MCI is lucky enough to work with two amazing Ethiopian women from the region of Tigray, in the north of the country where the Millennium City of Mekelle is located. Both women have gone abroad to become talented professionals and both have resolved to transform the lives of women and young girls in their native region, returning home, one permanently, in order to do so.
Columbia University School of Nursing Professor Mary Moran, through her organization, Girls2Women, has developed an innovative sanitary pad-making program in Mekelle, designed to keep girls in school. With facilitation by MCI Social Sector Specialist Aberash Abay and in close coordination with the Mekelle schools and the Tigray Regional Health Bureau, the program has succeeded so far in training girls at 19 out of Mekelle’s 34 public primary schools, has produced 1,000 attractive and reusable cloth pads and is in the process of being scaled to cover many more schools, both within Mekelle and reaching into the peri-urban areas outside of town.
The story of Mary’s initiative is inspiring. In 2009, having decided she wanted to give back to her native Ethiopia, she met with the then-Director of the Tigray Regional Health Bureau, Dr. Gebreab Barnabas, who told her that from his perspective, keeping girls in school was one of his country’s greatest challenges. Too many young girls are forced to drop out of school, with reasons typically ranging from not being able to pay for tuition to needing to help with household chores. But Prof. Moran found that menstruation was also a factor. While there is little scientific research concluding that girls miss school days because of their menstrual cycles, there is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that this is indeed the case, with girls missing school for days at a time because they lack access to private latrines or feminine products. And when girls miss too many days of school, they often cannot keep up or pass exams, so they eventually drop out.
In a 2010 blog on Mary’s work and the founding of Girls2Women, MCI described how Mary found that disposable sanitary pads were prohibitively expensive for many girls and women, even in Mekelle, where there is slightly more disposal income than in the countryside. She knew there had to be a way to help girls find an affordable solution, so she asked her CU nursing students to help her come up with a design for sanitary pads that made use of Ethiopia’s colorful, durable cottons. The students created and tested a number of options and decided on a square design that would be both reusable and culturally acceptable. Aberash and Mary then introduced the project at first in six Mekelle schools, teaching more than 200 students how to make, wash and maintain the sanitary pads.
Girls2Women supplies the material, sourced at a discount from Mekelle’s own MAA Garment Factory, as well as the threads, needles and templates. Two students from each participating school have been selected to attend a vocational training program offered by Mums for Mums, a local NGO that teaches mothers how to make things in economical ways. The girls are learning to use sewing machines, and once their training is complete, Girls2Women will provide sewing machines for them to use to make and sell garments.
In March, more than 96 people, including students, teachers and school administrators, along with former health extension workers who are now midwifery students at Mekelle University, attended a workshop to assess the impact of the project on high school girls’ attendance and to solicit recommendations for content to be included in a handbook on puberty and development. Mekelle University’s OB/GYN and Midwifery School has agreed to publish the final handbook, which will be distributed in all Mekelle secondary schools.
Girls2Women has also collaborated with the Amhara Development Association (ADA), training 80 high school teachers in the Debra Berhan District in how to make the sanitary pads. The ADA will provide the materials for the schools and expects the number of girls to benefit from this program to be in the thousands. In addition, Girls2Women has joined forces with the Ethiopia-based Forum for African Women Educationalists, which works to empower women and has agreed to roll out a similar sanitary pad project to schools in Addis Ababa. And Seattle-based Project Ethiopia, which is helping to build schools in rural Ethiopia, has introduced the concept to students in the Bahadir District.
The other returnee to her native Tigray, Ms. Freweini Mebrahtu, has an equally inspiring story. She left Ethiopia years ago to seek an education and graduated from Texas A & M with a degree in chemical engineering. After working abroad for a number of years, Freweini returned to Tigray in 1992 to see how she might contribute toward development of her native country and community. Returning to her family’s village, she asked women and girls how she might be able to help them. Remembering how little help or information she had received from the women in her family or her teachers when her own menstruation began – she said she woke up and was “terrified,” believing that she was bleeding to death, a feeling no doubt experienced by many girls not given sufficient information about their developing bodies – she asked in particular about what they do these days, when they have their periods. They told her that they simply don’t have access to pads and explained that they couldn’t afford them even if they had access. Instead, women and girls reported, they often wrap their head coverings or shawls, called netalah, around and around their lower bodies. Should there be “an accident,” such as any kind of spotting, while at school or in the market, the associated shame and mortification would result in creating, “another unspoken dropout.”
