“FREE TO FLOW” A SUSTAINABLE INITIATIVE TACKLING PERIOD POVERTY
With over 40,000 followers on Instagram, Malsha Kumaranatunge – Founder of Free to Flow – is using her platform for good. Since the inception of Free to Flow in December of 2021, Malsha has been working hard to shed light on the problem of period poverty in Sri Lanka, with an estimated 70% of women and girls struggling to afford disposable sanitary napkins in Sri Lanka. Malsha is passionate about gender and social equality. And, through Free to Flow, she hopes to continue her work to help those in need. Malsha was a former elected Provincial Councillor of the Western Province of Sri Lanka. She has an LLB in Law from Reading University (UK) and is currently completing her law degree in Sri Lanka to practice as an Attorney.
Free to Flow is an initiative to end period poverty in Sri Lanka. This is done by distributing sanitary napkins both reusable and nonreusable to women and girls residing in low income households across the country. Free to Flow also advocates W 24 Biznomics Mar – Apr 2023 ECONOMICS for menstrual equity, shedding light on discriminatory practices such as “The Pink Tax” which taxes imported sanitary napkins at a high rate due to being considered luxury items. Their mission is to build awareness on period poverty amongst policymakers and the wider public. They also conduct menstrual health and hygiene workshops with the aim of educating women and girls on the subject of menstruation and how to safely use and dispose of sanitary napkins. They have also planned projects to renovate toilets in impoverished schools so that young girls have adequate sanitation and changing facilities whilst gaining an education.
Biznomics caught up with Malsha Kumaranatunge to learn more about this initiative which she plans to take forward in the coming months.
Start of Free to Flow
The idea for free to flow initially stemmed from a passion project that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic. Malsha found herself, along with her sister, began to consider how they could help those most in need during difficult times.
A conversation about sanitary napkins emerged during the presidential elections when a candidate suggested that such products should be provided free of charge. This sparked a heated debate among many people, particularly women, who felt that the topic of menstrual hygiene was often stigmatized and excluded from open discussion.
Malsha says, “We were shocked by the taboo that surrounded this topic and felt that it was important to create a platform that could facilitate more inclusive and open conversations around a wide range of sensitive topics.” This led to the start of the initiative of Free to Flow, which seeks to promote awareness, education, and advocacy around menstrual health and hygiene.
Menstrual equity as a conversation
Malsha admits “Growing up in Colombo shielded me from the problem of period poverty and the unaffordability of sanitary napkins for the majority of women and girls in Sri Lanka. While this may not be a pressing matter for some, it becomes particularly evident when stepping outside Colombo and engaging with women and girls from less privileged backgrounds. Through conversations with women from economically disadvantaged communities outside Colombo, particularly in rural areas, Malsha came to understand the severity of the issue, and the financial burden many families face due to the high cost of sanitary, where difficult choices have to be made between purchasing napkins versus other essential items such as food or medicine.
Malsha says that, as a woman, the realization of how significant period poverty is in a Sri Lankan context struck a chord, and she began to pay closer attention to it. After researching and discussing it with her friends and sister, they recognized that the problem was more serious than they initially thought. Although they may not have faced this problem themselves, they acknowledged that it is a significant issue for many women and young girls, and it is crucial to address it as it is a crucial impediment to their ability to gain an education and participate in the workforce.
Menstrual hygiene undermines educational opportunities, health and overall social status.
Menstrual hygiene is one of the main reasons why a significant sector of the working and schoolgoing population in Sri Lanka do not attend school or work. When the Free to Flow team travels out of Colombo to distribute sanitary napkins, the reality of menstrual inequality and lack of knowledge on the subject of menstruation becomes more and more clear.
Malsha says, “Once during distribution, the team handed out disposable pads, assuming that the girls knew how to use them, only to realize that they didn’t know how to use them by the look on their faces. Sadly, girls will sit through school the whole day, attend classes, and at the end of the day, they will wash the chairs after school because they lack proper personal care products”.
The lack of knowledge about menstrual hygiene is not just about affordability, but also about the lack of awareness of the options available for girls to choose from, such as disposable sanitary napkins or menstrual cups.
Production of the reusable sanitary napkins
About two or three factories in Sri Lanka manufacture reusable sanitary napkins, and they have supported the cause by refraining from taking any form of profit. However, the raw material prices have risen due to the current economic challenges, and the manufacturers are not able to offer the same price as before. Currently, this product is not sold in the market.
