Pakistan's women may be going pad-less but not because they want to

Key raw materials to produce sanitary napkins come under the import ban, barring Butterfly from making their products.
Updated 27 May, 2022

Menstruation — a monthly ordeal for about half of the country's population — is not a choice. That's why we're flabbergasted by the terming of the raw material to produce sanitary products a 'luxury' by the government. In its recent import ban, the government has added raw materials for sanitary napkins to the list of non-essential luxury items, depriving a chunk of the population of something they require every month.

Sanitary napkins or pads are the go-to choice for the majority of Pakistani women. There are two major players in the Pakistani sanitary napkin market — P&G that makes Always and Santex that makes Butterfly — and one of them has been hit hard by the import ban. According to information available with Profit, the two brands combined account for 84 per cent of the sanitary napkin market share in Pakistan.

A dire situation

Muhammad Kamran, Chief Operating Officer of Santex — the company that produces Butterfly pads — told Images how the company has been influenced by the decision. "Though all of our products are produced in Pakistan, two of the core raw materials that form the base of the napkin are imported. The ban would mean the factory would have to shut down eventually because we can’t manufacture them anymore after the current supply runs out," he said.

He shared that the raw materials in question are sap paper and wadding cellulose fibre. These products fall under HS Code 4803.000 which, according to the Ministry of Commerce, are banned under the new import ban. "[These] are basic raw materials utilised in the manufacturing of female sanitary napkins. These items are neither tissues nor luxury but are included in S.No 63 of the SRO," he added.

Kamran spoke about the unfair inclusion of raw materials or semi finished products in the list of finished products, disagreeing with their qualification as "luxury" items.

When asked about how the company is coping with the situation, he said they've met up with Unicef and the government of Sindh to discuss the matter. Their advice was for Santex to get four to five key industry players impacted by the ban on board and send an application to the authorities. "We've sent an application to the Ministry of Commerce that will take 15 to 20 days to review. We're hoping for a positive response," he said.

Images has reached out to P&G Pakistan for a comment but has not received a reply yet. P&G has a majority of the market share at 60% as of 2020 and their response to the import ban and whether it will affect their production will be crucial in knowing how women in Pakistan will be impacted. We should mention here that not all of the Always products on the shelves in Pakistani grocery stores are produced locally and only some variations of pads are manufactured in Pakistan.

Local alternatives

The reason why most women choose pads for their period needs is because they're familiar and therefore fall in their comfort zone. The alternatives may be beneficial — particularly where environmental impact is concerned — but they are fairly new, which makes the switch daunting.

But it is high time to start weighing our options, especially with the ban hovering over our heads, threatening to knock locally-produced pads out of the picture. Some of the choices we have are reusable cloth pads, menstrual cups and period panties.

Cloth pads

Cloth pads essentially function the same way disposable pads do, except you wash them instead of discarding, in order to reuse. This would clearly cancel out a lot of wastage, saving water and money, and reducing plastic and energy use. Reusable pads also have less toxins, making for a safe option to switch to.

They're also close to what women in Pakistan used before disposable pads were introduced in the 1980s.

The Red Code is a local business that promises to source "affordable, eco-friendly & culturally responsible feminine hygiene products". They have different sizes and specially designed nighttime pads as well.

Menstrual cups

Menstrual cups are also a reusable option that, like a tampon, are inserted in the vagina to collect menstrual blood. They can hold more and only need to be emptied twice a day. With proper care, one cup can last a person between six months and 10 years, which makes it a very budget-friendly option that has the added benefit of being environmentally friendly.

Recircle is a local seller of menstrual cups. When we asked them if the ban has diverted consumers towards this option, the answer surprised us. "We haven’t had any unusual amount of sales to be honest," said Wasma Imran, co-founder of the company.

Though menstrual cups are theoretically a wonderful investment, the practical part is what makes people step away. We asked Imran how they deal with someone who's scared to make the switch and what they tell them to ease the process.

"We have guides on the process available on our website and we usually do a social media series on common concerns and questions. I personally feel like if we knew about our own anatomy as women, we wouldn’t be scared to put a tampon or a cup inside [of] us.

"For a new user many concerns are common such as ‘will it get lost inside me?’ which is basically anatomically impossible. Stuff like ‘how will I pee when the cup is inside my vagina?’ is another common one. Many women do not in fact know that the urethra (the hole where pee comes out from) is actually a separate hole within the vagina," she said.

Imran revealed that the insertion process is daunting for many women due to lack of sex education and reproductive education. "So I would say while it’s important that concerns related to menstrual cup use are clarified, it’s also important to make sure we teach people about their anatomy and reproductive system. And also, sex education. It’s not gonna seem [like] such a novel concept if we did."

Period panties

Period panties are pretty self explanatory — they're panties you can wear on your period without the need for any other product. They're comfortable, more absorbent than pads and they're sustainable.

The disadvantage is they might not be the most suitable option for people with a heavy flow. And their effectiveness diminishes over time — the more you wash them, the faster they lose their built-in antibacterial properties.

Losha is a local, online shop that has several options to choose from.

If you know any other alternatives, help a girl out and post them in the comment section!

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously mentioned that the import of pads was banned under the government's import ban.