Ending period poverty


Fadilah shows a washable cloth pad, sewn by her during the Jelajah Bidadari workshop. — Bernama photo

SEAMSTRESS Fadilah Ali, who has 15 years of experience sewing traditional and modern garments for men and women, now plans to make and sell her own line of affordable and eco-friendly reusable sanitary towels.

The idea emerged when the 44-year-old attended a recent workshop, organised by Bidadari Malaysia, at the low-cost People’s Housing Project (PPR) scheme in Gombak Setia, Selangor, where volunteers showed the participants how to sew their own washable cloth pads.

Bidadari Malaysia is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that has been addressing issues concerning period poverty and violence against women, as well as advocating cancer prevention, over the last five years.

Fadilah said she never knew how easy it was to sew reusable sanitary pads until she saw the live demonstrations at the workshop, attended mainly by the PPR residents.

What is more, she can do it with minimal capital as she already has a bulk of the raw materials at hand – the leftover scraps of fabric that can be used to make the feminine pads.

“All this while, I’ve been using the cloth scraps to make hair ties, which I give away free to my customers. But now I will use the materials to sew reusable sanitary pads and earn some additional money,” she told Bernama when met at the workshop, where she successfully stitched a pad on her own in just 10 minutes.

Photo shows the Jelajah Bidadari workshop, run by Bidadari Malaysia at the PPR scheme in Gombak Setia, where the volunteers guide the participants on the proper way to sew their own washable cloth pads. — Bernama photo

Cheaper and safer

Fadilah estimates that she can produce around 10 reusable pads out of a piece of fabric measuring one metre in length, and price them at RM8 to RM10 apiece.

“I will first try using the pads I make because I need to experience wearing them before selling,” she said, adding that she hoped to teach other PPR residents how to sew the washable pads, which they could either sell or give away to underprivileged women.

Currently, most reusable sanitary pads available in the market are primarily made of brightly coloured flannel along with an absorbent material like cotton.

Fadilah, meanwhile, is also thinking of creating more aesthetically-pleasing packaging for her cloth pads, with their sizes and thickness tailored to meet the preferences of young women and teenagers.

Bidadari Malaysia volunteer Azura Ibrahim, 43, a nurse at a private clinic in Kuala Lumpur, said she had been using the washable cloth pads for two years, and not once did she feel unclean or uncomfortable.

“They are not only cheaper, but also safer to use than the disposable sanitary pads, which are made of synthetic materials like plastic and are not environment-friendly,” she said.

According to Azura, based on a study done by her NGO and factoring in current prices, each woman spends about RM26 a month on disposable sanitary pads, with the amount spent accumulating to RM312 a year, RM3,120 in over 10 years, and RM6,240 in 20 years.

“The cost is far higher than that of reusable pads for which a woman needs to spend only about RM36 to acquire six pads, which she can use up to three years,” she said, adding that to retain the absorbency of fabric pads, softeners or bleaches must never be used when washing them.

‘Not a new issue’

Malaysian NGOs and activists advocate the use of reusable pads as a strategy to combat period poverty.

Media reports have quoted Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Nancy Shukri as saying that the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN)’s ‘2023 Menstrual Management Status Study Report’ revealed 9.9 per cent of 130,000 female students had ‘problems obtaining products to manage their periods’.

In this respect, Bidadari Malaysia chairman Napsiah Khamis said the topic had remained taboo with not many people willing to discuss it in public, despite the fact that some girls would skip school when they menstruate as they cannot afford to buy sanitary pads.

“We’ve heard some girls use socks, or batik cloth, as pads.

“We also spoke to the homeless folks – some of them go in search of old cloths discarded in garbage bins, which they use as sanitary pads,” she said.

Napsiah said the problems faced by underprivileged girls and women compelled her organisation to introduce them to the more economical reusable sanitary pads.

“It is something they themselves can sew; they can also help other women,” she said, adding that period poverty had worsened during the Movement Control Order (MCO) situation as many lost their jobs then and could not afford to buy sanitary napkins.

Napsiah says period poverty remains a taboo topic, with not many people willing to discuss it in public. — Bernama photo

Rising awareness

Bidadari Malaysia’s fabric sanitary pad sewing initiative has so far benefited 1,000 women in Kuala Lumpur, Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang.

Napsiah said one of their workshops was held in a remote Orang Asli village in Kelantan, where the women did not know how to use a sewing machine.

“So, we (Bidadari Malaysia volunteers) taught them to stitch the pads by hand,” she said.

She also said criticisms from various quarters, some questioning the importance of this issue compared to prevailing prices of essential goods, failed to dampen her spirit.

Moreover, her organisation’s efforts have led to an increase in awareness of period poverty, especially among men.

“Once we even received a lorry load of reusable sanitary pads donated by a man.

“Companies, businessmen and organisations have also donated pads.

“This means that there is awareness; hence we have to (continue) promoting this (period poverty) issue.”

Bidadari Malaysia’s fabric sanitary pad sewing initiative has so far benefited 1,000 women in Kuala Lumpur, Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang. — Bernama photo

According to Napsiah, some university students have also researched and written about period poverty in their thesis.

Adding on, she called upon companies and organisations to offer free sanitary napkins in their toilets.

“In Taiwan and South Korea, a one-day unrecorded leave is given to women suffering from menstrual cramps. It helps to elevate the dignity of women in those countries.

“In Malaysia, some companies have already embarked on such an initiative, and that’s the kind of awareness we aim for,” she pointed out.

She also said Bidadari Malaysia, in collaboration with another NGO in Kenya, planned to send its first consignment of reusable sanitary towels to the African nation after Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

In has been reported that in Kenya, over 50 per cent of women experience period poverty.

The reusable pads concerned would be made by the women who learned to make them at workshops run by Bidadari Malaysia. — Bernama

Bidadari Malaysia is an NGO that has been addressing issues concerning period poverty and violence against women, as well as advocating cancer prevention over the last five years. — Bernama photo