Periods Don’t Stop for Pandemics!

Menstrual matters and COVID-19

Running a social enterprise means that each day brings a different challenge. One task could involve calculating exchange rates in four different currencies. And then back to the original currency (one day last week). Other days, you might get to do administrative stuff, or play with ink and stamps (another day last week).

One of the most notable things I’ve done over the past month is making two very large purchases of sanitary pads. Very large. About two weeks ago, I purchased a total of 6,840 sanitary pads.

Do you know what 6,840 sanitary pads looks like? I’ll show you. stacked boxes of sanitary pads in Kenyainside a large box full of packets of sanitary pads for distributionthree large boxes of compostable sanitary pads in India

An observant reader may wonder why I’m buying sanitary products in such vast quantities. And what’s more, what does it have to do with social business? And why am I writing about it?

Here’s the thing. COVID-19 changed everything and everyone. Everywhere.

We can all agree that the world is a different place than it was 6 to 8 months ago. It has been difficult for many of us. I’ve found it to be a very challenging time, balancing my family, work, and the business. It has been emotionally exhausting on many counts. It still is. But it’s important to note that it has been harder for some people than others. We aren’t talking about this enough.

Those hit the hardest by COVID-19 are already the most vulnerable. The poor. The marginalised. The outcast. The shunned. The stigmatised. These are the people who suffer. The ones who get no government support because they aren’t even recognised, acknowledged.

In Kenya, there has been a sharp rise in teenage pregnancy thanks to COVID-19. Closing schools and restricting movement means girls can’t access crucial sexual health care. It also means girls are having trouble getting sanitary pads. It also means girls are having trouble getting sanitary pads.

What does a teenage girl do when she can’t get the essential sanitary products that she needs? Or, if we look at a different perspective, who could benefit by manipulating a situation like this?

The horrible truth is that girls are being forced to trade sex for money to buy sanitary products. In some cases, they’re trading sex because they can’t access food. Desperate girls are ending up pregnant as a result. Sanitary products are not considered to be essential in many places. When restrictions apply to movement and provisions, sanitary pads become inaccessible. They’re not necessities according to many. My friend Nailah and I are partnering once again. My org, she will survive, and hers, Ntoyie Africa, a Kenyan grassroots organisation, are sponsoring an event on 25 September. We will team up once again to provide sanitary products and menstrual hygiene education to vulnerable girls. Nailah managed to get Plan International, Esiankiki Foundation, and Kajiado County Youth Alliance involved. I snagged a generous donation of 480 sanitary pads from African Cotton Industries, and bought the remaining 3360 pads myself.

We will be targeting 300 girls. We’ve raised very little money for this event, enough to buy underwear to supplement the pads. Because underwear is also not considered essential for some.

Anyone who wants to contribute can do so here.

Menstrual matters and COVID-19 in India

So what about the other 3,000 sanitary pads? I’m glad you asked.

You likely know that Shakti.ism is a social business, and all proceeds go back into the business, providing dignified employment. Profits also reinvest in the teams and their communities, aiming to improve their lives.

You might recall that in February I was fortunate to visit India on social business. I held a menstrual hygiene workshop for one of the artisan teams and the local tribal community in Pondicherry. I also purchased several thousand pads, providing a half-year supply for workshop attendees.

And then COVID-19 hit India and everywhere else. And everything changed. India is in a bad situation now, as the peak is still forthcoming.

Across South Asia, garment workers struggled, as big customers were also hit and unable to pay for their orders. Companies like Marks and Spencer, Primark, Next, Asda, Arcadia, ASOS, H&M, Zara & Boohoo… and the list goes on. The direct result was a big blow to garment workers across the industry.

As a result, COVID-19 exposed deep inequalities embedded (and often hidden) within global supply chains. Suspended payments forced factories to close, leaving thousands of female garment workers without work or wages. For the India and Bangladesh-based teams that I work with at Shakti.ism, the impact varied by location. I touched on this in an earlier post, but many of the teams were very restricted in movement, access to essentials, and government support. The priority is and always will be safety and wellbeing of the artisans, and so measures were taken to pay wages when they were unable to come to work. We collectively raised funds to provide food and other essentials where needed. When we returned to work, social distancing and sanitising measures were put in place to ensure that safety came above all else.

For some, social distancing was not a viable or safe option because they have nowhere to self-isolate or go. Others are safer at work than at home due to difficult circumstances, like domestic abuse or poverty.

COVID-19 has deepened existing inequalities, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable communities the hardest. It has put a spotlight on economic inequalities and fragile social safety nets that leave vulnerable communities to bear the brunt of the crisis. At the same time, social, political and economic inequalities have amplified the impacts of the pandemic. More on this here. And here.

person lying on cart
Photo by HARSH KUSHWAHA on Pexels.com

When work is not just work

A common thread amongst all the teams I work with is that the women all desperately wanted to work. Even when we kept paying wages when they were not working. Mental health support and unrestricted access to a safe space is critical for so many women. And now more than ever. For some, work is a refuge away from an abusive or alcoholic husband, or a safe place to be with others who are kind and supportive. For so many of the women I am honoured to work with, the work we do is so much more than employment.

It means safety. Security. Support.

While the teams are safely back at work with strict measures in place, things could change rapidly. COVID cases are on the rise in India, now the second-worst hit country in the world, only behind the US.

And so, this has led me to purchase another 3,000 sanitary pads for my friends in Pondicherry. Because sanitary products are not considered essential in so many places. I want to make sure my team and the local community have access to them, especially at a time when it’s difficult to access the basics. Basics for us are sometimes luxuries for others, and I think it’s important to share that message with others.

The incredible artisan team in Pondicherry (see any familiar faces from my crowdfunding campaign earlier this year?) Photo by Sewing The Seeds

Thanks to a busy summer for Shakti.ism, with orders from 12 countries to date (extra special thanks to the UK and US customers), we’re able to provide 3,000 pads for 150 women and girls! And I hope to continue this tradition until we can find a better alternative for their menstrual health needs. But the pads are 100% compostable, by the way! 

And next week I’m talking with another sanitary pad producer in India. We’ll be discussing a donation of menstrual supplies for the Shakti.ism artisan team and the local community in Jaipur. I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Purchasing with purpose

I’m proud of my little social enterprise. We aren’t raking in millions and my payroll expenses are literally £0. It’s hard work, but it’s so gratifying and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Purchasing with purpose truly can make a difference in the lives of others.

If you want to support disadvantaged women in India and Bangladesh, you can purchase something lovely from Shaktiism.com, from our popular Etsy shop, or even like or share this post. You can shop with certified Fairtrade companies. Spend wisely. Find out how companies actually use your money (hint: most of it just goes to lining the pockets of the world’s (already) wealthiest and increases the already disproportionately wide wage gap. If we aren’t mindful of where we spend, we’re simply making the rich richer.

Buy something pretty (made from repurposed sari fabric!), provide dignified employment for a disadvantaged woman, and do a little happy dance for making a difference in someone’s life! Everyone wins! 

Every little bit helps. Thank you.

Stay safe. And wear a mask (we’ve got lovely ones coming to the Shakti.ism shop soon :-)) !

With lots and lots of gratitude,

Jitna, founder of Shakti.ism

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published