The reusable sanitary napkin features reusable cotton holders that clip onto underwear, and flannel pieces from the absorbent layer, making it function like a normal disposable pad. These flannel pieces can be washed and reused for about one-and-ahalf years. However, the cost of raw materials for the reusable pads has increased drastically, and the approximate initial price of 550 rupees for a pack of two pads has increased to 800 rupees. Free to Flow is not able to engage in commercial activities which limits their ability to help all those in need. They generally rely on crowdfunding to raise funds. This is done through their initiatives such as their Pad Donation Drives and their annual holiday fundraiser held in December.
Sanitary products project map
The charity’s primary objective is to distribute sanitary napkins to women and girls from lowincome households across the country. Free to Flow initiative has distributed reusable and disposable sanitary napkins to nearly 7000 women and girls from economically disadvantaged communities in Bandarawela, Jaffna, Kandy, Kegalle and Colombo. Through their ‘Pad Donation Drive’ held last year, they collected approximately 3000 packets of disposable pads from corporate donors, other like minded charitable organisations and concerned citizens. With these donations, sanitary napkins were distributed across a number of rural school girls in the impoverished district of Mahiyanganaya. Due to the rising production cost of reusable sanitary napkins as well as issues surrounding their use, such as the need for clean water and changing facilities, Free to Flow’s initial focus of providing them has shifted to disposable pads as it is a more practical and effective option for schoolgirls, as it is more convenient for them to use in a school environment. They soon learned that many rural schools lack proper sanitation facilities, making disposable sanitary napkins the more suitable option. Free to Flow has also advocated for the use of menstrual cups amongst working women due to its affordability, long wear and eco-friendliness. Their first program was to build awareness about the menstrual cup and encourage its use amongst nursing staff in leading hospitals in Colombo. The team conducted workshops in order to educate nurses about the benefits of the cup and how to use it safely and effectively, and provided free menstrual cups to the fifty nurses who attended the seminar. Malsha noted, “we advised them that the menstrual cups are much more practical given the workload they have on a day to day basis because they can be worn for up to ten hours at a stretch”.
Although menstrual cups are a more economical and longer-lasting option, where they can be used for up to five years, it has not caught on among Sri Lankan women despite the charity conducting several workshops. They believe that women are still unfamiliar and therefore hesitant about switching to the menstrual cup from disposable napkins. However, there has been success in India where women from all walks of life have started to use menstrual cups. The charity remains hopeful that with increased education and awareness, women and girls will embrace the use of menstrual cups as a more sustainable and cost-effective option in the future.
Future of Free to flow
The charity recently celebrated its first year anniversary and has, up to now, been predominantly focused on distributing sanitary products to girls and women in need. They have a distribution reach of over 7000 women and girls, who have been provided disposable and reusable sanitary napkins as well as menstrual cups. The charity’s new focus for this year is to work closely with government stakeholders to advocate for the removal of the current tax on imported sanitary products in Sri Lanka where napkins are taxed as luxury items. Malsha says that “the current tax is discriminatory and unjust, and highlights the sexism of policymakers in Sri Lanka.”
Following preliminary discussions with the Prime Minister’s Office, they managed to have the tax completely removed temporarily.
Malsha claims, “it was huge! I remember screaming along with everyone who was part of the project and it’s not just Free to Flow, this was celebrated by many other organizations including the Arka Initiative and Advocata, who are also fighting for the same cause working together. It’s so beautiful because we all came together.”
The charity plans to explore avenues beyond lobbying and discussions to challenge this tax legislation through legal means. Their focus this year is on activism and creating change.
Supporting Free to Flow
Free to Flow recently had a ‘Pad Donation Drive’ resulting in a donation of more than 10,000 sanitary packs. Malsha says “It was a pleasant sight to witness everyone in the community coming together”.
With a staggering tax rate of 52%, sanitary pads are beyond the means of many in the country. According to a recent study by Advocata, approximately 50% of households in Sri Lanka are unable to afford sanitary napkins. Another report by the SAARC Women Entrepreneurs Council estimated, shockingly, that only 30% of the estimated 4.2 million menstruating citizens have access to sanitary napkins in Sri Lanka. Free to Flow is working with many other organizations, including Advocata and Arka Initiative, to change this situation. They will together fight for the issue of menstrual equity, and ensure it will continue to be a subject of discussion and concern among the government and other relevant stakeholders to alleviate the difficulties faced by women in Sri Lanka. Menstrual equity will remain a topic of discussion and interest with the government, private organisations and concerned citizens working together to help ease the financial burden faced by the majority of women and girls in Sri Lanka.
By: Azquiya Usuph