For many women who live in developing countries, menstruation is a source of humiliation and an obstacle to education. In rural communities, pads and tampons are often unavailable, and when they are, they’re too expensive for a family in poverty. Instead, girls use reusable pads or rags, which must be cleaned and sanitized. This is a challenging task when menstruation is accompanied by strong social stigma.
A team of students from the Art Center College of Design and the Yale School of Management are proposing a solution to one element of this challenge. Flo is a hygiene kit that allows girls to wash, dry and carry reusable sanitary pads. “We found out that girls [in some low-income countries] are not allowed to wash their pads with their other clothing, and they are not allowed to dry them in public, so they were using rags that were not cleaned very well,” says Mariko Higaki Iwai, one of the team members. 90% of girls and women use reusable pads or rags. If improperly cleaned or left damp, the girls are at risk of contracting reproductive infections and illnesses.
The design was constrained by several criteria. It must facilitate the discreet washing, drying and carrying of sanitary pads in a manner that doesn’t prioritize discretion over sanitation, but that will allow girls to fearlessly attend school during menstrual bleeding. The hope is that Flo will also be a small catalyst and help to change mindsets about the menstrual cycle.
Affordable and Easy to Use
The kit is an all-in-one washer and drier. An outer shell, made of PVC or PET, is clasped shut and sealed with a rubber cap and stoppers to hold in the soapy wash water. Within the shell, a removable basket holds the pads. String runs through the device, with handles on both outside ends, allowing the user to twist and untwist the string, thereby wringing out the water. The basket can then be used as a hanging rack to dry the pads, and any material can be wrapped around it to keep the pads out of view. It requires half the water and detergent of hand washing, and the spinning minimizes drying time.
To carry clean and dirty pads to and from school, the kit includes a lightweight, waterproof, zip-top carrying pouch, which can be attached with safety pins underneath any piece of clothing. The entire kit will be available for less than 3 USD.
Flo recently won the Equality Award and was one of 28 gold medalists in the 2015 International Design Excellence Awards. With the increased media attention, many people have begun reaching out about trying out Flo in their communities. The team is currently editing and finessing their design, and they are seeking out manufacturers.
There’s growing evidence that helping girls manage menstruation is a cheap way to keep them in school. For fear of embarrassing leaks and stains, many girls – approximately one in ten in Africa – take time away from school each month, and the accumulated absenteeism often eventually leads them to drop out.  Several organizations, such as AFRIpads and Lunapads, are working to provide reusable pads in developing countries. Flo will help limit one of the obstacles in their distribution.
The device is an innovative approach to menstruation, but it is unclear how much privacy Flo will facilitate. To an unobservant eye, it helps the pads to look like any other washing. However, a product on its own is not enough to change established social stigma against menstruation, a challenge to which the team is aware. Says Iwai, “Our solution is just a solution it’s not the solution.” For lasting change, products like Flo must be accompanied by education and informed conversations about menstruation.
For more information about Flo, visit Iwai’s website.