One of the pieces from NPR’s #15GIRLS narrated the story of Kamala B.K., a 14-year-old girl from Thanktot, Nepal, who faces the adversities of menstrual segregation. Kamala was 11 when she began menstruating, and she remembered being terrified when she first slept outside in a leaky, thatched-roof shed with no walls.
“I’m scared mostly of snakes and of men,” Kamala said to NPR. “I don’t like practicing this.”
Like many Hindu women in western Nepal, Kamala is forbidden from entering her home, touching her family members, or eating in their company during her menstrual period. For a week or so each month, Kamala stays outside, eats outside, and sleeps outside.
Kamala believes that if she enters her house while she is menstruating, she will anger the gods and she will bring a curse onto the house. She has been told that her hands will become disfigured.
The Supreme Court of Nepal outlawed this practice of “chhaupadi” a decade ago, but it still persists in many villages. Menstrual segregation is a deep-rooted tradition that is slow to change.
Over 7,500 miles and a century of advances towards women’s equality away from Thanktot to the concrete jungle of New York City, and yet, similar forms of “chhaupadi” also exist in the Western world.
Despite countless strides towards equal salary, academic equality, and abortions for women, there have not been any major innovations when it comes to menstruation since the addition of adhesive strips and wings on pads in the 1970s.
In the Western world, the average woman spends thousands of dollars in her lifetime on pads and tampons that are uncomfortable and unreliable. Both tend to leak and for many women, there is nothing worse than a noticeable leak during their period.
Yet we rarely discuss our periods outside of whispers between women.
“Women in our culture don’t want to talk about their periods – most still think about it as crass and disgusting,” said Miki Agrawal, CEO and co-founder of the self-absorbing THINX underwear, which eliminates the need for tampons or pads. “I want to change the culture around women’s most normal time of month – and not while wearing grandma panties or pads that feel like a diaper.”
After collaborating with textile technologists for three years, Agrawal launched THINX panties in January 2014 to provide women with period underwear using patented technology that has four layers to make them anti-microbial, absorbent, leak-resistant, and provide a dry feeling for the wearer.
THINX recently proposed an advertising campaign for the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority not only to sell THINX products but also to expose and ease the shame surrounding menstruation.
The ads feature women sporting midriff tops and THINX underwear alongside photos of half of a peeled grapefruit, bearing resemblance to a vagina, or a cracked egg, alluding to the unfertilized eggs that menstruation releases. The ads also include taglines that read “Underwear for women with periods” and a short explanation of what menstruation is.
Outfront Media, the advertising contractor for the New York City subways, however, has expressed concern about the ads’ content. In an email exchange obtained by Mic, Outfront representative told Agrawal that the proposed ads “seem to have a bit too much skin” and are “inappropriate.”
The representative was concerned that children would see the word “period” in the ads and ask their parents what it meant. Veronica del Rosario, THINX’s director of marketing, said that these concerns seemed to propagate the very taboo the ad campaign was targeting. She also pointed out the potential hypocrisy of approving advertisements featuring breast augmentation and nude women in sexualized poses while rejecting these advertisements. The Outfront Media representative replied, “This is not a women’s issue.”
“Just as New York City is potentially about to pass legislation to scrap the tax on feminine hygiene products, the MTA is not letting the word ‘period’ appear in the subway,” Agrawal said. “We can objectify women in their lingerie, but the minute we acknowledge that they might be bleeding in their underwear, it’s no longer acceptable.”
Agrawal is changing the conversation around menstruation by reimagining feminine products available in developed countries but she is also eliminating shame by helping women around the world who suffer from a lack of access to sanitary products.
During a visit to South Africa in 2010, Agrawal met a 12-year-old girl who was missing school because it was her “week of shame.” Unable to afford sanitary pads like millions of their Western counterparts, desperate African girls resort to using mud, sticks, leaves, or mattress fillings.
According to a research conducted by the World Bank, African girls miss up to 20 percent of their total school year because of poor access to feminine hygiene products that make it easier for them to attend school during their “week of shame.” Some even drop out entirely.
“This is 2015. This is happening today,” said Agrawal. “It’s crazy.”
That is the reason why for every pair of THINX panties sold, the company sends funds to AFRIpads, a Ugandan NGO that trains women to sew and sell reusable cloth pads at a subsidized price to provide menstruating women with the supplies they need.
By turning local women into entrepreneurs who can provide menstruating girls with products to keep them in school, THINX has developed a sustainable business model that stimulates economic growth.
“It is a giving-model that does not cannibalize the local economy,” said Agrawal. “If there was a flood of free products, local businesses would fail.”
So far, the two organizations have helped send over 15,000 young girls back to school, according to Agrawal.
“We see a world where no woman is held back by her body,” said Agrawal.
Agrawal, 36, is a longtime entrepreneur. Founder of Wild, a farm-to-table gluten-free pizza restaurant in New York City, the former professional soccer player from Montreal was a recipient of the 2013 Tribe Film Festival’s “Disruptive Innovation Award” and has been listed on Forbes’ “Top 20 Millenials On a Mission 2013.”