When you live in a country where women advise each other to drip-dry reusable sanitary towels out of the sight of men, so the men don’t go blind, life isn’t easy. While it’s obvious that these repressive attitudes towards menstruation need to change, in the meantime young women are forced to use poorly-washed or barely-dry pads. Worse, they may be forced to stay home out of shame.
That’s the background that caused Mariko Higaki Iwai to design Flo, a smart, low-tech system that allows women to use, clean, and dry reusable pads in privacy.
The first part of the Flo is the towels, which can be washed over and over. Tests using animal blood showed that the pads could be washed clean using baking soda and salt mixed with water. The washing takes place in a clever device, a plastic ball that splits open and has a wire basket inside. Put in the pads, add water and detergent (the baking soda/salt mixture), seal, and spin using the rope handles. Thanks to the wire basket, this spinning can also dry the pads, like a salad spinner.
Thus wrung, the pads can be hung to dry on the wire rack, or they can be hidden under other clothes on a regular clothesline, all without making any unfortunate men lose their sight.
But that’s only half the story. What about use? Iwai came up with an ingenious solution to carrying and changing the towels without access to any private facilities. A custom-designed Tyvek envelope is pinned to the inside of your skirt, and carries a spare. In the bathroom, you can switch out the used towel for a new one. The envelope is watertight and sealed to stop the towel staining your skirt.
A 2011 report revealed that 88% of Indian women “resort to using dirty rags, newspapers, dried leaves, and even ashes” during their periods. Even where menstruation isn’t stigmatized, sanitary towels cost money that could be spent on food. Girls aged 12-18 years miss around five days of school per month, and 23% of them drop out of school altogether when they start menstruating.
One solution is to make sanitary towels more affordable, which is what Indian inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham did, going so far as “fashioning his own menstruating uterus by filling a bladder with goat’s blood.”
In this climate, Iwai’s Flo is a direct and practical solution. And even though it doesn’t address the cultural problems that require such secrecy, it’s a lot better than the alternative.