For Tayeba Begum, a woman living in the Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp in Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar, menstrual hygiene - or period - is something she has to hide from her male-dominated family.
Before coming to Bangladesh, she used old and worn-out fabric pieces for sanitary napkins during her menstruation cycles, which she would eventually wash and dry. But in a cramped refugee camp, doing the same under broad daylight is overwhelmingly embarrassing. So she has been using the disposable sanitary napkins provided by the NGOs working in the camp.
But the problem with disposable sanitary napkins is that they are single-use, plastic and can take up to 700 years to decompose. This is a substantial threat to the environment because such disposable menstrual products create more than 2,00,000 tonnes of non-biodegradable waste globally every year, according to Safepad.
Let's do the math - if an individual woman uses a minimum of five pads in every monthly menstrual cycle, she will use almost 2,400 pads in 40 years.
This is where Safepad™, an antimicrobial fabric-made reusable sanitary napkin, comes in. Starting in 2019, Safepad Bangladesh has been providing reusable sanitary pads to adolescent girls and women in 37 districts all over the country. And not just pads, the team has been working to raise awareness among adolescents and their guardians about Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM).
And now, Safepad™ has reached out to Rohingya women, not just with their reusable pads but also with a scope of employment, where women like Tayeba can learn to make pads and sell those in their community.
In their official factory in Chattogram, Safepad employs women to make these pads. And in their skill development centre in Balukhali Rohingya camp in Cox's Bazar, they have provided sewing machines to train the Rohingya women to make the pads. Currently, 54 women in two batches are learning to make pads there.
The stigma and lack in awareness
According to the National Hygiene Survey 2018 conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, some 29% of menstruating women in the country use sanitary pads, up from 14% in 2014.
Tahmid Kamal Chowdhury, the CEO of Safepad Bangladesh, was a college student in 2011 when he founded Youth's Voice, the youth wing of Youth Worldwide Foundation (YWF), a non-profit organisation that spreads education in the rural areas of Bangladesh.
Through that experience, Tahmid and his team realised that Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) is highly ignored in Bangladeshi society, especially in rural areas. This inspired him to include this issue in the agenda of YWF. And in 2015, YWF started distributing disposable sanitary pads and also initiated MHM campaigns in schools across Bangladesh.
"Guardians, even the teachers in some schools, didn't want us to talk about period and women's reproductive organs. We have a slide in our presentation showing the women's reproductive organs and explaining how menstruation works. And one female teacher in a school in Chattagram insisted that we remove that slide; otherwise, they would not let us run the campaign," said Akil Mutaseem, the operations manager of the company.
But the team also realised that disposable pads are creating an immeasurable amount of waste, which was a crisis in itself. That year, when Tahmid participated in an MHM conference in Denmark organised by Real Relief, he was inspired by their technology.
Real Relief supplies a variety of relief items all over the world. This organisation uses anti-microbial fabric to make sanitary pads, and currently, they are working in 19 countries around the globe, including India, Bangladesh, Congo and some other African and European countries.
So Tahmid returned to Bangladesh with the technology and started Safepad Bangladesh in 2019. And in 2019, the production began, and instead of disposable pads, they included the bright fuchsia coloured pads in their regular MHM campaigns.
Having experience of working in the readymade garments industry already, it was easier for Tahmid to arrange for the logistics. "But I still struggle with the social stigma related to menstrual health management," Tahmid said.
There was a time when his friends avoided him, as he was working with 'period, menstrual hygiene or sanitary pads' - all the social taboos we grow up with. His team mates also have had similar experiences. Akil Mutaseem said, "My uncles and aunts think it is an embarrassment to be working with menstrual hygiene especially for a man."
But they brushed aside those opinions and persevered.
A new dawn: Safepad™ and anti-microbial technology
In 2021, Safepad Bangladesh participated in the Springboard Programme 4.0 Youth Co:Lab, a project jointly led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, and won.
"This gave us an amazing opportunity to expand and reach out to the most vulnerable refugee community living in Bangladesh," said Tahmid.
So what makes this pad safe and reusable? "The fabric we have used here has permanently bonded antimicrobial technology embedded. This means that the structure of the fabric is built in a way to resist bacterial propagation. This is what makes the pad safe to use, wash, dry and then reuse," said Tahmid.
"The pad has three layers - a top layer of fuchsia-coloured microfiber fabric, the core has three layers of white microfiber fabric and the bottom is an anti-leak security layer made of polyurethane laminate," he added.
The outer layer, the part in contact with the genitalia, is made of microfibre fabric. This fabric is soft, making it comfortable to wear and easily washable, meaning the blood stains do not sit on it. The core section is white microfibre fabric. This layer does not have any water-soluble colouring or added fragrance.
At the bottom, a layer of polyurethane laminate has been used to prevent the blood from leaking. This was tricky as we know laminate can melt if the temperature is too high. But then, because the napkin is reusable, the user will want to use warm water to wash the pad.
"The anti-microbial technology helped us here. Because this technology prevents bacteria and fungus from growing, so mild, warm water is enough to wash away the blood," explained Akil.
Safepad offers two sizes designed for heavy flow and normal flow days. The pads are packed into a bright recycled fuchsia paper pack. "The economy pack has two pads (1 heavy flow and 1 normal flow) which cost Tk190, and the regular pack has four pads (1 heavy flow and 3 normal flow), which costs Tk360," Akil informed us.
The price might seem comparatively higher than other brands which are available in the market at Tk170-180 for a pack of 10 disposable pads.
Julekha Begum, a young training assistant in the skill development centre, explained the reasoning behind the pricing, "Disposable pads are not washable or reusable; I can wash the Safepad™ at least 100 times. So even though the pads cost a bit more than the regular disposable ones, in the end, it's sustainable and saves me a lot."
How the pad is made
The process for producing the pads includes four steps - laser cutting, assembling, quality check and packing. These are done in three different factories. We visited the assembly factory in Chattagram, where we saw female workers assembling and sewing the laser-cut fabrics in industrial sewing machines.
Every week at the Chattagram factory, they produce 3,000 pieces of pads. Safepad Bangladesh has a partnership with Daraz.com, an e-commerce site, from where anyone in Bangladesh can order Safepad™, and the product will be delivered within three days, Akil said.
Currently, they are planning to install IoT-based vending machines in schools where female students will be able to take pads. The initial plan is to provide a card with a bkash or Rocket number, and by recharging it, students can buy the pads and take them from the vending machine.
Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for Asia-Pacific countries to invest in and empower youth to accelerate implementation of the SDGs through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. The Springboard Programme of Youth Co:Lab Bangladesh is a platform for young social entrepreneurs to contribute towards achieving the SDGs through tailored mentorship and wide-ranging national and global networking opportunities.