Two students from the Indian Institute of Technology (ITT) are making menstrual products safer, more affordable, and more sustainable.
In May, Aishwarya Agarwal, an ITT-Bombay student, and Devyani Maladkar, an ITT-Goa student, created Cleans Right, a device that cleans and sterilizes reusable sanitary pads while reducing biomedical waste. The students have already filed for a patent for the device, which is in the prototype stage. The project is the result of a six-week program held at ITT-Gandhinagar called Invent@ITTGN, through which Agarwal and Maladkar wanted to focus on a socially relevant problem that has mass impact.
Only 12% of people who menstruate have access to sanitary products in India, and that means the rest often resort to using unsafe materials like rags and sawdust as an alternative.
“It is not just about engineering but about the will to change society,” Agarwal told Better India. “Anyone can do so from their respective fields of knowledge. We are just using ours!”
Devyani Maladkar, IIT Goa, and Aishwarya Agarwal, IIT Bombay, invented an inexpensive and affordable device to clean reusable sanitary pads and reduce biomedical waste.https://t.co/8fHRTFHwfw— IIT Bombay (@iitbombay) July 25, 2019
Each group in the program had a budget of 50,000 rupees (roughly $726 USD) for their projects. Agarwal and Maladkar figured out a way to make the device operate on foot pedal plungers inside a chamber filled with water. Once the foot pedal is pushed, the device mimics the motion of hand-rubbing the cloth pads to squeeze out menstrual blood while they’re rinsed in water. The device then spin-dries the cloth. Cleans Right can also be used to clean undergarments and baby clothes and will cost around 1,500 rupees ($21.80) once released.
Before the device is available for purchase, the duo is working to improve how it sterilizes the pads with UV lamps that run on solar energy. Reusable pads must be hygienically washed and can be dried with sunlight –– the sun’s heat is a natural sterilizer. Incorporating UV lighting into the device is a great idea because some reusable pads take a long time to dry, Sandy Clark, chief development and communications officer at the menstrual organization Days for Girls told Global Citizen. The team is also looking for better material for the plungers and diaphragms, Agarwal explained.
Days for Girls prepares and distributes menstrual health solutions to girls around the world who are at risk of missing school because of their periods and the organization is excited that students like Agarwal and Maladkar are innovating to address the obstacles women and girls face.
“Women should have choices that are appropriate and environmentally wise,” Clark said.
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Menstrual pads tend to be the most accessible and culturally acceptable menstrual management products, particularly in developing countries and in cultures where menstruation is severely stigmatized, Katymay Malone, public health instrcutor at Mississippi University for Women told Global Citizen. Shame stops many girls form using tampons because lack of sex education perpetuates beliefs that using them could cause someone to longer be a virgin.
But unlike cloth pads that can last up to five years, disposable sanitary pads made with plastic take up to about 500 to 800 years to decompose, according to One Future Collective. A single woman can generate up to 300 pounds of non-biodegradable waste through her menstruating years, Agarwal pointed out to Better India.
“With this device, we want to do our part by altering this reality!” she said.
Personal and public reasons inspired the two women to create the device, according to Maladkar. They read about a case in which a few girls died due to toxic shock syndrome after using unclean cloths to manage their periods. Toxic shock syndrome (TSS) is an extremely rare and sudden potentially fatal condition caused by the release of toxins from an overgrowth of staph bacteria, that can be caused by leaving a tampon in for too long, or not practicing safe personal hygiene.
Cloth pads are often reused in rural India after cleaning them by hand but the process doesn’t fully remove germs and can lead to infections like TSS. Even washing reusable pads in a machine isn’t always enough to sterilize and clean them properly, the students learned from several NGOs. Research shows that only a fraction of women who use reusable pads clean and dry them sufficiently, sometimes because they don’t have clean water or detergent. In India, 163 million people lack access to safe water and 210 million people lack access to improved sanitation, which leaves many people who menstruate without the resources to manage their periods.
When water and sanitation facilities are poor, menstrual cups are the best option, but if Cleans Right becomes widely available, it has the potential to improve the health and safety of people who use reusable pads around the world.