Bleeding in Africa

For the past two years, many individuals and organizations have contacted GladRags regarding a largely publicized issue afflicting many communities in sub-Saharan Africa.  For many reasons, young girls are unable to and do not want to attend school during the days they are menstruating.  These days can add up to a 10-20 percent absenteeism rate throughout a school year (  Clearly, this absenteeism leads to missing a great amount of information being taught and is generally disruptive to a girl's scholastic experience.

The many reasons that girls face this obstacle include lack of sanitized water, restroom facilities, underwear, and, the missing product for which GladRags is contacted, menstrual pads.  Also, the topic of menstruation is often taboo in many of these cultures, which makes it difficult for girls to openly arrive at a community solution to this life condition.  Another important obstacle that many news outlets and western organizations fail to consider when contemplating this issue is an absence of a waste disposal system to deal with the disposable pads that have been proposed as a solution and what the creation of such a system would mean.

So, given these many hurdles to overcome, what is the answer?

GladRags has always seen the solution as more complicated than, "get those girls some pads!".  In order for pads to work, these communities also need all of the other missing pieces with the exception of, if the pads are cloth, the waste disposal system.  P&G brands Always and Tampax recognize the complexity of a possible solution as well, thus they have launched their Protecting Futures campaign,  This effort unites with HERO and the United Nations Association of the United States of America to bring girls in sub-Saharan Africa not only pads, but also schools outfitted with wash facilities and water from a pipeline that the effort plans to build.

This campaign is quite comprehensive and, in many ways, commendable.  It might raise the attendance of those absentee girls and yield some very functional school facilities.  Something to consider is the campaign's long-term impact.

What is happening here, in essence, is an exportation of the culture of over-consumption of the Western and "developed" nations.  A generous and helpful solution on the part of P&G does not take into account that the disposal of countless pads and tampons and that sort of disposal driven culture will just create in Africa the waste issues that the US and many other nations have to deal with.  Did you know, for example, that Japan has to export a good amount of their waste because they have no place to put it all?  Washington State is the lucky recipient of a portion of this.

When people have contacted GladRags for cloth pad donations, we have often felt that our hands are tied in making any sort of impact in certain African communities even with such a donation.  This is because of the lack of restroom facilities, underwear and the social taboo of menstruation.  The solution that P&G has to offer comprehensively addresses these concerns.  Unfortunately, it is in order to make using disposable pads a workable answer.

We do not believe that disposable products are ever an answer because they are not a long-term, sustainable solution.  What a shame that the mistake that certain cultures have made in making disposable pads the most prominent way of dealing with menstruation is now being spread to places where such a mistake has not yet been made.

The hurdle that GladRags and other cloth pads proponents have to face is not just to get cloth pads or at least the idea of cloth pads to sub-Saharan Africa, but also to convince the concerned charity and business organizations that cloth is the most sustainable solution.  How can this be done when cloth pads are not used by most of the women of the US?  Many United Statesians would probably think the proposal of such a solution for sub-Saharan Africa an insult to these African girls.

Such an international concern so interestingly highlights the importance of the work that GladRags is doing and the dire consequences that could result if more women do not adopt a more sustainable approach to menstruation.  Every time a customer uses her GladRags, Keeper Cup, Moon Cup or Sea Sponge Tampon and tells another woman about these products, she is helping to change the mentality of a disposal driven culture and that is an admirable way to live.  Hopefully, such a presence of innovative living will reach further and further, creating a better future for other communities as well.

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  • I just finished reading the Bleeding in Africa article in this month’s newsletter and I am blown away…I never knew the obstacles these women face every month…I can’t imagine not having even water to rinse off with…but as commendable as these other disposable pad companies are in getting these women feminine hygiene products…Glad Rags is right on the money…why encourage filling up landfills over there with disposables when we’re choking the life out of our own landfills with disposables here in America?…too bad those big companies just don’t get it…anyway…thanks for the information…I was ignorant to Africa’s situation and now I know.

  • Erica B.

    I found this bit from Article 2 to be distressing:

    During menstruation, most poor women use cloth rags to absorb the blood flow. These emit bad odours and leak easily. For girls sitting in class all day without access to clean water to wash themselves and the rags, this leads to extreme discomfort and embarrassment.

