Ella Pad is a social initiative founded by Md Mamunur Rahman who wanted to work on the barriers to menstrual hygiene which underprivileged women, such as our RMG workers, usually face
Nurun Nahar Akhter Munni joined Sapphire Design Limited, a garment factory in Adabar, Dhaka, eight months ago.
When we met her at her workplace, the young girl was swiftly working away with an automatic sewing machine.
While she was talking to us, her head was lowered and her eyes focused on her work. On her desk there were some rectangular cut pieces of fabric.
Munni was sewing away Ella Pads, which are cloth sanitary napkins made from scraps of cotton fleece.
"Do you feel embarrassed about making sanitary napkins?" we asked her. She replied with a small laugh, "I do not, those who do that is their concern. I tell others about Ella Pad all the time."
Ella Pad is a social initiative founded by Md Mamunur Rahman who wanted to work on the barriers to menstrual hygiene which underprivileged women, such as our RMG workers, usually face.
When he went to the UK to study for his Masters in Gender and Development from the University of Sussex, he was exposed to a world of ideas on how to facilitate menstruation for women across the world.
He attended lectures, workshops and began to think how he could implement those learnings in our everyday life.
"The time I was in the UK, I tried to absorb as much information as I could from everything that was taught to me. The courses I took were vastly interesting and I got inspired by them to do something unique. When I came back to Bangladesh in 2007, I knew I wanted to do work on menstrual hygiene," he said.
While working as a gender auditor for an UNFPA project, Mamun had the opportunity to sit with RMG workers from 15 garment factories as part of an FGD. "I learned that a major problem these women faced was not being able to use toilets, especially during menstruation. When I spoke to the garment owners, they told me they were not willing to clean the toilets or bins."
Mamun also found out that these female workers tended to remain more absent during the first one or two days of menstruation. His plan was also to cut down on absenteeism.
He added, "Ella Pad is not my idea, it was generated by RMG workers during the discussions I had with them. I just tried to develop their idea so that I could help them. I wanted these women to feel comfortable during menstruation so that they could come to work during those days. "
The name "Ella" was given during a workshop in the US in 2017. Ella actually stands for "Eco-friendly low cost liquid absorbent".
After some trials with the workers, when they were satisfied with the product quality, Mamun began to proactively work on Ella Pad.
He had a tough time trying to convince garment owners about using the textile scraps for making cloth pads for women. Many still do not understand the concept of recycling and reducing wastage.
Chairman of Sapphire Design Limited, Rafiqul Islam said, "Mamun Bhai approached us with a good idea, his intention was good, which is why we gave into it. I give my workers one set of mask every 15 days during the pandemic. I plan on providing my female workers pads the same way. But right now, we are just taking small orders from buyers."
The pads are not yet commercially available but individuals can approach Mamunur Rahman to get hold of them.
However, some of the garment factories which manufacture them also distribute them to their female workers for free.
The fifth floor of Saphhire Design Limited is where the cutting and sewing takes place.
There, in a row, women and girls like Munni sit with machines to make t-shirts, cloth masks, and these cloth pads.
Each of them can make 60 pads in an hour at the current production capacity of the factory. The cost of each pad is around Tk15.
Commercial pads cost at least Tk200 for a packet of 8-10 pads and multiple packets need to be bought every month. But 5-6 cloth pads can be used for upto three months.
The production manager informed us that if they just concentrate on making pads, they can produce upto 200-250 pads an hour.
Menstruation is a biological process that almost every woman has to go through in their lives.
But taboos related to it make it difficult for women to openly talk about it, especially about the discomforts related to wearing pads.
Multinational companies invest in billions on manufacturing, advertising and promoting commercial sanitary napkins.
But their side effects are nowhere near highlighted.
Synthetic pads can cause infections, allergies and they may increase the risk of uterine and cervical cancer.
They are non-biodegradable, so if they are not properly disposed off, they can harm the environment.
During the initial days of Ella Pad, Mamunur Rahman had to run to and fro development agencies and garment factories.
For his travels, he used a rented car. The driver, Nurul Islam, saw what he was working with and became interested.
After some time, he bought two sewing machines and involved his wife Yasmin in making the cloth pads at home. Now they have a helper named Laiju who used to be a garment worker.
"I use Ella Pad myself, my college going daughter also uses them. Till now, we have not faced any issues with using cloth pads. They are cheaper than commercial ones because we can wash them and reuse them. I tell my family members to use the pads," said Laiju.
Laiju and Yasmin can make upto 60-70 pads a day and take orders from around the neighbourhood in Nobodoye Housing in Mohammadpur.
Cloth pads can be more comfortable than commercial pads. But caution should be maintained while washing and drying them. According to Yasmin, once the pad loses its texture, it is time to stop using it.
"You know why it is easier for our garment factories to start mass production of cloth pads? Because they are highly knowledgeable about fabric quality, durability, which kind absorbs the best, which kind is chemical free and so forth. This is because foreign buyers are very demanding and they do not compromise with anything which is below standard. Therefore, the more compliant the factories, the easier for us to pitch Ella Pad," explained Mamun.
Momtex Expo Ltd and Esses Fashion Ltd by Beximco are some of the garment factories which welcomed the concept of Ella pad and they also provide them for free to their female workers.
Our RMG workers are valuable; they provide growth momentum to our economy. The least we can do is to ensure their right to safe periods. If products such as Ella Pads hit the markets, they would also be helping millions of other women.