Socially inspired technology: the marriage of social and medical solutions wrapped up in a menstrual pad

Often the first things that come to mind in a discussion about access to health technology in the developing world are drugs, such as ARVS, contraceptives, and perhaps even diagnostic tools, such as X-rays. This is likely because, though the social determinants of health are widely recognized and researched in the field of global health, it is still more logical, if not more direct, to consider medical solutions to the world’s health problems (before attempting to conquer the more onerous task of social change). Reading about the issues of access outlined by Frost and Reich (i.e., affordability, availability and architecture), it reminded me of a very recent piece in the New York Times Magazine section exploring “Do it yourself foreign-aid”, specifically an innovative project created by Elizabeth Scharpf to reduce female absenteeism in the work place and improve school attendance for female adolescents by improving their access to menstrual pads.
Scharpf found that in Mozambique (and later other developing countries as confirmed by her colleagues), a lack of menstrual pads was voiced as a major barrier to attending work and school for women. Education, particularly female education, is cited as significant in the improvement of health overall in developing countries, especially maternal and child health. Scharpf found affordability to be an issue in increasing access, and thus sought out to develop a new more affordable pad.
What I found particularly interesting about this project is the focus on the physical resources and materials available in the country-in-need to solve the problems of that country. Menstrual pads have been used for decades in the developed world. They’ve been “perfected”, so to speak, and feminine hygiene companies are still making new advances to the pad (whether in construction or marketing). But Scharpf saw that not only is this option unaffordable in the setting of Sub Saharan Africa, it may not be necessary to use the deluxe pads of the developed world. She asked then, what is the simple, affordable, local, and sustainable solution? With the help of a blender, Coca Cola root vegetables and bananas, Scharpf and her research team were successful in developing a pad made of banana leaf fibers.
Complete article available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/24/magazine/24volunteerism-t.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&ref=magazine

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