging markets. 

“The supply chain looks really different for reusables versus disposables,” explained Anderson Duckett. “The expensive part is not the product itself — it’s the supply chain. If she needs it once a month for 30 years, that’s where sustainability meets a need.”

“There’s a new opening to the possibility of reusable products,” echoed Grinvalds. “When you’re faced with scarcity, you look for more durable solutions.”