In many parts of the world women are literally too poor to buy menstrual products - if they even have access to them (many do not). They include young women in orphanages (often orphaned as a result of war, or diseases such as AIDS) and women in remote villages. This has been recently highlighted in Africa, but there are problems in other areas too. There are thousands of women in need of these basic items we consider a necessity.
In developing countries, some girls stay home from school when menstruating, stay home on heavy days, or completely drop out of school once they hit menstruating age. They do this because they cannot afford disposable products and/or the cloth rags they use are not absorbent enough to cope with the blood flow. These girls are missing out on the benefits of school because they don't have pads. Some are forced to use newspaper or toilet paper in place of pads or tampons, because they have no other options.
In some countries washing a reusable product is not possible as water is in short supply, so even strips of cloth that may be easy to come by, are not able to be properly used. Disposable products are often too expensive to afford or simply not available, and pose a problem for disposal. There isn't an easy fix.
You would think that it would be easy for them to find cloth rags to form something to use - but there is a problem with having enough protection to be able to attend school - this could be because of a lack of underpants or suitable holding garments to put the fabric into, or the lack of suitably absorbent fabrics…. Also the fact that they are there for many hours during the day (often they have to walk a considerable distance to even get to school). There is also the problem in many places where at school there is no running water or facilities that would allow these young women to clean up themselves while they were menstruating. Plus of course the issues of water to wash the pads when they are at home.
So why is this a problem now? Why can't they deal with their menstruation like women have for thousands of years?
This has been asked, and on the surface it's a reasonable question. As women we've been dealing with menstruation since the beginning of time…. so why are some areas not able to deal with their own menstrual needs?
Disposable pads are actually a fairly recent invention, and are not cherished the world over as you may imagine. In some places around the world women still today take themselves away and flow onto the ground during their menses… or be in a situation where they are standing (working in the fields etc.), where it is a bit easier to deal with menstruation - like allowing the blood to flow down your legs and washing your body later. But when you bring a change where you now have young women sitting at a school desk for hours, with nothing suitable to contain the flow, it creates problems that were not problems previously.
Another thing to consider is that without schooling, women of menstruating age would most likely be having children and breast feeding which would delay menstruation…..also poor nutrition can lead to loss of periods…. so women in those countries would normally have less periods than western women do anyway… but with our influence that has created schooling opportunities, its brought about this problem for young women. That isn't to say that schooling is a bad thing…. with more education comes more choices and improved facilities for the community… but when people ask why this is all of a sudden a problem - this is one of the reasons why.
Just give them disposables then!
Its true that in many cases disposable products are going to be better suited than items that need washing. But then there is also the problem of if disposables are given, they have to have disposal of the used items. This would most likely have to be done via incineration (burning plastic is not exactly good for the environment, but is the better option over having landfills), and of course, providing constant supply. Aid agencies usually provide shipments of tampons and pads, but it's not nearly enough to cover the needs of every woman. Also think of the space disposable products take up. Usually goods are sent over in shipping containers, where aid is packed in as much as is able to fit. So disposable pads and tampons are going to take up space where other supplies could be. Imagine the money that could be spent on other aid if another alternative was found.
From a self esteem and dignity point of view these poor women are reliant on aid agencies bringing them care packages, and continuing to do so.
There are a few causes working towards getting reusable cloth pads into these areas, and helping those women with the needed skills and materials to make their own pads.