“There is a myth, you see, that you shouldn’t be menstruating unless you are ‘a bad girl,’” Freweini explained.
The other way of coping that the village women and girls reported to Freweini is no more viable: as has been done since ancient times, “they dug a hole inside the house, and they all sit on it for four or five days,” until the bleeding stops – thereby missing all those days of school or work every single month!
On the basis of this illuminating research, Freweini knew immediately that she had identified a challenge that, with her chemical engineering expertise, she was uniquely qualified to help solve. She went into a lab and developed a formula, which she has since patented, for a reusable sanitary pad that is attractive and attaches via Velcro to a girl’s or woman’s underwear. Despite significant pressure to invest in Addis Ababa, the national capital, Freweini resolved to set up shop in her home region of Mekelle, just as the city itself, with support and encouragement from MCI, is now encouraging many other investors to do.
She formed a company, MariamSeba, named for Freweini’s own beautiful young daughter, mustered more than a quarter of a million dollars in investment capital and has built and is now running a large, airy, well-ventilated factory in Mekelle’s new industrial zone, where she has created jobs for some 40 young women, each with a minimum of a 10th-grade education, to produce these pads in an array of colors.
A set of four of the pads, which Freweini has appealingly packaged in a small feminine cloth bag, sells for about $1.40 and is designed to last approximately two years.
Freweini’s payscale accelerates faster and more steeply than do her peers in the local garment industry, she told MCI. She has promoted aggressively from within, training and empowering young women as she goes. She ardently supports her workers’ continuing with their education; indeed, she has plans to start playing educational tapes over the factory loudspeakers, along with the news programs and popular and traditional music that the current workers seem to enjoy.
“I want them to just crave coming to work,” she told MCI, with palpable passion for her own self-generated mission.
Freweini is less than elated with some of the aftercare services she has received from the city – she was awarded only half the space she had requested; the road leading to her factory is deeply rutted and impassable during heavy rains; she would like a larger tax holiday as an incentive or reward for having set up a new job-generating business in town; and she is still waiting for public officials to acknowledge more publicly her commitment to the city and the contribution she is making. However, Freweini is excited about her product, her crew of increasingly confident and worldly workers, and about growing what she has created into a business with far greater productive capacity that can serve girls across the region and, eventually, nationwide.
“We’re basically changing the lives of these girls and changing their lives is changing their families’ lives,” she said with justifiable satisfaction.
But as often happens in developing world contexts, the filling of one gap has led to the identification of another. In the course of their work, Freweini, Mary and Aberash have become aware that many of the girls, both outside and within Mekelle, do not have underwear to which they can attach their new sanitary pads. So Girls2Women recently began looking at ways to design undergarments, using locally made gently-used T-shirts, and Freweini has recently diversified into the manufacture and sale of locally sourced, soft cotton panties, one pair of which is given away, for now, with the purchase of a set of the pads.
At MCI’s suggestion, after recent visits to the schools participating in the Girls2Women pad-making project and to MariamSeba factory, Dr. Yibrah Berhe, of the Tigray Regional Bureau of Health and already a key sponsor of the Girls2Women project, went to visit Freweini’s factory and committed there and then to purchasing and distributing 10,000 pads around Tigrai during the coming school year.
Moreover, we were accompanied on our visit to the factory by Ms. Abenaa Akuamoa-Boateng, MCI’s Regional Coordinator for West and Central Africa and Project Manager for Kumasi, Ghana, who was deeply impressed, by the product, the factory and by the example set by Freweini herself. Abenaa purchased a pad to show to a Kumasi NGO that serves the impoverished and hard-working local population of kayaye, the women and girl head porters who work in Kumasi’s sprawling market. Indeed, Abenaa’s instinct was correct: the NGO seemed interested in purchasing some as a trial, to see whether they would be well-received. And so would the ingenuity and generosity of women in one Millennium City help to transform the lives of women and girls in another, clear across the continent.
MCI very much looks forward to working closely with Mary and Freweini, to help facilitate the growth and flourishing of both projects, and, together with the Regional Bureau of Health, to monitor the Girls2Women training programs so as to better assess the effect the reusable pads can have on reducing missed school days and keeping girls in school. In the meantime, we’re deeply grateful that these creative, low-cost interventions, and the commitment of these brilliant and committed Ethiopian women, appears to be having a significant impact on girls’ schooling and ultimately, on girls’ empowerment, both in Mekelle and well beyond.