Using Feminine Hygiene Products To Empower Victims of Human Trafficking


gender empowerment 1 A group of University of Washington graduate students have developed a discreet way to get information to female victims of trafficking. Through a project called Pivot, they are hiding inserts with rescue information and a hotline number in plainly packaged sanitary napkins.

The team of five students from the University of Washington including Michael Fretto, Kari Gaynor, Josh Nelson, Adriel Rollins and Melanie Wang, developed the product with the assistance of their adviser, Tad Hirsch, during a class on using design to create social change. The students teamed up with Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network (WARN) to gain a better understanding of the experiences of human trafficking victims, including the restrictions and opportunities they experience in their daily lives.

Due to the nature of the crime, concrete statistics on the prevalence of human trafficking victims in the United States are not available. However, it is estimated that the number of victims is well into the hundreds of thousands, and the majority are female. According to the Polaris Project, of cases reported between 2007 and 2012, female victims made up 85% of sex trafficking cases and 60% of labour trafficking

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gender empowerment 2After working with service providers and listening to the experiences of survivors, the students learned that victims are being watched constantly, often only being left alone while they are using the bathroom. They discovered that victims of trafficking are rarely “rescued”, but typically extricate themselves.

The Pivot team developed an insert that could be hidden inside sanitary napkins to discreetly deliver information to female victims, without their captors realizing. The information is printed on water-soluble paper that can be flushed down the toilet, providing a safe and easy method of disposal. On perforated tabs, Pivot has added 24-hour hotline numbers that are designed to look like fortune cookie inserts. Due to their inconspicuous design, Pivot says these can be ripped off and hidden by the victim until they are ready and able to seek assistance.

gender empowerment 3The insert is placed in individually sealed sanitary napkin packets, which are then handed out by health care providers and educators. Free distribution of feminine hygiene products is already commonplace at many health clinics, so the distribution integrates nicely with current practices. According to a study conducted by the Family Violence Prevention Fund in 2005, 28% of survivors received medical care while in their trafficker’s control.

The Pivot inserts are currently tailored to address the three most common sectors for female victims of human trafficking: agricultural, domestic and sex work. The inserts currently come in English and Spanish, use simple language and are presented in comic-strip format to address literacy concerns. These languages and sectors were identified as the highest priority during Pivot’s research with anti-trafficking organizations and service providers, though the team plans to diversify their inserts to include a larger target audience. According to WARN, Pivot currently has no plans to include their inserts in tampon packages.

gender empowerment 4Increased publicity of Pivot’s work helps to raise funds for the project and change perceptions of human trafficking, shifting the conversation toward finding ways to empower victims to rescue themselves. However, Pivot’s work still comes with some risks attached. If traffickers become aware of the service, they may forbid their victims from accessing proper feminine hygiene or monitor their time in the bathroom, resulting in a further violation of the victim’s privacy. Victims who do not speak English or Spanish and do not understand the insert may dispose of the sheet improperly. Finally, many perpetrators of human trafficking are female themselves and may use available sanitary napkins. While Pivot’s pads are certainly more discreet and accessible than conventional pamphlets, it is critical that the information does not land in the wrong hands or it could result in severe punishments for victims.

In May of 2013, 1000 pads were distributed to potential victims by anti-trafficking organizations across Washington State. While the impact on victims has not been measured, there has been high demand from medical services and anti-trafficking organizations throughout the United States. Pivot is currently working to fund-raise $15,000 to produce 20,000 more pads and information packets. In February 2014, Pivot received the Best in Category Award for Empowering at the IxDA 2014 Interaction Awards, recognizing leaders in the field of Interaction Design.

For more information, visit IxDA’s website, or check out this article from the University of Washington.


Meredith Greey

Meredith Greey

Meredith is a student, writer and non-profit communications consultant from Toronto, Ontario.

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