Eco Femme-A Women’s Initiative to Save the
Iris C F Gomes
For ages the guilt of adding to Goa’s garbage problem was gnawing at my conscience. I was segregating the other waste, but when it came to soiled menstrual pads, I was at a loss for a solution. Somebody suggested incinerating them; however, this would only contribute to air pollution. Finally I chanced on a Facebook post by a friend about Eco Femme cloth pads. My curiosity piqued, I followed the link to find the answer to my dilemma.
Eco Femme came into being in 2010 at Auroville, Tamil Nadu, through the co-operation of Kathy Walkling of Australia and Jessamijn Miedema of Netherlands. The two women were single-minded in their motivation to empower women and work towards reducing the amount of sanitary waste that is ecologically a serious threat and aesthetically an eyesore in India. The Auroville Village Action Group, an NGO which functions as a women’s self-help group, provided the woman power needed to tailor Eco Femme products.
In many rural areas in India, women resort to using cow dung, ash, saw dust, sand and other such unhygienic elements to absorb menstrual blood. Aside from this, there are norms that go along with menstruation where a woman is made to stay apart from the rest of the family, eat only vegetarian food, be restricted from visiting temples and such. Most Indian women endure a sense of shame in this occasion that marks the beginning of womanhood. Eco Femme provides education in menstrual hygiene without vilifying age old traditional practices. Instead, it enables women to comprehend and reason for themselves whether following traditions affects them adversely or not, allowing them to make an informed decision for themselves.
The impact on the environment is immense when you consider the amount of sanitary waste that finds its way to landfills. A single woman can produce 150 kg of sanitary waste during her menstruating years. It takes up to 500 to 800 years for this non-biodegradable (sanitary) waste to decompose. Incineration is not the best of ideas because if done below 800 degrees it can release toxic gases from the plastic polymer component. Furthermore, dioxins and furans will be left to wreak havoc on our immune, reproductive, and endocrine systems. These groups of chemicals which are found in sanitary pads are also carcinogenic.
The products Eco Femme has created are, by Jessamijn’s own assertion, a tried and tested design. She says, ‘The products were designed by the Eco Femme team that started the project in 2010. It is not a new invention. There are many cloth pad brands around the world, so we developed and tested and refined till we got what we have now. And we keep developing when the need arises. Eco Femme has cloth pads that vary in shape and size and one can choose a combination according to one’s own menstrual flow. There are day pads of normal size and larger ones (for heavy flow days). There are night pads which are longer and broader at the back, as well as panty liners for light flow days, together with tampons and menstrual cups. There is an attractive pouch that can be bought to contain clean or soiled pads.
The pads come with a leak proof layer of PUL (polyurethane laminate). This is the only compromise Eco Femme has made in terms of maintaining environment friendly standards for lack of a feasible substitute. The PUL layer lasts for an estimated 75 washes. One can purchase pads without the PUL too.
The pads are colourful and made of soft cotton flannel fabric that feels very comfortable against the skin and it is as if one is not wearing a pad at all. The single colour side is to be worn against the body and it can be kept in place with nickel-free plated snaps.
To clean the pads, they have to be soaked in cold or lukewarm water (do not use hot water as this can cause the stain to set), and then they may be either hand-washed or machine washed at 40 degrees or less. Using cloth pads is perfectly hygienic as long as one washes and dries (in direct sunlight when possible) them well.
The cost may seem high when purchasing the products, but one has to remember that in a five year period women spend about Rs 4200 on disposable pads. Eco Femme offers you the full cycle kit which will last around the same number of years at Rs 1575. This saves the customer Rs 2625.
Eco Femme has a Pad for Pad programme where one can sponsor a pad for a girl in rural India with every purchase. There is also a Pad for Sisters programme that allows economically backward women over 19 years of age access to cloth pads. These cloth pads are made available to organisations working with women at a lower rate.
The ambassadors of Eco Femme, who are women residing in various states of India, work towards promoting the use of cloth pads against disposable ones and have the cloth pads available for sale. Sulochana Pednekar is Goa’s ambassador for Eco Femme. Sulochana was already engaged in a menstrual education programme when she began looking for an eco-friendly option to disposable sanitary pads. She was advised to find out about Eco Femme. ‘I used the products myself first and found them good. I wanted to give it to other women, so I contacted Eco Femme. They told me about the ambassador programme and I joined them,’ says Sulochana. She has now been working with Eco Femme for two years and has had sessions in remote places with tribal people, in slums, in schools and in colleges. She has even been called back for further talks at some of the colleges. Women definitely want to know if there is an alternative and she has people buying the products which she sells at no profit to herself (only postal delivery charges plus the cost stipulated by Eco Femme). There are women from as far as Canacona who have approached her for clothe pads, but the Siolim based Sulochana says, ‘It’s mostly women from the north side (North Goa) who come to me because I am closer to them.’ Sulochana can be reached at 9850478215 for Eco Femme products and sessions regarding menstrual education.
The rest of the Eco Femme team consists of Laura (communications), Harshini (Pad for Pad Educator), Melanie (marketing and sales), Pavithra (administration) Sudha and Ramani (quality control and packaging), Ilana Cohen (research and development), while co-founders Kathy and Jessamijn take on roles of not-for-profit and for-profit team leaders, respectively. All members of Eco Femme are volunteers who subsist on a stipend.
‘Our sales in terms of value and quantity are approximately 50% domestic and 50% international. Demand is growing fast in India... and I think that the bulk of our orders will shift to the domestic market within 2-3 years,’ says Jessamijn.
So ladies, if you are worried about your planet and want to contribute in your own way to saving our ecology and environment, make the change to using cloth pads. It is best to ease yourself into a pattern and Eco Femme pads can be purchased according to individual cycles. Some women start off wearing them at home or in combination with disposable pads, gradually weaning themselves off the latter. It takes time to adjust to something new, but once you have made the transition you will feel all the more better for it… giving your body and your world a healthier alternative.