Eco Femme gets women to switch from disposable to washable or eco-friendly products, helping underprivileged women get access to cloth-pads
Eco Femme is the effort of a small team of volunteers who live and work at Auroville, the international community in Puducherry, to start rural social enterprises that empower marginalised Indian women and connect women globally. In 2010, the founding team, comprising Kathy Walkling, Jessamijn Miedema, Anita Budhraja and Anbu Sironmani, was motivated help the Auroville Village Action Group (AVAG), an NGO in Villipuram district (Tamil Nadu).
The idea was to create livelihood opportunities for AVAG’s self-help groups (SHGs) by making washable cloth-pads and selling them to women for use during their menstrual periods. The pads are designed to be affordable (for women with limited means), durable and reusable. The challenge was to encourage women to break free of media-driven preference for disposable products and get them think about eco-friendly alternatives like cloth-pads—not merely in India but around the world. Laura O’ Connell of Eco Femme discusses the business model as follows: “As the wheels turned, an operational model became clear: women tailors would stitch high-quality cloth-pads and they would be sold to stores and individuals around the world at a profitable price; international sales would include an additional Rs80, which would allow Eco Femme to ‘gift’ a pad to an adolescent girl through a menstrual health education programme (gifted pads would be grouped together to make a kit of four). In this way, as our international sales would grow, so would our impact on the ground in Tamil Nadu, through the Pad for Pad Programme, and eventually to other states. Additionally, we would provide washable cloth pads at a subsidised rate to women who cannot afford the premium rate. These subsidised pads are available on request or when requested by NGOs working with women and girls.”
Over time, the team moved from being a donor-funded organisation to a self-sustaining one. Eco Femme hopes to find a way to simultaneously create livelihood opportunities for women members of AVAG’s SHGs and to financially support AVAG’s work with rural individuals and communities. According to Eco Femme’s website, AVAG remains the umbrella organisation under which it works; AVAG also hosts it in their office and helps organise the production of washable cloth-pads. AVAG help Eco Femme’s menstrual education seminars with its women’s SHGs and spread awareness about hygiene.
The group is not worried about obtaining ongoing funding; Laura points out, “We believe that current work on menstrual hygiene in India (and around the world) has opened a potent space for reflection on the very nature of development work and what it means to be a sustainable business.” Eco Femme hopes to fill this space by being a locally inspired and guided initiative that allows women and girls to live healthily and with dignity.
In January 2014, Eco Femme entered into a relationship with Dasra, an organisation that proactively brings philanthropists and social entrepreneurs together to enhance their ability to foster change. This relationship has given it the much needed business development support.
Finally, Laura confides happily, “In this way, we are a hybrid organisation with both for-profit and not-for-profit areas of work. The profits from one fund the work of the other.”
The parting message for women readers from Eco Femme is “if well washed, sun-dried and stored in a clean place, cloth-pads are perfectly viable and healthy for MHM (menstrual hygiene management).” Those who are environment conscious, should remember that disposable sanitary napkins are not eco-friendly.
Saracon Campus, Kottakarai (near Ganesh Bakery),
Auroville 605111, Tamil Nadu.
Phone: (+91) 9443 135 005 (Kathy), (+91) 9486 491 981 (Jessamijn)