Hina, being a university student, has to travel in public transport and put up with unwanted glares of men on her way to class. She struggles to keep her shirt in place on a windy day, and more so when she is menstruating. The thought of navigating public spaces during her period is the most unsettling feeling for her, but she believes that she’s not alone in this struggle, and agrees that other girls have faced the issue as well.
The state of healthcare in Pakistan is at a low-ebb, and when it comes to women, the situation is complex given the biological needs intertwined with societal taboos. For instance, menstrual care often faces stigma and shame in Pakistan, which adds to the inconvenience women have to face in order to access menstrual kits or other hygiene products. To make things worse, young girls are not made aware of the process of menstruation in time, in addition to the lack of awareness around puberty in rural areas, making it difficult for them to acquire healthcare assistance.
“An SMS poll of 700 girls conducted by UNICEF found that 49% of respondents do not know about menstruation before their first period.” - 2017
The stigma around menstruation is extremely critical, especially in the rural and suburban areas of the country, to the extent that young girls often shy away from talking about their periods to their mothers. Therefore, they learn about menstrual management through trial and error, and in a discreet – and unsafe – manner.
According to a study conducted by Real Medicine Foundation in 2017, 79% of women surveyed in Pakistan do not manage their menstruation in a hygienic way. This is largely due to the lack of awareness among the population around menstrual hygiene along with social, cultural and religious norms constantly impacting lives of women in the country.
Tech-startups are determined to make an impact in the healthcare industry.
One of the male employees at a Lahore-based co-working space shared his observation from his hometown in Muzaffargarh where women would go door-to-door with a basket on their shoulder, filled with female hygiene products, accessories like hair clips and undergarments. In remote areas, women are not allowed to open the doors of their house, let alone go to the shops. “As boys, we were not even allowed to go to [the] room where the woman with the basket came to sell the things to the ladies of the house,” he says, adding, “I still remember how we were scolded and asked to leave that room immediately if our ball used to go in that area while playing cricket.”
However, in developed cities like Lahore, women have started to change the narrative and are moving towards adopting and providing safe and hygienic menstrual care. Tech-startups that are determined to make an impact in the healthcare industry are constantly emerging in order to increase the acceptance of menstruation as a natural part of female reproductive health. Through websites and mobile applications, these startups are facilitating the access to sanitary napkins during unexpected period in an attempt to make the process hasslefree.
Access to menstrual kits at workplace
In a survey conducted with the female members of four major co-working spaces of Lahore, including COLABS, Daftarkhwan, Kickstart and Pop Corn Studio, it was found that there are no facilities related to female menstrual hygiene and management in their shared workspace or serviced offices. Co-working spaces are shared buildings that provide desks/serviced offices along with other flexible services and amenities to make sure that people don’t have to go through the hassle of managing a separate rented office space. They are the most attractive work zones for millennials (or Gen Y/Net Gen) who opt for a career in freelancing, are founders of startups, or people who are simply moving ahead with business ideas of their own. Therefore, these spaces have some of the most tech-savvy and media literate individuals.
Most of the co-working spaces offer complimentary drinks and snacks from vending machines, but lack attention to the need for menstrual kits at workspace.
The common observation in all surveyed co-working spaces was the low ratio of women-to-men members, but was reasonable enough for not being ignored. However, the only co-working space that has access to sanitary napkins or menstrual kits is Daftarkhwan, a convenience that women working here can avail. The provision of menstrual kits was a consequence of a collaboration between GirlyThings – a tech startup dedicated to provide menstrual kits to women through a mobile app – and Daftarkhwan. Women in all other spaces have never used online apps or websites that can deliver sanitary napkins at their doorstep. Most of the co-working spaces offer complimentary drinks and snacks from vending machines, but lack attention to the need for menstrual kits at workspace.
A woman working at Kickstart said, “I’d appreciate if I had the option of purchasing sanitary napkins or menstrual kit from my co-working space rather than going out.”
