24/09/2016 4:49 AM IST | Updated 07/12/2017 3:52 AM IST

How a Sanitary Pad Project In India Benefits Both Girls' Education and the Environment

Despite strides in feminism, menstruation is still far from an open topic of conversation in the United States, let alone in places with crippling gender inequality, such as rural villages in India and Kenya. Yet that hasn't stopped Shana Greene from making it her mission to provide school-age girls with hygienic and affordable menstrual supplies.

Why? Getting your period is one of the biggest reasons for girls to miss school in these communities, making them more likely to fall behind, drop out, and get stuck in the cycle of poverty. In fact, the Times of India reported that nearly a quarter of Indian girls drop out of school once they start their periods, and about 70 percent say their families can't afford pads.

Greene, founder and director of Seattle-based nonprofit Village VolunteersEmpowering Women. Period.--a project that develops microenterprises that enable impoverished women in India and, soon, Kenya, to make biodegradable pads from fast-growing water hyacinth--is turning the enormous problem of a destructive weed that harms fresh water supplies into a three-pronged solution.

"[We were able to] sidestep the traditional problem-solution models that tightly focus on a single solution to a single problem. We instead developed a solution with a multidimensional approach: A viable way to handle menstruation, which keeps many girls in developing countries from going to school, while fighting poverty by providing income at the same time and easing an environmental threat," says Greene of the project's inception.

She credits part of what led to the creative solution was an ability to collaborate. An easy idea in theory, but typically very difficult to practice in regions with crushing poverty that are often mired in corruption. For example, Greene partnered with Urmi Basu, the director and founder of New Light, an organization that provides shelters and education to the children of sex workers in Kolkata, one of the oldest red light districts in India.

With Basu's help, the first Empowering Women. Period. microenterprise was launched near this city where, according to the New Light website, roughly 40,000 new trafficked sex workers enter each year. It's a region where economic empowerment for women in the forms of education and income can help change a culture of inequality, and prevent another generation from turning to sex work.

Considering the problems that women face during menstruation in areas of poverty, Greene stresses the importance of listening to women who don't traditionally hold paths to power. "When you listen, and the person knows you are interested in her viewpoint, you will hear what she wants to tell you as opposed to what she thinks you want to hear," says Greene.

"Organizations need to ask those people they're trying to help what works for them, and not make assumptions when offering solutions," says Greene. "For example, re-useable cloth pads have been widely distributed. However, without available soap, water and privacy to wash and dry the pads, they carry dangerous bacteria. To make it worse, girls often dry them under their beds and wear them damp, which causes fungal and bacterial infections. Another solution that has been introduced is menstrual cups, which are also a challenge to keep clean when you don't have access to running water. Moreover, in many communities around the world, tampons or menstrual cups are taboo for young women."

Ultimately, when coming up against a myriad of issues while trying to create a sustainable solution and a business where the marginalized women who work are paid fairly and get health insurance, Greene pulled from the expertise of friends on four continents. (In addition to working from the U.S with partners in India and Kenya, a team from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden created the prototype of the biodegradable sanitary pad that helped the project happen). What kept her going is her inner knowing that she needed to push through.  Throughout the process, she connected the dots in a non-linear way in order to help discover this remarkable solution.

"For Empowering Women. Period, a giant leap needed to be taken to think that one problem could possibly solve another. The issues around water hyacinth causing people to lose access to fresh water, fishing, and the biodiversity of their lakes was in no way related to girls not having sanitary pads," says Greene. "When we found out that water hyacinth was absorbent, I would not stop until the concept became a reality to make affordable biodegradable pads from the destructive aquatic weed that destroys water supplies and the fishing industry."

In addition to crediting collaboration across four continents, the ability to truly listen, and following her intuition for the pad project's success, she says that, in an environment where it seems like every aspect of the system is working against you--such as social stigma surrounding women's menstruation and lack of funding--the launch came down to sheer perseverance.

"...perhaps my secret talent is that I don't give up, especially on what I believe to be something that will change the lives of women. This particular project has been nearly eight years in the making," says Greene.

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