    This has all the typical myths — you use cloth if you can’t afford “real” sanitation, cloth rags are smelly, cloth rags leak… I had more leak issues before I started using Gladrags!

    Clean water near school should be considered vital for many reasons (including menstruation), and so should education about menstruation. What happened to passing knowledge from mother to daughter about what they should expect as they age? The kids must be terrified if they suddenly start leaking blood and have no idea why!

    There are so many things about this story that just depressed me.

  • Diana

    Erica – thanks for your comment. I agree that there are so many things about this situation that are depressing. I think one of the most depressing aspects for me is how multi-layered the issue is and complicated to “fix”.

    Something that I didn’t even touch on in the post is that the whole idea of a school day was probably not something that these communities traditionally had. It was with the advent of the school day that this particular issue came about. During the days a girl was menstruating in the past, she may have just laid low or bled onto the ground. Now, having to attend her classes, she realizes that she has no way to “deal” with her flow. I just hope for these communities to arrive at a sustainable answer.

    Thank you again for your thoughts.

  • Christine

    Diana, you’re right about the role of the schoolday in these girls’ lives. The notion of spending so many hours in a classroom is a western construct that has been imposed on these people. In many cultures, it is totally normal for women to take off for a few days a month, sometimes to a women’s hut (the only space they can expect no men, a safe space). Honestly, I’m not so sure what is wrong with the girls missing school. There ought to be a mechanism whereby they can take work home so they don’t fall behind. But it is only our culture where women are expected to secretly go about bleeding in private, pretending publicly that there is no rhythm to their lives. I almost wish I could spend a day or two a month just honouring my cycle…

  • Lili Fugit

    Here is something I want to know– underwear as we know it is a fairly modern invention, and yet bleeding is not. What did women do before the advent of underwear? They used internal protection, hence the wonderful sea sponges still used today, and they also used… RAGS. They just put them between their legs. When I don’t feel like wearing underwear and yet have my period I frequently do this. If the rag is made of fabric like a washcloth, it doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe GladRags should consider making a highly absorbent pad of this sort. It takes a little getting used to, but it’s actually quite comfortable. A girl or woman with very skinny legs may have a more difficult time, but then again I know a few very skinny women who do this too, with as much success as plump old me.

  • Christine – I would say that both our culture and the culture in which many of these African girls live both need to reinvent their attitudes towards menstruation. I like to comfortably bring up menstruation with friends and other people I meet in an effort to change the secrecy that often surrounds such a natural occurence. It’s always great to hear from women who are comfortable with the flow.

    Lili – so do you just put the rag in your pants and that is enough to make it stay without underwear? Tried as I have to find out what these girls in these African communities did before school to absorb the flow, I still didn’t find any concrete answers.

    Here is an interesting NYTimes article I came across:

    And a good thread on a cloth diapering forum:

  • Clare

    I work in a rural village in South Africa, and I asked a number of my young friends about how they dealt with this problem. Many report wearing repurposed ‘nappies’ (cloth diapers) or simply using _folded washcloths_ held into their underwear with hair elastics. Look! Terrycloth! The washcloths are very inexpensive and readily available all over town, even tiny spaza shop owners sell them. At first I was very confused about why there seemed to be washcloths for sale everywhere…and then I realized…women were using them as sanitary napkins! (They also use them to blot sweat off of their faces when it’s hot.)

    I also wanted to say that I came to this website after reading about the Tampax/Always campaign and being horrified about the lack of sustainability of the project (what will happen when Tampax stops handing out tampons!?!) and also the question simply of what girls are supposed to do with the used pads? Folks are pretty blood-phobic (Just like in the US, only there you get the added anxiety of 20% or so of the population being HIV+) so it’s an issue.

    Last thing, about school being a ‘western construct.’ It’s absolutely true that the notion of learning in the classroom as it currently stands in my village is based on the British colonial system. However, the idea of sitting still for that long and listening to someone talk is not new…when I visited with the chief I often spent three to four hours sitting on the floor, listening. That kind of patient listening is actually something that we as Americans might do well to learn from! It’s vitally important for girls to be educated, too…and if that means not missing school I support not missing school! (I appreciate Christine’s remark that work might be sent home, but if you consider how overworked and underpaid the teachers _already_ are, and how few resources exist in the schools, sending work home really imposes a serious extra burden.)

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