Brunch

A world free of period poverty

  • The Arka Initiative on their new brand ‘Adithi’ and building a period poverty free Sri Lanka, one pad at a time

Conversations around sex, sexual health, and reproductive health in our culture will always be treated as taboo and greeted with scandalised expressions. But this unwillingness to be open about such topics leads to so many suffering silently, and often unnecessarily. 

Menstrual health is considered to be one of the most taboo topics of all. Women can’t talk about it, men can’t talk about it, and god forbid anyone tries to discuss it in its bloody detail, even if it is to check if their experience is not uncommon. The only socially sanctioned time to discuss a period is when someone becomes a “big girl” or times of suspected pregnancy. For all periods in between, women are basically on their own. 

This lack of discussion leads to period poverty; a lack of overall access to methods, infrastructure, and knowledge when it comes to Menstrual Health Management (MHM), including but not limited to lack of hygiene products like pads, tampons, menstrual cups, etc., sanitation facilities like clean toilets, affordable healthcare facilities and water management systems, and finally, an environment free from harmful misconceptions, cultural practices, and shame. And these are just the direct impacts of period poverty. Indirect, broader impacts include opportunity cost to girls whe they are incapacitated because of period poverty that has a knock-on off effect on all areas of life; e.g. missing school because of lack of MHM leads to them not being as active in their education and extra-curricular activities affecting their chances of success down the line. 

The Arka Initiative is a response to the need for tangible and practical support on issues about sexual and reproductive health in Sri Lanka. It is led by a group of young doctors, psychologists, lawyers, and researchers who are advised by senior doctors and psychologists. The focus of Arka’s work has always been guided by the needs of the Sri Lankan community as well as areas of Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) that are not being tackled by other institutions and organisations. Arka continues to evolve, expand, and amplify the voices of those working in SRH along the way.

Arka started with the Sustainable Sanitation Project (SSP), currently ongoing, that targets the most economically underserved communities of women across all districts to provide sound knowledge and a safe space to discuss matters of menstruation and SRH, and to provide reusable pads as a more long-lasting solution to the MHM crisis. 
Arka has recently launched their news project “Adithi”, a brand which will manufacture low-cost sanitary pads in a small village just south of Sri Lanka. Brunch chatted with The Arka Initiative Head of Research Tharakie Pahathkumbura, to learn more about Adithi and what they hope to do. 

Tell us about Adithi – what does it hope to do and how?

The brand and product “Adithi” is a stand-alone entity in spite of the Adithi by Arka project being an offshoot of The Arka Initiative. Adithi distinguishes itself from other corporate sanitary napkin brands in the market through a few key differences. 

Firstly, the type of machine itself, the process, scale, and the community-centric model of operation is the first of its kind in Sri Lanka. The machine Aditi is using will be a semi-automatic pad machine from India. The machine will be set up in Matugama, and its manufacturing and operations will be led by the women in that area, overseen by Arka.
Secondly, alongside it is also a project to educate and de-stigmatise MHM and SRH focused at the grassroots level through educational sessions for women specially designed to be safe and conversational. They are an opportunity to bridge the knowledge gaps and dissipate the myths, misconceptions and stigma around MHM and their SRH.

Thirdly, the Adithi sanitary napkin is not a mass-produced product. Every single pad, including the packaging, will be produced by women of Pareigama, Matugama, in house. Not only will this provide employment to the women in the local community, but it will organically and meaningfully reduce period poverty, and empower women of the locality through job opportunities, skill development, and economic stability. Keeping in mind the roles women play within their community and family dynamic and their sense of personal fulfilment, they will have flexible work hours, become ambassadors to the product they manufacture, and receive fair wages.

What are the biggest challenges of creating a brand that talks about menstrual health and period poverty? 

Changing the narrative takes time and care. Both Adithi and Arka’s programming requires negotiating the balance between the push back against culture and possible reprisal, whilst also being sensitive to individuals and respectful of the communities that welcome us into their spaces. Besides the education programmes, the brand approaches the larger, society-wide conversations that need to be had about bodily autonomy and the realities of being a menstruating human.

Matters surrounding menstruation still very much stand as “women’s issues” dealt in private and not discussed widely even among women, much less about the needs of trans men and non-binary individuals. Men are largely exempted from the discourse and thereby from the responsibilities of advocating for change, which then becomes a burden that falls on women. This is especially difficult when spaces of power like the Parliament, which can create impactful change, severely lack female representation. Further, this doubles the tax put on trans men; not only is it harder to access supportive and understanding healthcare professionals to transition or manage menstrual matters, but it also rids them of the cultural support system needed to advocate for themselves. This lack of built-in cultural structure means that the advocacy and programming that Adithi does must reach and influence an audience that may not otherwise have an incentive to engage in order to create a large-scale impact. 

Community is a major element of the project. By leveraging the power of social media Adithi can continue the larger-scale conversations and advocacy for MHM-related issues, such as pad taxes, harmful cultural practices, and taboos. As the brand permeates broader demographics, the aim is to create networks and communities that support one another across the demographics and champion rights and accessibility through the shared experiences of being menstruating humans. 

Whilst social media is increasingly easier to consume, the same qualities that make it so make it harder to engage. For Adithi, this means that the content produced has to incite an openness to engage and motivation to overcome complacency and actively participate in challenging issues. The reach of social media also limits the big picture conversations that can be had. Besides the constraints of the platforms, there is a disparity between the reach of social media in contrast to those disproportionately impacted by period poverty. This is largely dictated by privileges of access to technology and the internet, social media, and an interest in MHM-related topics. This means that the marketing strategy for the brand must cast a wide net and make an extra effort to use traditional and non-traditional media to reach new audiences. 

What is the next step of bringing Adithi to life? 

It is the first time Sri Lanka has seen a project of this nature; Adithi is not a mass-produced product; the approach is community-centric and has a non-traditional business model and value system. Because there is no existing rubric to follow in a Sri Lankan context, there is an added pressure to devise a true-to-form strategy whilst staying competitive in the market. 

Whilst the cost of the machine and setup is covered by a grant, there is still a need to support initial costs in the early stages of the production process until a consistent workflow and sufficient market are reached. We are currently implementing multiple avenues like partnerships, grants, and donations. If interested, contributions can be made through The Arka Initiative portal on daraz.lk, and through Arka’s social media.

To Arka, and Adithi, what does a Sri Lanka without period poverty look like? 

A Sri Lanka without period poverty would see equal participation of women and girls in the public sphere, it would see women with access to equal opportunity and the freedom to partake actively in all aspects of life, it would mean respect for girls and elderly women regardless of their reproductive capabilities and a shift away from measuring a woman’s worth by her ability and willingness to have children, it would mean the capability for all members of society (regardless of gender) to be educated and have a comfortable discourse about menstruation and SRH free of shame or judgement, it would see a holistic education curriculum that encourages empathy and provides a helpful toolkit to support those who menstruate, and it would see an environment for trans men and gender-nonconforming individuals to also feel safe and menstruate with dignity. 

A world without period poverty would also see people feel comfortable accessing SRH-related resources, healthcare services, and birth control without fear or judgement. In the long term, we would see an elimination of diseases and conditions that arise from poor MHM and intergenerational healing and positive social conditioning around menstruation and SRH. 

Keep up to date with the Adithi by Arka project @adithibyarka and The Arka Initiative @arkainitiative on Instagram and Facebook.