Huma, at COLABS, says, “There should be a process through which sanitary napkins can be taken from a certain locker, and the female co-worker who takes them should replace it with a new one from her own end.”
All the respondents of the survey agreed that they would never head towards a male community manager in case of an urgent need for a sanitary napkin; 80% declared that they would take assistance from a fellow female co-worker/colleague in their team; while 20% said that they would go to a nearby market themselves.
Female hygiene and technology
To understand the role of technology in simplifying female hygiene and menstrual management for women in Pakistan, founders of two tech-based startups – Her Ground and Girly Things – shared their journey of identifying the need to setup a women-specific service that is almost forbidden to discuss, let alone market. They intend to leverage technology to make female menstrual management convenient and affordable while keeping in view the taboos attached to menstruation in Pakistan.
Her Ground – a web portal to eliminate the need for brown bag
Sadaf Naz, a pharmacist by profession, setup ‘Her Ground’ – a web portal to make menstrual kits accessible for women. Hailing from Okara district, Naz felt a gap in the information available around women’s personal hygiene. Although she came from an educated family, she was still unaware of menstruation till she experienced her first period. “The first time I experienced period pain, I thought I had cancer. When I told my mother, she gave [me] a cloth to manage the menstruation,” she said. “I was completely blank when I first had periods and I used a cloth for 4 years till I went to a hostel [to pursue my undergrad in pharmacy]. It was so hard to use cloth during university days due to the fear of stains. I decided to use sanitary napkins after my roommate introduced them to me. I still remember the expressions of the shopkeeper when I went to buy sanitary napkins for the first time in life,” she adds. “While visiting home, I told my mother about [these] napkins as well and she said she knew, but would never purchase them due to the taboos associated with them,” Naz explained.
“The first time I experienced period pain, I thought I had cancer.”– Sadaf Naz
She implied that this was not a geographic issue as she had previously perceived, in fact, it was true for most of Pakistan. She shared that when she moved to Lahore, she faced the same odd glares from shopkeepers every time she went to buy sanitary napkins. “It felt like I’m purchasing something illegal,” she added.
Naz wanted to make access to sanitary pads and the process to buy them comfortable for women. She was encouraged by like-minded women entrepreneurs to launch Her Ground. Through her employment in the pharmaceutical industry, she saved enough to learn web development and setup a website for her passion.
Her startup received incubation, and was ultimately launched in Okara and Lahore. Her Ground made it to Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Tech Competition 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey after presenting the pitch for the idea where the startup secured 3rd position. Naz also got the award for being the best female entrepreneur at the event.
Her Ground is a social initiative, and Naz along with her team is providing a subscription service to women through the online portal which delivers feminine hygiene products every month at their doorstep. While branded sanitary napkins were available on their online store, Naz realised that girls from lower socio-economic group cannot afford these overpriced napkins. So in order to suit affordability, she sourced the product from local manufacturers.
Her Ground is an online portal which delivers feminine hygiene products every month at the doorstep.
The site also provides awareness on health, hygiene, nutrition and currently caters to 337 subscription based customers – the number that, Naz shares, is projected to grow 10 times every year. Every online sale helps Her Ground to offer sanitary napkins at a subsidised rate to girls in rural cities and villages.
In addition to the accessibility of affordable hygiene products, Her Ground also caters to the reproductive needs of young girls and women. There are sanitary napkins, hair removal creams and panty liners available on the website, along with condoms, pregnancy strips, and also vitamins. Currently, Her Ground is also working on labour kits for pregnant women, and to facilitate the pregnancy process, Naz wants to increase the number of products on Her Ground. Moreover, mothers and maternal care is another area regularly being ignored, which Her Ground wants to work on as well. Her Ground aims to be an online platform for convenience of women of all ages, and to educate them about reproductive health.
5% of total monthly profit is reserved to go to public schools of periphery areas in Pakistan in order to educate them about periods and menstrual management.
