THE RED CODE
Written by: Sana Rizvi
A conversation about period poverty and three young girls' project to try and combat it.
In a nutshell, period poverty is the lack of access to safe and sanitary Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) supplies due to financial barriers and cultural misconceptions. This problem is especially prevalent in low and middle income countries. For many girls, their period is a defining moment in their life, one that can be a trigger for years of health and hygiene problems if they don’t have access to proper MHM methods. In a series of polls conducted by UReport, it was found that 49% of Pakistani women did not know what a period was when they got their first one and 44% of women did not have access to basic facilities at work or school to manage their periods. The numbers were even more alarming in the country’s less developed provinces and rural areas. This lack of available facilities can have a severe impact on the lives of young women and has led to a higher rate of school absenteeism and early dropouts. Furthermore, many families see the period as an indicator of womanhood and a signal that the body is ready to bear children. This leads to a dangerous trend of early and forced childhood marriages – an event that has destroyed many young girl’s opportunities and livelihoods.
Today I sat down with Sana, Sara and Mahin – three young girls who won the UNICEF Generation Unlimited Youth Challenge 2019 for their idea to create a social enterprise, The Red Code, that would provide eco-friendly, reusable and hygienic cloth pads to women in low-income neighbourhoods. From the conception of their project to the development of their prototype and its future, today’s conversation follows their journey in providing better sanitary pads and information to disadvantaged women and girls in Karachi, Pakistan.
Sara Khan has just recently graduated from the Karachi Grammar School and is still deciding where she will go to university, Mahin Usman is currently pursuing her O-levels in Karachi Grammar School and Sana Khan is a second-year student majoring in development and policy at Habib University.
Left to Right: Mahin Usman, Sara Khan, Sana Khan
SR: So tell me about the project - where did the idea come from and how did it get started?
Sara: It started off with just Mahin and me; we weren’t looking to turn it into a big project, but just something that could keep us busy over the summer. We chose Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) because we felt like it was something nobody really cared about. Luckily, after getting turned away by many other organizations — which I think was mainly because of our age, lack of experience and lack of funds — we came across this competition forum on MHM, run by UNICEF. When we saw this competition forum, we applied on a whim – on the last day actually — but we thought why not? What’s the harm in just applying?
We got into the competition but the days were such that both Mahin and I were busy, so we called UNICEF and asked them if Sana, my sister, could go in our place. That’s how she got involved in the project. She went and won, so we got $1000 in seed funding, from which we had to create a pilot project. We were competing with 36 other teams from around the world, from which five would be selected to take their project to the next level. We ended up winning this as well and UNICEF gave us $20,000 to turn the project into a social enterprise. This would allow us to earn money from it to put back into the project, rather than being completely dependent on grants.
SR: Wow that sounds like such an incredible journey. So tell me more about why you chose MHM? Is there a certain experience or incident that motivated you to tackle this issue?
Sara: Yes, so we asked the women who come to work in our house as domestic staff what they used to manage their periods, and they said they either use rags from old clothing or newspapers.
Sana: — and one of them said that there is no concept of undergarments in their villages. They just tie their shalwars and then carry on with their day. Some of their school’s don’t even have a proper bathroom where they can clean themselves and change.
SR: I imagine that would greatly inhibit their ability to access education because a lot of girls stop going to school in that week, or at all, when they start menstruating.
Sana: Yes, and even in school I was very lucky because our schools gave us a talk about periods and reproductive health but a lot of people don’t have that privilege, so this was really eye-opening for us.
Sara: And it is important to remember that this is not just a problem that affects our domestic house help or low-income neighbourhoods in Pakistan, it is an international problem.
SR: I can see that it’s very closely related to factors that truly shape a woman’s life. We are so ready to talk about feminism and how we support it and many of us don’t even realize that improper MHM and misconceptions surrounding it have the potential to destroy a woman’s life and opportunities. I feel many of us really take for granted that we can just walk into our local supermarket and pick up a packet of pads or tampons and don’t realize that this is not the case for many women!
Mahin: Yeah! Though it was never really a problem for us, when we spoke to women in low-income neighbourhoods, commercial pads aren’t used because it takes up a large proportion of their income. As a result, it isn’t feasible, especially when there’s a household with multiple girls. So when we were designing our product we wanted to make it affordable and sustainable.
