During a visit to Auroville, India a couple of days ago I was happy to have the opportunity to chat briefly with Eco Femme co-founder Kathy Walkling in between customers at their busy stall at the market. I had already heard about Eco Femme before I came to India and I was exited to meet the people behind it in real life. I wanted to get to know more about their important work on raising awareness of menstrual hygiene and sustainability among rural women in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Eco Femme was founded in 2010 and in collaboration with the Auroville Village Action Group – an NGO working for womens’ empowerment in rural Tamil Nadu – they started to design and produce eco-friendly, washable cloth pads for sale worldwide. The cloth pads are stitched by women in self-help groups who have been trained in advanced tailoring. The women run their own collective tailoring unit and Eco Femme, whose monthly production order alone provides a full time livelihood to 7 women, is just one of their customers.
The cloth pads are not only helping women to make a living for themselves, but they also contribute to a more sustainable planet. The pads can often be used for more than three years, which is a real investment for the environment and especially so in India, where waste management is really poor.
Cloth pads are nothing new to the Indian women who have been using them for centuries. However, due to lack of information about hygenic practicies, many women and girls in rural Tamil Nadu still have unanswered questions about their bodies and menstruation. Therefore Eco Femme initiated the “Pad for Pad” education programme which sets out to inform and educate adolescent girls on menstruation and hygiene so that they can make informed choices about their own bodies. For every pad sold outside of India a donation is made to the programme which enables Eco Femme to offer menstural health education and washable cloth pads to adolescent girls in India.
During my conversation with Kathy we were interrupted several times by women and girls who were curious about the pads, and at one point, two men approached the stall. This is, unfortunately, a rare sight, Kathy told me. She, (like most of us, I guess) wishes there were more men engaging in women’s rights. However, a lot of effort is needed to make changes just among women. The pads are generally positively received although there are women who initially are sceptical, especially on whether the pads are hygenic and if they are safe to use without any leakage. Furthermore, Eco Femme has to compete with the high volume of commercials on disposable menstural products which claim to be hygenic and safe to use. However, Kathy stresses, a lot of women experience discomfort, such as allergic reactions to synthetic ingredients, while using disposible menstrual products and would actually benefit from switching to reusable ones.
Another obstacle which has to be overcome is the lack of basic facilities for women to be able to change and wash the pads properly. Therefore, the pads are always distributed to NGOs, who are advised to carry out basic studies on access to water and proper toilets before starting any projects. This reminded me of the importance of a holistic perspective when working with development projects.
Overall, Kathy told me, we all have to really recognize the importance of working with girls because they are our future. Certainly, here in India girls are very marginalized and face many obstacles. It is also important not only to educate girls but to educate all levels of society in order for things to change. We need to acknowledge the importance of organization and solidarity throughout the world.
So, if you would like to act in solidarity with women and girls in India and at the same time contribute to a more eco-friendly planet, go ahead and visit the Eco Femme website to learn more about how to engage!
Cover photo credit: Eco Femme