Naz believes that by providing this information to young girls at an early age can help increase the understanding and management around menstruation. To realise this, 5% of total monthly profit is reserved to go to public schools of periphery areas in Pakistan in order to educate them about periods and menstrual management. In addition, a malpractice that Her Ground wants to highlight and eradicate in the domain of female hygiene is the supply of sub-standard hygiene and menstrual kits in the rural areas of Pakistan.
Girly Things – access to menstrual care without barriers
Girly Things is a mobile application that was launched in April 2018 by Tanzila Khan. Being a differently-abled individual, it’s even harder for Khan to go to the shops to buy sanitary napkins. The idea to setup a mobile application, named Girly Things, to access sanitary pads came to her when she had her period minutes before an important presentation and she was unable to ask someone to get the kit for her. She realised that acquiring hygiene products shouldn’t be as challenging as it has been made by constant stigmatisation around menstruation.
Being a differently-abled individual, it’s even harder for Khan to go to the shops to buy sanitary napkins.
The idea behind Girly Things, a mobile application available on both Android and iOS, is to make access to sanitary napkins as easy as a few taps on the mobile screen. It delivers menstrual kits that include 2 disposable undergarments, 3 sanitary napkins and 1 blood stain remover. The slogan “care, no matter where” has been personified throughout the app as it provides girls with immediate assistance if they need sanitary napkins or blood stain remover at any public place.
“We [have] over 2000 users with almost no marketing for this app. We are delivering orders almost everyday,” says Khan.
She says that some of the best ideas and suggestions for developing a mobile app like Girly Things came from a male colleague, Mudassir Malik – CEO of AppsGenii Technologies – who encouraged Khan to build the platform as it’d not just solve women’s issues by easing the access to menstrual hygiene products but also would save married men from going to the grocery stores to buy them for their partners. He suggested her to market it equally to men, and this is why the influencers that are supporting Girly Things on Instagram are all men right now.
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However, talking about her challenges that she encounters while managing the initiative, she talks about the lack of understanding in men around menstruation. She explained, “Mostly the male investors in the tech-ecosystem don’t understand the problems associated with menstruation. At times men feel uncomfortable and cut down the conversation. Only female investors understand the problem completely.”
Khan says that while financial stability is an ongoing challenge, she believes that human resource is another obstacle in mainstreaming menstrual hygiene. “The biggest challenge I am facing is not with my family or society in general, but the unfortunate loss of talented team members due to family restrictions as people don’t want their daughters to sell pads at the end of the day,” she lamented.
The lowest point for me has been when two of my best team members at @GirlythingsPk left because their families didn’t like the idea of them selling sanitary napkins.#truestory #wefall #werise #menstrualhygiene #taboo #challenge @WomenDeliver @asapasia @AishaFSarwari @nidaathar— Tanzila Khan (@Tanzila__Khan) June 11, 2019
As a founder of Girly Things, Tanzila believes that a more enterprising approach needs to be taken to tackle the issue of menstrual management in Pakistan. She believes that the social aspects of menstruation need to be taught as well apart from what is being narrated in biology books to both girls and boys. Her goal is to make ‘periods look normal’ in Pakistan. Being a woman, she thinks that sanitary products are not luxury items, instead they should be more accessible and affordable to purchase.
After only 10 months of its inception, Girly Things won the World Summit Award – a global initiative that awards innovative projects making positive impact in the society – in December 2018 in the category of hygiene which made it the best national digital solution for making female menstrual products accessible. The startup is currently being incubated at National Incubation Center (NIC), LUMS. Khan believes that even the existence of tech-startups like Girly Things are a huge step towards breaking the societal taboos attached to menstruation in Pakistan. She thinks that women like herself who have been conditioned in much better socio-economic environment should come out and speak against the taboos associated with menstruation while leveraging technology and social media platforms to achieve their purpose.