Sara: Yes, and also culturally sensitive. Many of the women we spoke to said they weren’t comfortable using disposable commercial pads as they had never used it before. They thought it stopped their flow and had unnecessary chemicals in it. So that’s why we wanted to do something in their comfort zone, and related to cloth so that we weren’t giving these women something completely alien.
Sana: I feel like this really reminds me of a parallel we can draw in the upper middle class in Pakistan where women can afford sanitary napkins but now that some companies have started marketing menstrual cups to be more environmentally friendly, a lot of women are very hesitant in using them because its alien and uncomfortable to them.
So if we feel this way about menstrual cups and tampons, we need to be aware of how these women feel when they see commercial pads and so being culturally sensitive is extremely important when trying to create a product like this. And you can’t even be critical of their hesitance because their practices and mindsets have been rooted for decades.
Sara: We know that this idea of ours isn’t revolutionary – we didn’t invent it. Women have been using cloth for years we just wanted to make it more hygienic and usable. Similar programs have been implemented in other countries with similar problems – like in India. Some people say it lasts 1-2 years and so if it's made correctly this is a good time period especially if the initial cost is just Rs. 80-100. It's like an investment these women make that isn’t that costly is hygienic and sustainable and eco-friendly. It's washable and because we use materials that are waterproof it prevents leaking and staining.
Sara: Even some of their local doctors are uninformed as they tell women not to take a shower on their period because it stops their flow or that the water goes enters your body and swells up your cells.
SR: This is why having these conversations in school is so important so that girls gain confidence from an early age and learn how to handle their period and other problems in a safe and medically accurate manner.
So tell me about your process? How did you make your prototype and get it ready for the second round of the competition?
Sara: This was a nightmare – we were operating under a time crunch and several organizations we went to said what we were trying to do was just not implementable and one office kept cancelling on us last minute when we had meetings scheduled with them. It was extremely frustrating.
Sana: Then a few organizations tried to cash in on us because we had the $1000 seed funding and they would be like get us sewing machines or do this for us because they thought we were young and naïve.
Mahin: But at the last minute, I found the Hunar Foundation - they were a lifesaver and helped us out so much. They have vocational training centres that help women and men get vocational skills and set up their own small businesses so they can be financially independent - it really ties in well with our product.
Sana: So they took us to Baldia Town, a small low-income neighbourhood in Karachi, where they had set up a small vocational centre with a few sewing machines. In the first session, we just went and explained our project and asked if they were willing to partake in it and took their opinions on how we should improve the product. The second session was when we talked about periods and went into actually making the products and the third session was about distributing the pads. The fourth one, which took place after some time to allow them to test out the pads, was the feedback session.
Sana: When we first started having conversations about periods the women were shy but once we started sharing our own stories and struggles, they found that they could relate to us, and that there was comfort in knowing that someone else has been through the same things you have. So when this happened, the women started opening up and then the little girls. More questions started coming in as well; they were so receptive and excited about it.
Mahin: We showed them a small demo through a YouTube video and the women were so talented they got the knack of it immediately and completely understood what we had to do – they did a fantastic job under a time crunch.
Sana: When we went back the next day to see how the pads were being made and how progress was coming along – we were in awe because the women were a powerhouse. They had made sections where a group of women was making pads, one was packing them and one was tying them.
And one more thing I want to add is to recognize the privilege you have when you enter these spaces. It is very easy for us to impose our own worldview because of the pre-existing knowledge we have but when doing projects like these you need to take the opinion of stakeholders. So when we showed them the YouTube videos of how to make these pads etc we asked these women if it was sustainable for their neighbourhoods, if there was enough water, how they wash and dry things. So you can be the facilitator, but let them take the lead, because ultimately, the project is for them, and it's our responsibility to amplify their voices.
Sara: It was amazing to see all these women working together and with us – there were so many points where they were advising us to use this material and not use the other one – whenever I would go to the market I would be buying material on one end and on the phone consulting these women on the other. It was heart-warming to see how involved they got in this process. One thing they said when we left was ‘aap log tou aatey raheinge na’ (you girls will keep coming, right?) because they seemed so happy to get so much work and be a part of something like this.
Sara: We also were shocked to learn about how low the wage rate was! To make 100 pads these women were asking for just Rs. 300 (approx $3) and this also very hesitantly. These women are so exploited. We just looked at each other and thought it was insane but we were mindful of this when we were paying them and we’ve made sure to pay them well above the minimum wage. And that’s what we want to maintain when we turn this into a proper social enterprise.
