We spoke to Kathy Walking, cofounder of Ecofemme. Based in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, Ecofemme financially empowers women, produces cloth pads and works with a network of NGO’s across the country to educate women, urban, rural and tribal on menstruation and healthy ways to care for the body. We spoke about the challenges of breaking stigma, giving women the knowledge to make an informed choice and the future of ethical, eco-businesses and non profits.
What did the journey to founding Ecofemme look like?
At first, I started working with a grassroots development NGO called Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG) where we wanted to create a livelihood for rural women by stitching cloth pads. We work with a collective of four different NGO partners who both employ and educate women. We have several different programs:
- Pad for Pad: menstrual health education and free pad gifting programmes to adolescent girls
- Pads for Sisters: menstrual health education and process for introducing cloth pads to marginalised women. Cloth pads are discounted so as to be affordable
- Training of Trainers: Customised programmes to provide training to menstrual health facilitators/educators
- Adult Education seminars and workshops: Training programme for menstrual activists, educators and ambassadors who are interested in exploring the broader issues of women’s empowerment and socio-environmental change with sustainable menstruation as the gateway.
What does Ecofemme want us to know about menstruation and using disposable products?
First off, I’d like to make it clear that our approach has always begun with education. We want women to know they have a choice. So in our seminars, we educate women about all their options, we talk about disposable pads, cloth pads, tampons and menstrual cups.
The dominant stigmatises menstruation as a defilement, as impure. But it’s a universal experience. So we make space for the elephant in the room, and then let women know they have options. A lot of the time, we see women choose cloth pads of their own accord.
The average disposable pad is made of 4 different types of plastics and a host of chemicals. A single woman creates 150kg of waste over a lifetime which takes 700 years to decompose. Cloth has been traditionally used by women for years but its marketing that has made it seem like disposable pads are the only option for Indian women. Media makes things aspirational and sometimes takes us away from seeing our options. Each product has its negatives and positives.
For Indian women, internal products are still a challenging conversation and cloth pads serve as a good alternative.
What's challenging about having this conversation with women?
As foreign women, coming into local Indian communities, we didn't know what to expect. But we were surprised at how much easier it was to actually have this conversation. Menstruation is a universal experience and the stigma surrounding it is also global as its a part of the dominant culture. We always try and stay rooted in personal experience and engage people that way because everyone remembers their first period or having that experience. Not only were women willing to tell us their stories, because they were so happy someone was asking, it became more difficult to end sessions.
What do we need to change about this conversation?
Men are often excluded from this conversation. It’s not like they don’t know, when they see their mothers and grandmothers disappear for a few days, but we tried to engage men and talk about the elephant in the room. The biggest reaction we received was relief because they’re usually too embarrassed to ask and were open to learning about it.
Often, it has also been men who want their wives to switch over to cloth pads. They deal with the trash, they see how buried pads smell when they’re dug up or not disposed of properly. So men are as much a part of this conversation.
How has the pandemic changed the future of Ecofemme and businesses in general?
The pandemic has exposed the fragility of the supply chain. We’ve had trouble with that too as an organisation. But for women who use disposable products like sanitary napkins and tampons, there’s a problem because those products aren’t as easily available.
More women have been making the choice to switch over to alternatives like cloth pads and menstrual cups because when a reusable product is a part of your lifestyle, you just buy it once and don’t have to worry about your day to day being disrupted because an essential product isn’t a part of your life anymore.
Yes, you’re right with the environmental crises coming at us, we’re realising how important it is to rethink our lifestyles.
Thank you Kathy for speaking with us. We hope this inspires you to be kinder to your body and choose products that help heal your body and the environment. Chances are if its bad for the earth, it's bad for your body.