Studying yoga in Auroville, an international township in south India, I came across this project called “ecofemme” and the “eco” as well as “femme” in the name immediately resonated. To take a closer look, I met Kathy, the co-founder of the project at one of the open friday talks about menstruation that take place at the ecofemme headquarters under a friendly tree. As we talk an odour of burned plastic whirls around our nostrils…

Ecofemme is an environmentally friendly, social enterprise entirely run by women trying to improve the menstrual experience for both local and women worlwide by  producing reusable cloth pads and make education about menstruation available for rural underpriviledged girls and women all over India.

The start of a cloth pad revolution

When Kathy came to India she was confronted with the question how to recycle her disposable pads, as waste disposal is a huge problem that the country is facing. From local women she received the tip “just digg a hole or burn it”- “that wasn’t very satisfying for me, knowing it would need to decpmpose there for the next 800 years” she said and after some contemplation came up with a clever solution. “In 1999 I started making pads for the community here, distributed them at women’s gatherings and local stores. It started as a small sidebusiness, not much effort, not even a website.”

Creating a social business by chance

Ecofemme’s mission reaches further than tangeling envionmental issues. “At the time I was working with the NGO Auroville Action Group that involve underpriviledged people in educational programmes”, sais Kathy. “Many of the women there had just aquired tayloring skills, but didn’t have a specific product to sell on the market, and therefore no real outlook for a living wage. My product coincidentially requested tayloring skills”. A great opportunity to enrich the enviromental sustainability factor with a social one and manage to create work opportunities for local women.
Now Women at ecofemme work in tayloring, management, distribution, marketing.

Changing ideas about menstruation

In India the menstrual flow of women is traditionally perceived as an impurity. The idea that something bad will happen if you go to a temple while you menstruate is a common cultural belief amongst all genders. Not surprising that menstrual hygiene fulfills the only aim to “get ridd of old, bad, blood”.
Realizing that these cultural ideas must be worked with instead of against, ecofemme did an extensive research about these ideas, how local women manage their periods and what obstacles are currently present.

“An indian girl receiving menstrual education, mostly by a female family member or aquaintance, is most commonly confronted with a long list of “DOES AND DONTS” that give her a good idea what is culturally correct, but don’t put her in touch with her body and about the changes going on during puberty.”

This is where ecofemme’s empowering facor jumps in. “In our educational programms for adolecent girls between 11 -18 that we run with over 20 NGO’s all over India, we focus rather on inspiration and information instead of promoting the perfect product as the solution for everything”. Firstly it is about showing that there is a choice. “We talk about the benefits, show charts that are easy to understand, provide basic information about the female sexual organs and the menstrual cycle, and simply start a conversation in a culturally sensitive way. Reusable menstrual hygiene products automattically put you in touch with your body. You clean it yourself, you look there, you learn to manage it and understand with time that it is the most natural thing on earth and there is nothing gross and disgusting about it.

“Women need to have the choice what kind of 

hygiene product to use and see what they are comfortable with.”

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I like Kathy’s comparison that she brings up during the talk with great concern but an endless optimism in her whole expression:

“We are treating the world as if it was an “OTHER” 

by taking and taking-exploiting and polluting the nature – 

seeing ourselfs seperated from it. 

The same thing is happening with women’s bodies and menstruation –

we treat it as it wasn’t part of yourselfs

& are alienated from it.”

As the phenomenon of period shaming is present in indian society, ecofemme invented some  tools to work around that and at the same time make cloth pads more attractive for women.

By interviewing many women before they started their educational work, it turned out that many are ashamed to sun dry the pads on a regular washing line exposed to the eyes of men and would only hang them to dry when there are no men around. The special shape of the pad for the indian market resembles a rectangular cloth that is not obviously to identify as a pad-just one example how ecofemme tries to work out ways to deal with culturally sensitive issues. They also developed a “belt model” especially for women who don’t use underway- which is common amongst women who wear traditional saris.

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Money, money, money… 

Women do apprechiate the colourfull designs, and leek- proofness, but especially how the pads safe them money. The average indian woman spends about 50 to 60 rupis a month on disposable pads- a lot of money for many. About 3 times less money is spent by making a one time investment on cloth pads every 5 years.

The pad for pad programme also supports ecofemme’s vision of as social enterprise. For every pad bought outside India, one is given to a school girl in India as part of an educational programme.

Need one more reason to make the switch to washable cloth pads?

The colourfull cotton pads are great for those women that don’t feel comfortable with other types of menstrual hygiene products (as it is the case for India) but still want to have the sustainability factor that the menstrual cup provides.

About more  health benefits you can read in my article about the menstrual cup  (“Healthy periods- have you heard of the menstrual cup”) , that shares many health and empowerment benefits.

Namaste, Friedel

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