A group of graduate students at the University of Washington have devised a scheme that could provide urgent recourse for female victims of human trafficking—without arousing the suspicion of their captors. Codenamed “Pivot,” the project uses ordinary sanitary pads, which are distributed by healthcare providers, outreach workers, and activists to suspected individuals. Tucked inside each pad is a water-soluble insert with bilingual, easy-to-read information, complete with illustrations. The phone number of the national human-trafficking hotline is disguised as a fortune-cookie tab, allowing the victim to detach and retain it after flushing away the other information.

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“The vast majority of human-trafficking victims are women,” says Tad Hirsch, an assistant professor of interaction design and the project’s advisor. “A sanitary pad is the kind of product that’s innocuous. It’s sealed, and when you open it, you’re probably alone.”

“A sanitary pad is the kind of product that’s innocuous,” says project advisor Tad Hirsch. “It’s sealed, and when you open it, you’re probably alone.”

The team has partnered with the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network, a coalition of non-governmental organizations that assist victims of human trafficking in Washington State, to distribute 1,000 sanitary pads to vulnerable populations. Details on how and where are confidential to protect the victims who may use the products.

Hirsch has been contacted by organizations across the country interested in distributing the product. 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. The group used the $1,000 it received to manufacture the first batch of 1,000 sanitary pads and information sheets. Project members are now looking to raise at least $15,000 to produce another 20,000 pads and information packets.

Pivot is part of Hirsch’s Public Practice Studio, a think tank that encourages students to use design theory as an instrument to change lives.

“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.”

+ Pivot

+ University of Washington