COLOMBO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Every month, Fathima Rifka used to suffer the embarrassment of rinsing out the rags she used during her period at a public tap – the only source of running water available in the poor Sri Lankan neighborhood she grew up in.
“You have to stand in line, and then you also have to wash our utensils from the previous day. There is only one source of water and everyone is there,” said the 24-year-old.
“We hide it and dry it. But sometimes it doesn’t dry properly and the cloth is stiff.”
All that changed a year ago when Rifka got her first job making low-cost, organic sanitary towels – something she now teaches other women in her Colombo neighborhood of Kithulwatte to do.
The business was inspired by Arunachalam Muruganantham, an Indian inventor who developed a way of making cheap pads after watching his wife struggle with rags during her period – the subject of the 2018 Bollywood hit “Pad Man”.
At 60 Sri Lankan rupees (35 cents) for a packet, demand for the product, which goes by the name Sinidu meaning soft, is growing.
Commercially produced towels typically sell for between 100 and 140 rupees, putting them out of reach of most Sri Lankan women. Imported brands can cost up to 500 rupees.
The women behind Sinidu first started manufacturing in Sri Lanka in January 2018 – the day of the “Pad Man” premiere and set up their first full-fledged factory a year later in Kithulwatte.
They import the wood pulp that Muruganantham developed to make the pads from India, using his design for the simple machines they manufacture on.
The operation – a social enterprise, or business with a social as well as a commercial aim – was started by the SAARC Chamber Women Entrepreneurs Council (SCWEC), which works to help women in South Asia access business opportunities.
They have just introduced the machines in a prison, where female inmates will be able to make their own pads, and plan to expand the operation to other communities in Sri Lanka, and eventually to Nepal and Bangladesh.
Period poverty has hit global headlines in recent years, with statistics showing that even in a wealthy Western country like Britain, one in 10 girls have been unable to afford sanitary products.
This year Meghan Markle became the first British royal to speak out on the once taboo issue, saying girls were missing school “because no one wants to talk about it or has what they need”.
In Sri Lanka, the problem is particularly acute because sanitary products are so heavily taxed – until last September, the levy on imported pads was more than 100 percent.
It has since been reduced to about 63 percent and Sri Lanka’s finance minister, Mangala Samaraweera, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he was looking into how taxes on sanitary products could be reduced further.
But Anuki Premachandra, head of research communication at The Advocata Institute, an independent policy think tank, said the issue still wasn’t being given the importance it deserved.
“People are enraged about the cost of carrots, but when it comes to taxes on sanitary napkins, they dismiss it as a women’s issue,” she said.
Last year New Delhi abolished the sales tax on sanitary products although other South Asian countries still tax them.
But for women in the region, the problems go beyond cost.
In parts of India and Nepal, cultural taboos mean menstruating women and girls are banished from their homes at night, putting them at risk. Several have died in Nepal in recent years.
One in three girls in South Asia miss school during their periods and in Sri Lanka, the figure is even higher.
A 2015 survey of adolescent Sri Lankan girls conducted by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF and the government found more than half had to miss school when they had their period.
Another U.N. study found 60 percent of teachers in Sri Lanka thought menstrual blood was impure.
“Women complain about rashes when using the normal pads. Some have other illnesses related to periods, but there is a lot of stigma. So it’s a challenge and we don’t speak about it,” said Rifka, who sold 100 packets this month.
“I have already started selling these pads and there is a lot of demand. Many women come back to me and tell me how good it was. They all want to buy more.”
Published by the Thomson-Reuters Foundation on April 4, 2019. Text and pictures by Smriti Daniel