Pads to save or trash Africa

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      Environmental blogger Deanna Duke, while channel-surfing five weeks ago, happened upon a commercial for Always pads. It showed a sad-looking African girl who couldn’t go to school during her period because she didn’t have “feminine protection”. Thanks to a new $1.4-million campaign by Procter & Gamble, the ad explained, her village was receiving disposable pads so she and other girls could go to school.

      “There was something that didn’t sit right with me,” Duke told the Straight in a phone interview from Seattle on March 11. “It struck me, what was the environmental impact of doing this? What do they do with all these things?”¦And what happens in five years [after the girls graduate]?”

      Sustainability in pads and tampons is a question Duke struggles with locally. Last year, she ran a “Diva Cup Challenge” on her blog, encouraging her North American readers—and herself—to switch from disposable tampons to an environmental alternative. In parts of Africa, she’s found since seeing the ad, the problem is compounded. Open landfills create health hazards, and plastics incineration leads to toxic air. Plus, she pointed out, P & G benefits from the campaign because it makes the company look benevolent to North American consumers while it’s developing markets for disposables in Africa.

      Duke asked her readers if anyone would be interested in sewing reusable pads to send to African girls as an alternative to P & G’s campaign. That’s how her new charity,, came about. It’s working with Vancouver-based Lunapads, a five-woman collective that makes reusable pads and has been donating kits to African girls for more than five years.

      “I’m hoping people will know the real deal when they see it,” Lunapads cofounder Madeline Shaw told the Straight. “I think we should give P & G their due. They’ve brought the issue to a mainstream consciousness.”¦But it’s not a sustainable solution.”

      On the phone from P & G headquarters in Cincinnati, Protecting Futures program director Michelle Vaeth said it is sustainable; in fact, she said, it’s necessary in places where there isn’t adequate water for washing reusable pads. She also noted that P & G is lobbying African governments to drop the “luxury” taxes on pads and tampons so they’ll be more affordable. She added that the pads are part of a larger campaign, which includes building washrooms and incineration facilities at schools, and setting up dormitories.

      P & G’s Protecting Futures is one of several Africa-focused corporate “philanthropy” campaigns that have cropped up over the past few years. Product Red, which donates a portion of profits from the sale of branded products to the purchase of antiretroviral drugs for Africans, includes the Gap, Converse, Dell, Motorola, Hallmark, and others. Last month, the Swedish clothing retailer H&M launched Fashion Against AIDS in its 1,300 stores. The idea is that North American consumer choices will lead to improved conditions in the developing world. A common criticism is that relatively little money is donated while the companies reap a cornucopia of profits and good publicity.

      With $76 billion in global sales, P & G’s 2007 net earnings were $10.3 billion, according to its financial statements listed on That’s double what it made in 2003. Given that P & G makes Pampers, Iams, Duracell, Pantene, Febreeze, and other common household brands, the mega-revenues are not surprising.

      But developing countries have other alternatives to P & G aid. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee set up a sanitary napkin production centre staffed by adolescent girls, according to Menstrual Hygiene and Management in Developing Countries: Taking Stock, a 2004 report by Mumbai-based social-development consultants Sowmyaa Bharaswaj and Archana Patkar. The authors, who found many similar projects in the developing world, hope the report leads to sanitation practices that respond to women’s needs, in environmentally-sustainable ways.




      Apr 14, 2009 at 9:18pm

      menstrual cups have been around since the 1800s

      Shenaya 85

      Aug 30, 2009 at 9:27am

      I think Ms Duke and P&G, both have good ideas and valid points. I feel like it doesnt matter which one the young ladies & women choose as long as they feel comfortable. We as women have many choices when it comes to our menstrual hygiene from pads, tampons, wash,wipes,lite,heavy etc I mean the list could go on. There is no need to debate which product or idea is the best or the greener, lets deal with one problem at a time. As long as these products are affordable and safe to the consumer we have already made a difference.


      Sep 30, 2009 at 12:25pm

      They used to gross me out, but I'm coming closer and closer to getting a menstrual cup.


      Jan 31, 2010 at 1:24pm

      I am DEFINETELY buying a menstrual cup for myself, my sister, and my mother. The gals in my family love this product and it really is a win/win situation ;)


      Feb 12, 2010 at 8:40pm

      the Diva Cup website gives a history of menstrual cups and says they were first invented in the 1930s.


