Innovation in Menstrual Hygiene Management

Category: Events| General| Sexuality Research Initiative (SRI)| Societal relevance

24 Feb 2016

By Ruben Korevaar, Business Development Manager at Simavi

How social and technological innovation support menstrual hygiene management and women empowerment

menstrual hygiene, Uganda, civic innovation

Micro entrepreneur promoting MHM in Uganda (image: Mona van den Berg)

Increasingly women participate in economic life, generate income and are an important driver for economic development. Girls’ school enrollment is increasing and in many countries more girls pass secondary school certificate than boys. More than ever we have access to various sources of information. However, millions of women and girls still lack information on menstrual hygiene, and lack access to hygienic and affordable solutions to manage their menstruation. In many countries girls and women are being excluded from public life – like going to school or work – because they are having their period. How can social change and technological innovation contribute to turn the tide?

Social constraints for women’s socio-economic participation

We give periods many names like “Aunt Flo,” “time of the month,” “crimson wave” or a number of other weird euphemisms that only serve to mystify and hide the process that women go through every month. Menstruation is a natural and essential part of the reproductive cycle. However, in many parts of the world it remains a taboo that is rarely talked about. These taboos and social norms restrict the participation of women and girls in society during menstruation. In addition, limited access to clean water, proper sanitation facilities and sanitary napkins make it difficult for women to manage their menstruation hygienically. As a result, many (young) women around the world face considerable physical and social challenges during their menstruation period.

Menstruation is a cross-cutting issue that relates to several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), e.g. SDG 3-6. While menstruation issues and menstrual hygiene management have recently gained attention in the global development agenda, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) is not specifically mentioned as such in the SDGs.

Social change

Development organisations like Simavi believe that solutions for menstruation issues are vital in empowering women and ensuring basic health conditions. Approaches include:

  • Creating awareness on sexuality, reproductive cycle and menstrual hygiene among girls, women and men in order to empower women to take care of themselves during their menstruation, self-develop and live a healthy life.
  • Creating a supportive environment, in which menstruation is socially accepted and women are not excluded or discriminated because of their monthly periods.
  • Improving access to services, such as sanitary pads and sexual, reproductive health services, as well as sanitation facilities and clean water.

Where NGOs are well-rooted in society and have access to especially the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP), the private sector is a driving force in producing MHM solutions like pads, tampons or menstruation cups. Therefore, a multisector collaboration in addressing menstruation is needed to accelerate change and increase impact.

Innovations to reduce the environmental burden of waste

While promoting MHM and creating access to modern methods, we do not want to create more plastic waste. The average woman uses up to 11,000 pads or tampons during her lifetime. Imagine what this means with regard to the amount of waste in a country like Bangladesh where about 40 million women/girls menstruate.

The role of the private sector is important in looking for innovations and developing environmental friendly alternatives. For example Simavi, together with TNO and a private partner in Bangladesh, is developing and producing biodegradable sanitary napkins. The involvement of the private sector is crucial to ensure supplies can actually be provided in a cost-efficient way and at scale. Looking at sustainability, NGOs can encourage sanitary producers to consider environmental friendly solutions that are also reaching girls and women who have limited resources to spend.

By facilitating social change, working together with the private sector and encouraging technological innovations, NGOs contribute to ensure that all girls and women have comprehensive knowledge of menstrual hygiene, appropriate methods to manage their cycle and are in the position to do so.

I am looking forward to discuss these ideas about technological innovation on this blog and during the ISS Dialogue on Civic Innovation on March 7, 2016!


Wendy Harcourt

February 25th, 2016 at 9:05 am

I am very pleased the DRS is looking at menstrual hygiene in the next event, I am sorry not to be there. However I am little concerned at the approach of this blog, which seems to take an economistic, instrumental approach to menstrual hygiene management, using a lot of development speak. I hope the discussion will focus more on changing cultural and social attitudes to menstruation, led by women and girls’ experiences and the broader political concern about who is leading and determining the innovations. It is a very complex question that has many layers – this blog represents just one way that skates very close to some to seeing menstruating women as problems and the management of menstruation by companies as the solution!


Hilda Alberda

February 26th, 2016 at 2:31 pm

Dear Wendy,

Thank you for your response. Ruben and I have worked closely together in the development of the Ritu programme and I am currently leading the implementation. In that capacity I am responding to your comment.

You are right, the issue of menstrual hygiene is very complex. The development of biodegradable sanitary napkins is therefore only one of the interventions within a more comprehensive programme. Other strategies include awareness raising in communities and schools, and through mass media, improvement/ construction of WASH facilities in schools, capacity building of NGOs and advocacy towards the government. We are currently doing further research and needs assessments to ensure our interventions match the specific needs and situation of women and girls in Bangladesh. As you rightly mention, it is a very complex issue and we therefore want to ensure that women’s and girls’ voices are taken along in the solution.

As this course is on innovation – we focused on the development of the biodegradable napkins. Depending on the demand, we can shift the discussion towards the cultural and social barriers that are central to the issues women face regarding their menstrual hygiene and our proposed interventions to address these.

I hope this answers your question.

Hilda Alberda, Senior Programme Officer, Simavi


Wendy Harcourt

February 27th, 2016 at 1:58 pm

thanks Hilda, I appreciate your response. The question I was raising is not only complex but delicate – how to change deeply felt taboos without ‘blaming the victim’ especially as menstruation is not an illness but a natural cycle which has many different meanings in various cultures. It is the other side of body politics in development – how to introduce innovation and technologies sensitively without undermining or victimizing.
It is great work you are doing I am sure, it is the overall ‘development’ ‘technocratic’ speak I was feeling more cautious about.
To take the conversation a slightly different way:

Another (former) colleague still linked to CIRI Loes Keysers wrote something I asked if I could share on this blog on technologies related to sexuality

dear friends,
At the site of a new Dutch feminist media site i just came accross a New York Times review of this amazing CHAPTER ONE. The Technology of Orgasm, “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction By RACHEL P. MAINES
The Johns Hopkins University Press

This is also on technologies, this time a feminist historic review on the origine of the electric vibrator…
Could be a topic for next DRS? in any case it’s worth reading…

I wanted to also mention another collection (a little more recent) study on technologies and sexuality
Lenore Manderson (ed.), Technologies of Sexuality, Identity and Sexual Health 2012 London: Routledge – you can read a lot of it on google books:

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