Monday, 3 August 2015

A rant about pants

A friend of mine asked me for my thoughts on a new invention. Special underpants, with a multi-layer gusset, that can be worn instead of a pad or tampon during menstruation, to be precise. They're called Thinx.

Clearly I am the go-to girl if you’re not sure what to think about periods. Obviously.

Anything that advances the lives of women, makes menstruation more comfortable, and helps women to study, live and work on an equal footing with men, unencumbered by the monthly annoyance that is getting your period gets my full support. Anything that helps stop periods being taboo, anything that stops girls and women from being shut away, out of sight, out of mind, rendered unproductive for a week or so each month has got to be a good thing. Obviously.

So I read up on these special period pants. I’d probably give them a go if I spotted them in Boots, I thought to myself. And then I started mentally placing a few qualifiers on my desire to try them out. I wouldn’t dare try them while wearing tight trousers, I thought to myself. What about with light-coloured summer dresses? Out of the question! They’d be a handy back-up plan while using a tampon, I told myself. And I’d consider them for the annoying times at each end of a period – when your period is due and you’re not sure when the Red Sea will start flowing, and at the pitiful end when you’re not entirely sure if the crimson tide has ebbed for the month. A nice substitute for a panty liner!

It is easy for me from my place of privilege, where I can see two shops where I can buy feminine hygiene products from my desk, to view these pants as a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have. With my bathroom cupboard a veritable treasure trove of products of varying degrees of absorbency, I have the luxury of tailoring my sanitary protection needs to suit my lifestyle, my wardrobe and my flow. For girls and women who aren’t as fortunate as to live in a developed country, these pants could be their only hope for a hygienic period each month.

And then another friend mentioned the rinsing. Oh good Lord, the rinsing, the rinsing, the goddamn rinsing. Ideally, you’d own a few pairs of these pants, but you’d still want to rinse them separately before throwing them in the washing machine. Rinsing and wringing! And to do this, you need access to clean water and decent laundry facilities.

For this product to truly be a success in developing countries, an obvious market for such pants, access to clean water is essential. Nobody wants to rinse their period pants in a dirty river or a stagnant puddle. Nobody wants to queue at a village standpipe for a miserable dribble of water, hiding blood-stained pants under the less embarrassing dirty washing.

Also, they are retailing online at $24 for the thong, up to $34 for the hip-hugger brief - for the affluent woman in the developed world, it makes sense to buy a few pairs. Spending $100 on knickers is nothing compared to a lifetime's pad and tampon expenditure, if you are not poor. It'd be a harder sell for poor women, especially if they cannot simply jump online with a Visa card and order a few pairs with effortless ease.

By all means, donate these pants by the truckload to Oxfam. Be entrepreneurial and sell them to distributors across developing countries - although at present Thinx are only sold online. Do what you can to help girls and women have a happier time each month.

I wish the developers of Thinx well, I really do. From what I can tell, the company is an ethical, female-friendly employer. They employ women in Sri Lanka. The company also supports the AFRIPads charity. This is all good.

But it is important to think about the practicalities too. Access to clean water is essential for communities across the world to flourish, to be productive, to succeed, for good sanitation to finally prevail. It’s not as simple as imposing pants on impoverished girls and women - the period issue is part of a much bigger picture. Make a regular donation to Water Aid. Call on your government to dedicate some of its foreign aid budget to clean water projects. Call on corporations to consider access to water as a CSR project. Clean water projects benefit everyone and have positive knock-on effects for local economies.

And, besides, girls and women in the developing word deserve better than to merely have underwear or pads thrown at them.

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