By Dimithri Wijesinghe
The Arka Initiative launched their “Sustainable Sanitation Project” at an event titled “The Arka Woman” held at HomeTree Coworking, Colombo 4. The project aims to provide reusable sanitary pads to groups of underserved women in all districts of the country.
The event marked the beginning of the project, and followed the pilot that took place a few months ago in Monaragala and Matara.
The Arka Woman provided a space for conversation on how all women can menstruate safely and with dignity, work towards normalising the conversation on menstruation, and to set the precedent where women will be uninhibited by their period.
The event also featured the screening of an Oscar-winning short film that traced a quiet sexual revolution a few women in India began by producing biodegradable low-cost pads to provide for the underserved, struggling women in their community – exactly what The Arka Woman is attempting to do by way of their Sustainable Sanitation Project.
Arka has proven to be an organisation that strives to provide practical and tangible support. It is a collective of individuals working towards the advancement of sexual and reproductive wellbeing in the island, and this new project continues to add to this primary objective.
Sustainable Sanitation Project
This initiative was adopted in order to address the prevalent issue of a lack of sanitary products for women in large parts of the island. Statics show that 70% of menstruating women in Sri Lanka do not use pads or tampons because they cannot afford it, and the organisation hopes that this project will help alleviate the issue, if only even a little.
The group will distribute reusable pads to women in underserved communities in every district of the country. The pads will be sourced by a female-owned local business with female employees, making way for women empowerment along the way. Much like the Eco Femme pads in India, these cloth pads are washable and good for multiples uses, and last as long as six months.
These reusable pads cost around Rs. 175 and the first cycle of distribution was sponsored by “MAS FemTech”. Arka mentor and Lead of the project, Kemalie, said that while the project requires a lot of funding, they are humbled by the support they have already received, which also included donations that were made at The Arka Woman event as well.
The project aims to provide these pads to women who are using homemade and improvised solutions such as cloth, because they are unable to afford commercially available sanitary napkins.
The initiative’s Founding Director, Manisha, pointed out that in being true to what Arka stands for, the project does not simply include the act of distributing these pads, but also facilitates conversations with the women in these communities, where they discuss practical aspects of sexual and reproductive health including the importance of maintaining menstrual health. During these conversations, they are often shocked and saddened to find that, sometimes, these sessions are the first times such women are taught the basics of sexual and reproductive health.
Why reusable pads
Menstruation is an incredibly taboo topic in the South Asian region due to our culture. This has remained a great mystery, given that it is, after all, a normal biological phenomenon.
Due to the stigma attached to this topic, it is hardly ever frankly discussed. The fact that discussing the matter is considered taboo, even though it’s a natural biological function, has resulted in worsening menstrual health-related risks amongst women.
Unfortunately, like most developing nations, Sri Lanka lacks sufficient waste management infrastructure, and as such, the manner in which sanitary products are disposed has also become a problem as many women resort to burning or burying their used pads.
Manisha also spoke of how the current alternative – the menstrual cup that is a globally accepted substitute for disposable pads, for its cost-effective and environmentally friendly nature – was considered, however, it isn’t yet suitable for our country’s as the menstrual cup needs to be inserted, which would be too progressive as our country places high importance on a woman’s virginity.
Therefore, the reusable pad proved to be the ideal alternative, undoubtedly a significant improvement over the typical homemade alternatives like cloth.
When asked as to what she hoped would be the outcomes of the Sustainable Sanitation Project, Director Shruthi De Visser said that they hope to “de-medicalise” the issues relating to menstruation, assist women navigate their wellbeing in a tangible and meaningful way, as well as broaden the conversation on sexual and reproductive health in Sri Lanka.