September 5, 2013

Redesigned feminine hygiene product tackles problem of human trafficking

News and Information

A group of University of Washington graduate students wanted to help save victims of human trafficking. Along the way the students won two prestigious national design awards for their efforts and hope to raise money to help even more people.

UW art students Kari Gaynor, Josh Nelson, Melanie Wang, Mike Fretto and Adriel Rollins – along with Tad Hirsch, a UW assistant professor of interaction design – created a product they hope will prompt female victims to seek help. They designed bilingual, easy-to-read information on flushable paper, and tucked it inside a feminine napkin in individually sealed boxes. The victim hotline number can be torn off and is disguised as something else, so if an abuser finds it, it won’t attract attention.

Pad-insert-croppedVictims can then flush away the other information, but hide the hotline number in their pocket without arousing suspicion.

“The vast majority of human-trafficking victims are women,” Hirsch said. “A sanitary pad is the kind of product that’s innocuous. It’s sealed, and when you open it, you’re probably alone.”

The group partnered with Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network, known as WARN, to distribute 1,000 sanitary pads to vulnerable populations. Exactly how and where they distribute them is confidential to protect the victims who may use the products.

Hirsch has been contacted by organizations across the country interested in distributing the sanitary pads. Project members are now trying to raise at least $15,000 to produce another 20,000 pads and information packets.

The group calls the project Pivot. Hirsch said the name comes from the idea of radically changing common thinking about how to tackle a tough subject, in this case, human trafficking.

While educating themselves about the issue, team members were surprised to discover that victims of trafficking aren’t usually rescued by police knocking down doors, like in the movies. Instead, victims typically rescue themselves, by seeking help when they are ready.

Pivot team members wanted to design something that made getting help easier for victims. Phone numbers on a poster are fine, but not if a woman has to memorize a 10-digit number or find a piece of paper and pen to write it down. Plus, victims are often watched closely and never left alone – except when they go to the bathroom.

That’s when inspiration struck.

The Industrial Designers Society of America awarded Pivot a Gold Industrial Design Excellence Award as well as its top prize, the Design Ignites Change Ideas Award, along with $1,000 that the team used to manufacture the first batch of 1,000 sanitary pads and information sheets.

Pivot is part of Hirsch’s Public Practice Studio, which encourages students to not just think about design theory, but to go out in the world and change lives. Hirsch created the Public Practice Studio in spring 2012 and said the studio welcomes people from different academic departments as well as from outside the university.

“I call it socially engaged design. We have this strong desire that the work we do is actually out in the world and making change in a real way,” Hirsch said. “I hope that after opening up one of our sanitary pads, someone is able to change her life. If we distribute 20,000 or 30,000 pads and save one life, I call that a success.”

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For more information, contact Hirsch at thirsch@uw.edu.

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