      Feb 12, 2010 at 8:52pm

      why does the author of the article say: "...P & G benefits from the campaign because it makes the company look benevolent to North American consumers while it’s developing markets for disposables in Africa"? the tone of this sentence makes it sound like they're not REALLY being benevolent, they're just sinisterly hooking African women on disposable pads so that they'll be able to exploit them once they start charging them for them. why does the author seem to imply that charity and profit are mutually exclusive? can't they both be benevolent and develop a new market? what's wrong with that? is it "selfish" to create a win-win situation?
      i agree with Shenaya that African women should have all the options in the world. if they don't have ample clean water available, then disposables are the best things for their health. if they do, i'm sure they'll quickly discover on their own that re-usable pads and menstrual cups are both cheaper and more hygienic than disposables. but it is very ethnocentric of Westerners to push the burden of environmental protection on people who don't even have running water. for God's sake, give the women a faucet, THEN preach to them about conserving water and minimizing landfill waste.
      i, by the way, am a Diva Cup user. have been for years. i still monthly bless the woman who first told me about it. it changed my life. i don't dread my period anymore. i haven't leaked once since i started using it. i wear white pants when i have my period--without underwear. i am a converted fundamentalist Diva Disciple. to all women with running water, who don't mind sticking their fingers inside themselves, i highly recommend them!


      Apr 5, 2010 at 2:28pm

      Interesting article. Interesting comments. I love Jes' comment above. I am an American living in Africa (for 8 years now) and I find this whole debate somewhat amusing. African women, first of all, do what our own grandmothers did and what women throughout the ages did--"filthy rags." They don't need disposables, cups or presewn reuseable pads, nice as all those things are. The euphemism for having a period here is "doing laundry" which was my first clue when figuring out how they deal with their period. It may seem unhygienic, but what's the difference between cloth scraps they change and immediately wash and some charity's imported cloth reuseable pads? The word sustainable to those of us in development means that you introduce things that the people can continue without becoming dependent on outside aid. So if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I do understand though that in areas more affected by AIDS, there may be more of a problem, but that isn't the part of Africa I know about, so I'll leave that to those who do.


      Apr 13, 2010 at 11:10am

      As a Diva cup user and also a Dr. and my husband is a missionary, we living in Africa I can totally see the whole debate on both sides of the fence. I was born in Africa to Missionary parents and my mom and my sisters and I have always used a Diva Cup. We have used them for the simple fact of less "waste" and its definately a cheaper alternative. I have bought over 5000 Diva cups and distributed them to many of the young ladies and teenage girls that I work with on a daily basis. I come to the US often and I know that we see ALOT of landfills overflowing and here in Africa we do not have that problem. Alot of women here do use the reusable cloth pads because they know that their small villages would be overrun with "waste". From a medical viewpoint I can say that the Diva Cup is an awesome alternative to the nasty rags and the chemical filled pads and tampons. 7th generation is also another company that I buy bulk products from as they give me a great deal on thier products. Some of the women and girls in Africa are afraid to use anything they have to put into thier body as they are afraid that thier husbands may think they have been with another man before him and think she is lying and so to compound that they dont use tampons till after they marry. Many of the young girls are marrried off by the age of 10 which is sad to see these sweet young little girls having babies at age 10 or so. I have seen one baby girl age 8 who was pregnant and married and almost died giving birth. My husband and I are trying to show the people here that they dont have to wait till they are 30 to get married but at least wait till 16 or so when it is a little easier on the girls to have babies. Sometimes I wonder why they think the way they do but as an African born citizen and living herre my whole life I understand the way they think such as the landfills. We reuse everything and anything that can be reused. I hope that my ramblings give you a better insight as to the way African women think and beahve about thier menstrual cycles. We are on Facebook under

      Avian Rain

      Apr 16, 2010 at 1:29pm

      You can also try INSTEAD, available at Wal-Mart and Target. I found I had a hard time with The Keeper. I always felt something was in my vagina. INSTEAD looks like a diaphragm and while it is stated that you are supposed to dispose of it, I wash them out in hot water and soap and after 6 years of using have never had a problem. This allows me to use 2 cups throughout my cycle and then put them in the recycle bin at the end.


      Jun 4, 2010 at 9:52am

      I wonder what standards are the disposables P&G are sending?

      Disposable sanitary products in less economically developed countries aren't under as strict manufacturing as in other countries (granted, in the US and UK companies are self-tested and self-regulated, but government bodies still have some say). As scare-tactic as it sounds in the past we know that such products sold in LEDC's contain higher levels of bacteria, as well as containing fungi, and even foreign objects - is this still an issue? Is chrlorine gas bleaching or overly absorbent materials that are not allowed in the US and UK used in products available to these girls?

      If areas like these require foreigners to step-in by providing them sanitary products, then what happens when these products cause TSS, vaginal infections, and UTI's (all of which linked to or commonly caused by disposable options)? Sanitary products allow some freedom for some, but then who is there to explain to them how to use such products correctly to protect their health and hyginene? - god knows most western girls seem ignorant about health risks and precautions to take, even with all the information available to them. Do these girls have access to the same information, or only the information P&G are giving them?

      Are P&G also supplying clean water and health care? - Nope? That to me does suggest going for publicity and fishing for potential future new customers, certainly in the Western world their sole concern is money (time and time again showing no care for women's health, environment or tackling menstrual taboo's/body issues), I doubt when P&G set foot in Africa like this that they suddenly develop morals and ethics.