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Smart Underwear For ‘Women With Periods’ That’s Helping Make This World Better

By Shambhavi Saxena For Youth Ki Awaaz:

Uterus and vagina owning people, we know as well as you do that there’s half a pile of underwear in your cupboard that you reserve for the red ninja’s visit and a fast depleting supply of “good” underwear you can still wear out, because mass-market undies just aren’t cutting it, with their flimsy and hard to clean fabrics. What if there was a safe, smart and stylish alternative that you could buy with the knowledge that the company is making menstruation that much less daunting for you and also for women in Uganda. THINX underwear, created by Antonia Dunbar, Radha and Miki Agrawal, is aimed not just as buyers’ comfort, but also addressing a serious problem women in developing countries face today. Without proper resources to use during their period, missing one week of school for every month that a woman has her period puts her at a grave disadvantage. In Uganda, THINX and its partner AFRIpads are providing those resources not through hand-outs but by giving Ugandan women the tools to be self-sufficient.

Combining four technologies, THINX underwear provides the ‘perfect backup’ to couple with your tampons or menstrual-cups, keeping the stress of stains and leaks at bay. One of the styles can even hold up to 2 tampons’ liquid, so you don’t have to punctuate busy days with frequent trips to the washroom.

THINX Co-Founder, Miki, and Director of Marketing, Veronica del Rosario spoke to Youth Ki Awaaz about the company’s journey, vision and the taboo of menstruation.

Shambhavi Saxena (SS): Why did you think of designing THINX underwear?

Veronica (V): Let’s just say we had our fair share of underwear mishaps; there’s stories about three legged races, swimsuits, business meetings, yoga classes…all of those experiences we’ve all had! It was more than clear that women everywhere needed something better; new and improved underwear seemed like a no-brainer. Then, the idea really got its legs when Miki travelled to South Africa in 2010 (yes, for the World Cup). Miki asked a 12 year old girl from a rural area, “Why aren’t you in school?” and the girl quietly responded, “It’s my week of shame.” 100 million girls around the world miss school just because they lack the sanitary supplies they need to manage their periods. They knew that they could somehow use the innovative idea of magic period underwear to support these girls. And BOOM. THINX was born!

SS: The product is pretty high tech. What was the 3 year long development process like for you?

Miki (M): The reason why it took 3.5 years to develop was the intense trial-and-error process. We had to work with 4 different technologies (anti-microbial, moisture-wicking, breathable leak-proof, absorbent) that had to all work together and also function properly during the care process. After a couple of years, we finally put together a pair of underwear that we thought would do the trick but then when we threw them in the dryer, one layer shrunk at a different level than another layer which made the garment buckle. We had start over with new fabrics entirely. And! It has to all work in the most sensitive area of a woman’s body.

SS: Has your product met with conservative reactions because of its focus on menstruation? How do you respond to the general attitude of silence or stigma attached to the female body?

V: Menstruation is a huge taboo; it’s our biggest challenge and our greatest one. At first, we thought we would pursue stores and boutiques to have them sell THINX, but we quickly realized that we are the only ones who can tell our story wholly and properly at this juncture (and that’s why we only sell direct from our site). People are also grossed out by blood, even their own, which makes it a hard concept to grasp. We’ve seen some adverse reactions to wearing bloody underwear all day, and the best thing we can do is just have an open dialogue about it, and explain what wearing our product really feels like (hint: it feels clean and dry). If our mission is to break the taboo, we’re doing it— we’ve never seen more women openly discuss their hygiene regimens than now, on our own social media accounts, articles, and advertisements.

Another difficult bit of our business is getting across that THINX is something that you use as you choose. Products before ours have very rigid and specific instructions that come with them, and ours is a much more flexible experience. THINX is most commonly used as backups to tampons and cups, but some women do opt to use them as a replacement on lighter days— and it’s not at all something that we can dictate, because we simply don’t know every woman’s cycle. Every single woman is different, and handles her period differently. What’s cool is, as soon as people actually get to use THINX and see how it works for them, most of the time, can’t imagine their periods without our underwear. That’s a good feeling.

SS: As a company you’re taking your social responsibility very seriously. Tell us about your partnership with AFRIpads?

V: Our giveback is an integral part of our business, and it’s been there since day one (even before that, really). The co-founders did a lot of research on a number of organizations to find the appropriate partner, and fell in love with AFRIpads’ model. It empowers local women and girls in a big way. Miki visited Uganda earlier this year and talked to some of those women who either sew, sell, or use the menstrual kits that we fund, and it’s no exaggeration when they tell us that their lives have changed. The rate of attendance in school just skyrockets when they have access to the materials they need, and the women that AFRIpads employs now have sustainable careers. The whole system is fantastic.

SS: Is it true you spent some time in India? What was your learning experience here? And what pressing concerns did you come across, with regard to feminine hygiene and opportunities for women?

M: My father is from India (mom is from Japan) – I’ve been to India 6 times and each trip is equally more eye-opening than the next. I was 11 years old when I first went to India and it was the first time I saw extreme poverty. I will never forget giving a meal to a 6-year old kid who was homeless and living alone in a train station with elephantitis on his feet. While he walked away dragging his feet, it was the first moment that I realized how LUCKY I was to be born where I was. I won the lottery of life. I had two loving parents, a roof over my head, a school to go to and opportunity to be whoever I wanted to be. When you think about this at age 11, a lot changes. With regards to feminine hygiene, it was never brought up when I was there, it just wasn’t something that people talked about. It was only after I went to South Africa did I start asking around, and it was clear that it was a massive problem in India too that held women back.

SS: Will the company play a role in safe sex and health education for the girls in developing countries it already has a presence in?

M: Our partner organization AFRIpads is doing a lot of health education work in Uganda and we plan to work with other similar organizations all over the world (India, Nepal, West Africa, South America etc) so YES, we do plan of really helping spread health education far and wide.

SS: Putting an inadequate product on the market and making it the only widely available option is a profiting technique. Is THINX aiming to or projected to challenge that system?

V: We absolutely don’t intend to sacrifice quality for profit. Our #1 priority has always been our product and technology, so we’re doing our best to make it the best it can be.

SS: Do THINX come in various colours, styles and sizes for every type of body?

V: When it comes to style, we’ve really put the majority of our focus on perfecting our technology rather than on putting out a ton of styles and colours. Right now, THINX comes in three styles and two colours––black and beige, from size XS – XXL. As soon as this summer, we’ll be expanding our size offering to go from XXS – 3XL, and we’ll be releasing two new styles, which we’re super excited about! Stay tuned!

SS: How can you buy THINX now? And will we find THINX in local supermarkets across the world soon?

V: THINX can only be purchased online via shethinx.com (unless you’re lucky and run into us at an event or something!). We ship internationally, too. Again, selling in stores in general is a long time down the road for us, and selling in stores internationally is even farther down. One day at a time!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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