In underdeveloped countries where periods are stigmatized, adolescent girls have a lot more to deal with each month than physical discomfort and hormones. Pads and tampons aren’t always available in rural areas, and when they are they’re expensive. Reusable pads help solve some of the problem, but keeping them clean is tough when girls have to hide their period from others.
It’s that last problem that a group of students from the Art Center College of Design in California and Yale Business School set out to solve with Flo, a kit for washing, drying, and storing sanitary pads. It includes a detachable device using for spinning the pad dry and hanging it up in privacy, as well as a pouch for transporting.
“We found out that girls [in some low-income countries] are not allowed to wash their pads with their other clothing, and they were not allowed to dry them in public so they were using rags that were not cleaned very well,” says Mariko Higaki Iwai, a product design student who worked on the project. The washing and drying system is meant to be a discrete, affordable way for girls in impoverished areas to keep their sanitary pads clean.
Iwai, along with environmental design student Sohyun Kim, photography student Tatijana Vasily, and MBA candidates Charlotte Wong and Benjamin Freedman came up with the idea for Flo for a class on social design sponsored by the Nike Foundation. Their brief was simple: design a product that will help adolescent girls living in poverty and that would be scalable for use in countries all over the world. Since the students couldn’t travel to impoverished communities to do research, they relied on the foundation’s employees working in the field to tell them the girls’ needs that had to be addressed.
Unesco estimates that one in 10 girls in Africa miss school once a month because of their periods and eventually drop out altogether. One study in Ethiopia reported that more than 50% of girls miss between one and four days of school per month, and in Bangladesh, low standards of menstrual hygiene has lead to widespread infections.
Besides the Nike Foundations’s Girl Effect, the program Iwai and her team were working with, organizations like Unicef, Femme International, and Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) are all working to improve menstrual hygiene in low-income countries so girls can stay in school. Last year, a coalition of charities launched the world’s first menstrual hygiene day to raise awareness for the stigma and practical issues that many girls face. Companies like Lunapads and Safi Pads are developing reusable pads for girls in these regions.
“There are people who are already making reusable pads and doing great stuff. There was no use for us to make a better pad,” Iwai says. Their approach was to create an affordable, easily transportable kit that would help girls wash and dry their reusable pads in relative privacy. Flo comprises two bowls, a basket and a string that uses a spinning action to dry sanitary pads in a fraction of the time of normal washing and drying. The basket turns into a hanging rack after wringing, complete with a cloth around the outside for privacy.
Flo is an innovative approach to improving menstrual hygiene, but one of the biggest questions about the design is if it actually provides privacy. Will hanging up an apparatus shielding a drying pad really help end a cultural taboo, or will it just create another one?
Iwai says that’s one of the things she and her team are thinking about as they move forward. They finished their assignment eight months ago, but this week attention from the media has breathed new life into the project. People working in the field in developing countries have reached out about trying out Flo in their communities. Now, the team is taking a closer look at their design and seeking out manufacturers.
“Even without the product even being out there its fascinating how the idea of the problem is going around because of the attention [Flo is] getting,” says Iwai. “Our solution is just a solution it’s not the solution. Watching news of this problem spread around the world–I hope that others think of more solutions and products that can help girls.”