Lack of knowledge about Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) and misguided action from existing social taboo leads to reproductive health problems among female garment workers. Besides,this impacts worker absenteeism. On average, workers are absent 2-3 days per month resulting in 200 million wasted working hours which again leads to millions of dollars of production drawback every year.
Discussants at the the second episode of SNV-Prothom Alo Media Café: Reproductive Health Services in the RMG Sector, on 21 October, emphasised MHM of RMG workers. They said most of the workers do not use sanitary pads and are not aware of their reproductive health. Guests of the discussion session drew attention on subsidising and making sanitary pads available for workers even if possible at free of cost. They strongly urged governmental and non-governmental support in this regard.
Other projects including SNV and our doctors started training the female workers on MHM. Sanitary pads are provided at very low prices at a certain corner of the doctor's room in the factories so that workers can access them easily.
With funding support from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Working with Women project-II of SNV Netherlands Development Organisation in Bangladesh and the daily Prothom Alo is organising this 6-episode media café series. The first episode of the series took place on 8 October 2020.
Participating in the discussion, Syeda Shaila Ashraf, General Manager (HR), Renaissance Group, said that even quite recently it was not so easy to even talk about menstrual health or period. The scenario is better now but still, we have a long way to go. We saw that lack of priority in maintaining menstrual health resulted in even severe sicknessfor female workers. The rate of absenteeism was much higher. This impacted our production chain. Gradually everyone started to realise that to reduce the absenteeism and ensure workers wellbeing there is no alternative but to build awareness about menstrual health management and provide sufficient support in this regard.
SNV is supporting inclusive business programmes in the RMG sector since 2014 to improve the health and wellbeing of readymade garment (RMG) workers in Bangladesh with particular focus on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). SNV is implementing MHM model in 11 factories reaching 15 thousand workers. Auchan Retail International’s foundation Weave our Future is also supporting the initiative.
Compliance Manager (South Asia) and CSR Project Incharge (Bangladesh) of Auchan Retail International Syful Alam Mallick highlighted the importance of increasing awareness among male co-workers. In collaboration with SNV Bangladesh, Weave our Future Foundation of Auchan Retail International is currently supporting around six thousands female workers from 8 factories with low-cost high-quality sanitary napkins. In a few factories, the pads are provided even free of cost. Without ensuring menstrual hygiene for female workers, we won’t be seeing productive workplace, citizen or nation.
We are subsidising the sanitary pads now, so that workers can understand the necessity of spending a few bucks for their menstrual health and in return receiving immense benefit in future. This way the model can sustain without donor support.
Jesmin Zaman, Marketing Manager of Square Toiletries Limited said that increasing awareness and breaking taboo is to some extent more important than subsidising menstrual kits. Square is making low price quality pad ‘Femina’ for women workers in the garment factories. But it has been observed that due to misconceptions around MHM and not knowing the benefits of using pads, workers are not interested to use the pads even if provided for free!
Female workers are impacted at many different levels for not maintaining their menstrual health including long term health hazard, reproductive health problem, job loss, salary cut, etc.
Founder of Ella Pad, Mamunur Rahman, said that if we take into account our 3 million women workers absent for 2-3 days, we are losing 200 million working hours. 250-300 shirts are made in an hour. If the CM (Cost of Making) value for making a shirt is 3 BDT, we are losing about 1.5 billion USD. It’s simple math but the only reason behind this is that we are failing to ensure sanitary pads for all the workers. Ella Pad is producing sanitary pads from factory wastes for 12 years. Female workers are making these pads in five districts. These pads are reaching female workers of 15 garment factories. We want to expand this to all the factories in Bangladesh and we can do this with support from the authorities.
Making sanitary pads out of factory scrubs in a scientific way has been an outstanding solution in this regard. Our female workers have come out with this brilliant idea and we are only helping them moving forward. They came out of the social taboo and stood for themselves
Jesmine Zaman from Square Toiletries added that over the past 5 to 6 years the percentage of total sanitary pad users in Bangladesh is less than 20%. Female garment workers are more vulnerable in this regard. Collaborating with SNV, Square launched ‘Go Bangladesh’ project in 2015-16 operating a particular module in places where they provided ‘Femina’ pad at low cost. Male workers, female workers, supervisors, and house-to-house communication were in force– “We created a 360 influence in the community that decreased leave rate by 6%, increased retention by 16%, reduced overtime by 13%, reduced absenteeism by 8% and production rate increased by 2-3%.”
Saiful Alam Mallick of Auchan Retail International emphasised on strengthening the public-private relationship.Strong commitment and collaborative action from Government, NGOs, brands, donors and factory owners will ensure 100% of workers health safety. At the same time, product quality of sanitary pads needs to be ensured and it’d be really helpful to have feedback through a survey from the female workers who are already using it.
Ella Pad's Mamunur Rahman called for the inclusion of sanitary napkins provisions in labour law. He said budget incentives fail to reach women in the village to produce pads. They need to be brought under incentives. With capital support of only BDT 1.5 lakh, girls have become self-dependent by making pads from factory scrubs. This is a huge employment opportunity as well. Also, if garment owners can afford to provide free or low price scrubs, we could ensure the supply of sanitary napkins to all the factories.
This discussion was moderated by Firoz Choudhury, Assistant Editor of Prothom Alo. He said garment factories are the lifeline of the country's economy, and the female workers are of the garment factories. Therefore, government and non-government organisations, factory authorities and other stakeholders have the responsibility to protect the reproductive health of the female workers in this sector.