Sana: When we were distributing the final product a lot of the recipients got teary-eyed, which was just so eye-opening because when have we ever cried when someone gave us something as fundamental to our lives as a pad.
Mahin: What surprised me the most was how excited these women were to use these pads – I thought they would be hesitant but they were really excited and were grateful for the opportunities they got.
Sara: Yes, and I think this is because they were making it themselves and so they knew there was nothing harmful in them.
Sana: When you make something with your own hands it kind of legitimizes it in a way because you know it isn’t harmful and you know it doesn’t have any chemicals in it which is very empowering in its own way – in an unconventional sense.
SR: So is it a set number of women who make them and distribute them or do you give them to the same women who make them?
Sara: so for our pilot project we distributed it to the same women who made them – about 30 women. In the long term, we want to make centres of home-based women workers who make these for women in their neighbourhood or community. As a result, they can become leaders in their community because they’re economically empowered and are marketing their products. So then the money comes back to us after we pay these women for their labour, we use it in the production process.
SR: And the feedback session – how did that go?
Sana: So, when we went back to ask how the pads worked for them they said it lasted 7-8 hours for a normal flow, which is decent and we gave each person 2 pads so that it could be interchangeable.
Sara: And if each pad costs approximately Rs. 80-100 (less than a dollar) and can last for up to a year it's much more reasonable than commercial pads which are Rs.170-230 that are for a one time use only.
Mahin: The pads can also be customizable according to your flow – you can add more or fewer layers.
Sara; When we started posting on different forums we got a ton of messages from people saying they were interested in buying this because their flow is so heavy and commercial pads were just not working for them so if we do find a market for people who want to buy it, we plan on further subsidizing it for women who can’t afford it — or even give it for free, depending on the kind of money we make and the neighborhoods we go into.
Sara: Obviously, we’re still working on the product, trying to improve it and getting certifications from medical boards and screened for hygiene. That was just our prototype. For example, one thing we really want to do in the long term is to find something that does not need as much water to wash it because there is literally no water in Karachi.
SR: So my final question is what is the plan for the future – you guys are young and going off to university or busy in school – so what next?
Sara: So the next 3 months are extremely important to establish the base for the project but after it's established, it won’t require that much intervention. But after September, when I go off to University, Mahin and Sana will be doing a lot of the groundwork and I’ll probably handle the finances and other things that can be done online. Also, for the next 12 months, once a month we have to update UNICEF on our progress which would happen over Skype and I would take over the responsibility for that.
Sana: Another good thing is that UNICEF has this really elaborate plan that they’ve chalked out for us where for the next 12 months is that for each month we have a pitch and in each month we will go over the progress and each month we will have a certain topic we go over – like how to pitch, how to market and brand the product, how to make the product – the material, vendors, etc.
Mahin: It’s a very new domain for us and we have been lucky that we have people on board that know what they’re doing – social workers, doctors, engineers, hygienists – that will help make the product as good as it can be. We need as much guidance as we can get to make the product as perfect as possible.
Sana: We’re also not looking to turn this into an NGO or getting support from NGOs or grants because as soon as the inflow of money stops, the work stops. This can be detrimental for these women because they might be dependent on that work. We want it to be self-sustaining so that it doesn’t hinder the progress these women are making. That’s what both we and UNICEF are looking for.
Sara: Another long term goal we’re looking at is enlisting previously incarcerated women as workers, because often, when these women get out of jail, its hard for them to integrate back into society and support themselves. So we really want to continue to look into the specific needs of marginalized groups.
SR: Honestly, you were telling me about how everyone you went to was telling you how this is an impossible project but really it ended up happening and often it’s projects like these which people call unimplementable that end up being the most important and doing the best work. It was lovely talking to you girls and I’m really looking forward to this project taking off.
SR: Right and this brings me to my next question – what did you find were the misconceptions and practices these women had about menstruation? And why do you think these exist?
Sana: So after the first competition, UNICEF actually told us to go back to Karachi and collect data and we found out that women thought that because commercial pads have chemicals in them it would stop their flow. This is a problem because these women also equated their flow with fertility: they thought that the heavier flow you have and the longer your period lasts, the more fertile you are – which is, again, another major misconception among these women. This is because of the lack of information given to them in school and because of a generational transfer of knowledge that has been happening for decades.
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